South Africa reap rewards for country-first mindset

South Africa coach Russell Domingo credits the national team's pre-season culture camp for their renewed intensity when representing the country

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
South Africa's coach Russell Domingo is under pressure after a string of poor results, Centurion, January 20, 2016

Russell Domingo: "Every single time you play for your country, that space has got to be honoured and respected."  •  Gallo Images

There could soon be fewer current South African cricketers in T20 leagues as a result of a renewed focus on the national team. The pre-season culture camp, in which South Africa addressed the issues of their worst season since readmission in 2015-16 and plotted a new path, resulted in a re-commitment to the country cause, something coach Russell Domingo had called for after South Africa failed to reach the final of the Caribbean triangular series in June.
"I am going to get abused for saying it again, but there's so much cricket being played and when you do things like go to a tour to West Indies, and guys are arriving a day before you play, the intensity will never be what it needs to be," Domingo said. "As a group, we've made a collective decision that our main focus and our main decision is playing for our country and giving everything when we play for our country.
"At times, with the amount of cricket you can play, it can be seen to be playing another game, and it is not [just] another game when you play for your country. That is something the team, the coaches, the management, might all have been a little bit guilty of. Every single time you play for your country or you are involved in a national game, that space has got to be honoured and respected. Maybe that's the mental shift we have made. Maybe in the past, with the number of games being played and the number of tournaments and events - IPLs, Big Bashes, CPLs - maybe the focus wasn't where it needed to be."
Asked whether that meant cutting down on game time in T20 leagues Domingo said he was "hoping so".
With the declining rand and a sparse playing schedule, South African players have the motivation and the time to sign T20 contracts everywhere except the Big Bash. They are able to play in the entire IPL and usually in the CPL too, which takes place in the South African winter. This year, some players went straight from a home summer to the World T20, the IPL, the Caribbean series and the CPL - and what suffered was the national team's performance.
Then, Domingo said he needed to find ways of making sure players were kept sharp. Now, he has indicated the same thing but with the knowledge the players are as committed to the idea as he wants them to be. "We'll be making sure that mentally and physically they are absolutely switched on when they play for their country," he said. "Maybe, in the past, it wasn't always that."
Australia may be interested to hear what the power of a mental shift can do, especially as their own mentality has come into question following several lower-order collapses. Domingo could sympathise with their plight - his team was doing the same thing last season - and his message was that they may need to mend some mindsets after their fourth successive Test defeat.
"It's about confidence," Domingo said. "We came back from India and we took a beating there under tough conditions. A lot of players' confidence was dented. We missed a couple of big players and when you have some players with low confidence and one or two top players not there, it makes things very hard. I am assuming they might be in that space at the moment. I don't know what's going on with their players and in their change room, but I know we were in that position a few months ago and it takes a bit of introspection to get out of that phase."
Confidence has already served South Africa well in the short time since their culture camp. They won a Test series against New Zealand and whitewashed Australia in five ODIs to start this season well. "There is no doubt that there's nothing like confidence in cricket. Having won some games against Australia, it gives players the belief that we can beat this side. Like most things in life, if you are confident in your ability to do it, you will get it right."
The end result was seen in one of their greatest comebacks in the opening match in Perth. Despite a depleted attack and a disastrous day one, this Test is now being spoken about as the best of some players' careers, including captain Faf du Plessis. It's also a highlight for Domingo, who has quietly allowed the pressure to dissipate and the success to sink in.
"In terms of my three years - we've won in Sri Lanka under tough conditions, in Dubai - but these have been the four best Test days of Test cricket, after day one, that I have ever been part of," Domingo said. "To have only two bowlers, a debutant spinner, a middle order with a lot of questions asked about JP Duminy by the media and public (although we never doubted it), there was a lot of pressure. As far as I am concerned, it's the best four days I have seen. In my tenure, that's the best performance I've seen."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent