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Couch Talk

'South Africa may not be the best side but they're always competitive'

Former South Africa captain Kepler Wessels talks about the challenges of leadership, contests with Australia, and evaluates South Africa's captains

Subash Jayaraman: You retired from playing for Australia in 1985 and you moved back to South Africa and played provincial cricket. After Nelson Mandela's release, did you believe that you would be playing international cricket again, and this time for South Africa?
Kepler Wessels: No, I didn't. When I came back from Australia in 1985, I thought my international career was over. I wanted to continue playing but also wanted to combine a career outside of cricket with my playing days still. It came as a surprise to all of us in 1991, when ten days or so before we went to India the tour was announced. It was a surprise to all of us, but for me it was terrific to be back on the international stage.
SJ: In 1991, how hard was it to suddenly come together as a team?
KW: I think, for me, since I had been to India before, I knew what to expect. So I was really looking forward to going back. For the other guys, it was a novel experience. We had never played together as team, in South Africa, outside South Africa, certainly not in the subcontinent. So they didn't know what to expect.
We had a wonderful week. The tour was short, only three matches. It was topped off by the winning the last game in Delhi, which for us was a good thing.
SJ: You led the team in the 1992 World Cup after Clive Rice was dropped. How did you want to mould the team? Were you focused on performing in the World Cup, first and foremost, or were you thinking of building something for the future?
KW: It was absolutely about putting in a good performance at the World Cup. Although there was no international experience in the side other than myself, there was a lot of first-class experience. A lot of players in that team could play competitively at that level for a long time, and I knew the side was a good one. Though we were lacking in international exposure, I was confident that we would give a good account of ourselves. Making the semi-final was a bonus.
SJ: Four days before the semi-final, there was a referendum on political reform in South Africa, and the result of the vote seemed vital for South Africa continuing in the World Cup. Some even suggested that the team would be withdrawn from the tournament, if the result of the referendum had been negative. What was the mood within the side?
KW: We were very stressed because the tournament was a very successful one for us. We thoroughly enjoyed it. Politically, we didn't know which way things were going to go. We were hopeful it would go the right way. And once it was announced that it did, there was a sense of relief that we could stay on and continue to compete.
SJ: How did your experience of playing in Australia influence you in shaping the South African team?
KW: Massive influence. I was lucky to play under some good captains in Australia - Ian and Greg Chappell, and Allan Border, and just the whole way the Australians play their cricket. That had a big impact on my own career, as far as preparation and on-field intensity was concerned. So that played a huge part in me trying to shape a certain style of play, and a certain way with the South African side.
SJ: When you say "certain style of play", was it something you were consciously aware of that was lacking within the South African side that you were in charge of?
KW: Absolutely. Initially, I understood the strengths and weaknesses of the team at our disposal. I knew how to go about making that team successful. Clearly, by the time my captaincy finished in four years, the team had progressed a long way. And then, when Hansie Cronje took over, they were then able to play with more flair, more experience on the international stage - more aggressively and adventurously, if you like.
But at the initial stages it was about not losing matches. It was about competing and it was about players who came into the side and understood the demands of international cricket.
SJ: What are your memories of the 1992 semi-final - how it ended?
KW: I think there were two issues. First of all, we were absolutely delighted with making the semi-final. The competition itself was pretty unforgiving in those days, because each team played the other and the top four progressed to the semi-final. For us to qualify in the top four, we had to beat India in a rain-shortened game in Adelaide, which was a good win. So we were delighted to get to semis.
Knowing how hard it is to win a final, I was very keen on us winning the semi-final. Clearly we were on the wrong side of the rain rule at that time. If the Duckworth-Lewis had been applied, we would have won by three runs. Actually, that [match] brought about the change [in calculations for rain-shortened games]. It was devastating and disappointing, but looking back on it, the tournament was a huge success for us.
"The country loves Hashim Amla. He's just a proud South African. I think when his time is done, we will reflect on his era as captain very, very happily"
SJ: How did you get the guys to prepare for the Test match in the West Indies, in Barbados?
KW: Well, again I knew that was going to be tough, because we all knew what a fortress, in those days, Barbados was. Unfortunately, we had a couple of injuries before that Test. There was no Brian McMillan. Our team wasn't balanced. There was no Jonty Rhodes either - they were both injured.
We played really well for four days against a strong West Indian side with Ambrose and Walsh and Richie Richardson and Desmond Haynes. We competed very well over those four days and possibly should have gone on to win, but I knew on day four that the game was by no means over. We only needed 70 runs and I think some of the guys in our team probably thought it was won. We had eight wickets in hand. But it was a rude awakening of what can happen in Test cricket - the fact that we lost. It was really disappointing from my point of view because I really wanted us to win, but you know, after that we went on and never lost another Test series for the next four years, so I suppose it was good preparation for what lay ahead.
SJ: There were of course underlying political ramifications as well, of a South African team going to the West Indies with a history of rebel tours. Did that play any role?
KW: Not at all. I think we were made incredibly welcome on that tour. We had absolutely no issues whatsoever from that point of view, and even though we lost the Test match I think all players who went on that tour thoroughly enjoyed touring the West Indies. There was not one political ramification or incident, which we all are very grateful for.
SJ: It was said that you were a "draw first" captain. Is that a fair assessment?
KW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean for me it was, first of all, putting the team in a position where we couldn't lose, and if there was an opportunity to win from there, that's the one we would try and take. My feeling was, we needed to, early on in our readmittance, learn to play for five days. We needed to be able to compete and put ourselves in a secure position and win if we could. We also played against some strong teams at the time. Australia was very strong and we drew 1-1 in Australia and 1-1 at home. Same in England.
SJ: You learned your captaincy ropes from the Chappell brothers and others, where the Australians are willing to lose to win, whereas you came at it from the other side, where you said, "I don't want to lose first."
KW: I think what you learn from the Chappells is to have a ruthless approach - to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team and then make it difficult for the opposition. So, had we been further down the track, and played more Test matches, my approach would have been different. There is no question. I would have been more adventurous, I would have done things slightly differently. But we weren't. The team was in a developmental phase as far as Test cricket was concerned. They were developing an understanding of how a Test match works, because up until that point, first-class cricket was three-day cricket in South Africa, so there is a big adjustment and a big bridge to overcome. We believed it was the right way to go about it at the time, and as I said, we competed successfully.
SJ: How big an influence were you on Hansie Cronje, and what did you hope he would learn from you when he became captain?
KW: Well, I think the way we were similar is that he also wanted the team to be run in a very organised, disciplined fashion, and I think there was no difference as far as our leadership was concerned, and also as far as physical fitness is concerned - he also believed in that.
The players by then were more experienced. You had Allan Donald, who had developed his bowling, you had good allrounders like Shaun Pollock, so you had a more rounded team. Whereas before we were looking to get into a position where we couldn't lose first, we could adopt an approach where we needed to get into a winning position first, so I think that was the difference.
Also, in one-day cricket along with Bob Woolmer they developed quite a nice style of play, which worked pretty well. I think the whole handing over of the team was at the right time and it all was a progression that led upwards.
SJ: What were your thoughts on Graeme Smith being named captain at 22?
KW: I was sort of out of the loop a little bit by then, as I'd gone into broadcasting. I might even have still been playing, I can't even remember, but I wasn't involved in the decision at that time. I think just from what Smith said himself, he felt maybe it had been a little too early, but as it turned out he had a fantastic career as Test captain and had a fantastic team under him for many, many years. So yeah, it probably was the right decision. It came in a controversial way, that World Cup in South Africa. I think he took over from Shaun, after the Sri Lanka World Cup game in Durban, so it came out of controversial circumstances, but I suppose history shows it was a good decision.
SJ: How important was Smith's first England tour, where he scored two double-hundreds, eventually in the long run for himself, the team, and for establishing his credentials as a captain?
KW: I was actually in New Zealand at the time coaching in Auckland, so I wasn't that closely associated with the South African team then, but I think any captain who leads from the front in a positive, aggressive manner and contributes match-winning performances, that's got to be a good thing. I think that tour probably really established him as the leader of that group, and it showed that at the top of the order, he was a very good player. So I think that probably, I won't say a coming of age but definitely a defining moment, when he got all those runs in England, and you knew then that, as young as he was, he was going to have a long career as a South African captain.
SJ: From the side that you led in the West Indies in 1992 to where they are now, how would you describe the rise of the team?
KW: If you look at South African sport in general, South African people are very competitive. They play the game in a ruthless way. They want to win all the time. And I think that although the population that plays cricket is possibly smaller in relation to the whole population, I think it's produced some world-class players all through. If you look at the last few years, like AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, the players that the system has produced, a lot of credit has to go to the way that players develop in this country.
If you look through history, if you look at the Australian team of the mid-'70s, and then you look at the West Indian team of the '80s and early '90s, and you look at the South African team, I think when you have a group of world-class players that mature at the same time, and are roughly the same age, and are able to play a lot of cricket for a number of years together, I think that's when you end up in this kind of situation [being the No. 1 Test team]. The players, they've had probably six or seven world-class players turn the game on their own, and they're all in the same era, so that makes a huge difference.
SJ: It is shocking that South Africa have not won a World Cup. Where do you think they are lacking?
KW: It's a really strange scenario because as you rightly point out, not only World Cups but also World T20s. The 1996 South African team was an excellent one. Yes, they made a selection error when they played West Indies in the quarter-final. They left out Allan Donald in favor of a spinner. In 1999, I thought they were the best side of the tournament, and then that unfortunate situation happened. In 2007 in the West Indies also, I thought South Africa really were a good side, and probably, if not the best, one of the best two teams at the event.
I think what's happened is that the South African sides tended to play very well in the qualifying stages, but when the pressure of the knockout stages came along, probably made a couple of mistakes - either in selection, tactically, or on the day they were outplayed by the opposition.
It's a monkey on their back and until they win one of these events - which they will eventually (laughs), it may be this year, who knows - it is always going to be a case of people referring to them as not playing their best under pressure. I think we are all aware of that.
SJ: Somehow, Australia have this knack of winning in South Africa. What differentiates the two cricketing countries, since you have played for them both?
KW: I think what happens is that the Australian teams are always up for a fight. They have been, at times, not very good, but generally speaking, they are never intimidated. Whereas some other teams may be intimidated by the pure presence of somebody like Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers, the Australian team will acknowledge how good those players are, but they are not intimidated. So, they will look them in the eye and take them on. The contest between the two sides with the exception of the times when Australia beat South Africa 3-0 in Australia [twice], have always has been very close. South Africa have drawn in Australia, won twice, and Australia have come here and done well. So the contest has been very good. I think Australia stand up to the challenge better than some of the other nations, and possibly, South Africa stand up to the Australian challenge as well.
SJ: What is the role of a captain in high-pressure games like South Africa v Australia?
KW: I think the role of the captain is huge. If your captain is in the fight and is producing under pressure - not only match-winning performances but also right tactical decisions in the heat of the battle - that has a huge impact on the results. When South Africa play Australia, that plays a massive role.
Going back to when Steve Waugh was captain and Australia dominated, he was the guy. When South Africa won in Australia, Graeme Smith was the guy. Michael Clarke here in the last series did very well. He stood up to a big battering at this very ground [Newlands]. So captaincy is a big thing when it comes to matches between these two teams.
SJ: How would you rate how you, Hansie, Shaun and Graeme did in the role of captain?
KW: It was funny, because Allan Border was captain when I played, we were close friends, and we played for Queensland together. Neither of us would give an inch. I think the end result was 1-1 there and it was 1-1 here. So it was always going to be like that, I suppose.
I think Steve Waugh, at times, had the better of the South African set-up or the leadership, maybe. Just as Graeme Smith had the better of the Australian leadership when they won twice in Australia.
SJ: Were there aspects of Graeme Smith's captaincy that you noticed and admired that future captains of South Africa could learn from?
KW: I think the thing about him was that when he was playing well, he had a real presence. When batting, he had a presence, trying to take the game away from the opposition. With his physical size, he tried to intimidate, or dominate, that's probably the right word. By the same token, in the field, he was at slips, and he would catch well.
Hashim Amla, for me, would be a very good captain in a different way. He absolutely leads from the front, with all the runs he scores. His calmness is very important for South Africa, and will be in what might become a transitional phase in the South African set-up. He is very experienced, calm, and brings a lot of good things to the party. Graeme has made big contributions and I think Hashim will too.
SJ: What are the pressures associated with leading South Africa?
KW: Well, South Africans don't like to lose. So the expectations of winning are always there, whether it's cricket or rugby or football. South African fans don't accept poor results. From that point of view, there is always going to be pressure. As a captain, if you lose a series or two, you are under huge pressure. I think everybody that takes up the job of captain knows that. While your reign as captain lasts, you are not going to have an easy time.
SJ: In the sociopolitical conditions of modern South Africa, what is the captain responsible for? Is he only responsible to make sure South Africa wins?
KW: Absolutely. I think politically the sport is so well integrated. The only thing is that they are striving to win, and striving for excellence. There are none of those thoughts around at all. In that sense, it's good that from 1991 we have come to a point where those sorts of thoughts don't even enter anyone's mind.
SJ: Amla looks different from every South Africa captain before him. What does that represent for South Africa going forward as a society and as a team?
KW: I think the country loves Hashim Amla. Everybody likes him. He's just a proud South African. He brings so many good things to the party and he will bring a lot of that to the captaincy as well. I think when his time is done, we will reflect on his era as captain very, very happily.
SJ: How do you see South Africa progressing on the field?
KW: Well, I think it's right now the short-term thing with the World Cup. I think that's the all-encompassing thought now for all South African cricket people and followers. Once the World Cup is done, one will have to reassess and see how it's all going to unfold. But right now, over the next two-three months, it's the only thing anyone thinks about.
In the long term, South African cricket will be like Australia, always competitive. They may not always be the best but they will always be competitive. Because if you look at the domestic system, the players that have come through - we have so many players from the system playing in South Africa and around the world, and they are all good. So as I said, they may not always be the best but they are always going be competitive.