When Boucher Met Langer, And Winning Didn’t Matter

Cricket News By TODAYLIVESCORE.INFO - When Boucher met Langer, and winning didn't matter. South Africa have won six out of their last eight rubbers.

When Boucher Met Langer, And Winning Didn’t MatterSouth Africa have won six out of their last eight rubbers.

“Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.” Vince Lombardi, the American football coach whose greatness is reflected in his name engraved on the Super Bowl trophy itself, is credited with creating that credo. He didn't, and there's more wrong about this than that.

Lombardi borrowed the slogan from Red Sanders, a University of California coach who had been trotting it out for years before Lombardi was first recorded using it in 1959. And another thing: it isn't true. Winning isn't everything. It isn't even enough to keep you in a job. Justin Langer knows that.

You might have thought Langer's position as Australia's coach was safe in the afterglow of his team's 4-0 Ashes success. But CA's board told Langer on Friday that his tenure would end in November, after the T20 WC. On Saturday Langer announced he had resigned with immediate effect.

Since he was appointed in May 2018, in the wake of the Sandpapergate scandal in South Africa, for which Darren Lehmann walked the plank, Australia have won 66 matches and lost 54 across the formats. The ructions claimed the heads of senior figures Steve Smith and David Warner, roused the ire of Australia's prime minister, and forced introspection into the country's cricket culture. So it was unsurprising that Langer's side endured seven bilateral series – six of them lost – before they won a rubber. But they have regrouped impressively, winning 13 series in total, losing 14 and drawing two. And triumphing in the 2021 T20 WC.

So why was Langer shown the door? Because he is seen as overbearing and unyielding by a cohort of senior players. Essentially, he is considered a brusque sergeant-major in what has evolved into a role better suited to a trusted guidance counsellor; a too square peg in a too round hole. Winning isn't the only thing. Personality and people skills matter, too. Some will see this as a victory of style over substance. Others will think it's about time cricket's bullies were taught a lesson, not least for the sake of future generations of players.

This will be familiar to cricket-minded South Africans. And to one in particular: Mark Boucher knows, too, that winning is neither everything nor the only thing. On July 22 last year, his team beat Ireland in Belfast to clinch a T20I series. They had gone there from the Caribbean, where they had won both Tests and claimed the T20I rubber in a deciding fifth game. All seemed well. But, also on July 22, Paul Adams told the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings that Boucher was among those who had called him “brown shit” in a celebratory team song during their mutual international playing days.

More than six months later, during which South Africa have lost only four of 18 completed matches and won the rest, Boucher is not the national hero he might have been if winning was all that mattered. A measure of the mood of too many of his compatriots could be taken from CSA's routine appearance before the parliamentary portfolio committee on sport, art and culture on Tuesday. The fact that Boucher had not been suspended, despite facing a disciplinary hearing from May 16 to 20 at which CSA will seek his dismissal, sparked rage. Impotent rage, as it turned out.

It didn't help that the politicians present, like their ilk everywhere, were given to hopelessly out of touch pomposity. One repeatedly cited “Mark Butcher” as South Africa's coach, which would no doubt puzzle the former England opener. There was a shrieking demand for the legal advice that warned CSA against suspending Boucher. The shrieker had to be informed that the committee were legally prohibited from meddling in matters between CSA and their employees. A member seemed to want to know what CSA were going to do about the banned Brendan Taylor, apparently oblivious to the fact that Taylor is Zimbabwean. There was no apology or embarrassment for this shocking lack of understanding, just more of it.

The brazen ignorance would be funny if it wasn't dangerous: the committee has oversight over government departments as well as the authority to have issues debated in parliament itself. These people are supposed to be among the best and brightest of South Africans, not blowhard buffoons. But no doubt it is true that they reflect the feelings of many who elected them. Maybe that matters more than anything else. Those feelings centre on the conviction that winning cannot be as important as fighting racism, and it is correct.

Not that South Africa won immediately after Boucher was appointed in December 2019, losing eight of their first 11 series under him. But they have turned the corner, winning six of their last eight rubbers and losing only one. Boucher's side are finally in the black, having won 34 games and lost 27. They have prevailed in nine of their last 10 completed matches, which includes five consecutive victories over India.

For some South Africans, that's more than enough for Boucher to keep doing what he's been doing. For others, not so much. But he has had a moving target on his back since his appointment. At first the problem was that he – a white man – had not only replaced Enoch Nkwe, who is black, but that Boucher's arrival had prompted Nkwe's demotion to assistant coach.

That Nkwe had been in the position only in an interim capacity, that his team had lost four of the five completed matches they played in India in September and October 2019, which followed South Africa's worst performance in a World Cup – under Ottis Gibson, who presided over five losses in eight completed games – in the wake of Sri Lanka becoming the first Asian team to win a Test series in South Africa in February 2019, was less important than the fact that Nkwe is a more qualified coach than Boucher. That Boucher and Nkwe had similar success as coaches at domestic level – Boucher won five titles and Nkwe four – also carried less weight than the credentialism that those championing Nkwe put front and centre.

They would have been aghast to hear Nkwe say, in January 2020, “Boucher has been very supportive. He's given me the platform to make a difference in the team, to contribute as much as possible; whether it's in team routines or in training. We've worked closely together. I'm enjoying the partnership.”

The wider problem was that Boucher was appointed by Graeme Smith, himself newly installed as CSA's first director of cricket, and that Jacques Faul was roped in as acting chief executive. Smith was rightfully given the power to hire Boucher, and explained that the lows South Africa had ebbed to on the field demanded a seasoned international former player as coach. Faul, the Titans' chief executive, is South Africa's most trusted and respected cricket administrator. But Smith, Boucher and Faul are all white. They came on board in the aftermath of Thabang Moroe's suspension as chief executive on charges of gross misconduct, which led to his dismissal. That followed Chris Nenzani's resignation as CSA president under a cloud of chronic governance dysfunction. Then, and for reasons connected to those developments, the board was cornered into resigning en masse.

Moroe and Nenzani are black. The board that came to a sticky end was largely black and brown. The same board had appointed Smith, making a mess of that, too, by conducting what seems to have been a sham interview process. The minister of sport, Nathi Mthethwa, who pressured the board into getting out of the way of progress, is black. These self-evident truths seemed not to register with those who decried the appointment of three white men to the most powerful positions in cricket as a racial takeover. It also didn't seem to matter that Nenzani and Moroe had driven cricket in South Africa to the brink of financial and administrative collapse. All that did matter, it appeared, was that whites had replaced black and brown people.

The converse was that no-one foresaw that putting a slew of whites in charge would prompt fear and loathing among those who, not many decades previously, had been brutally subjugated in a society run on racism and who suffer still under systematic white supremacy. Why would you trust whites produced by that deeply flawed, evil society, which has not yet mended its ways nearly enough, to do the right thing?

Even so, once Boucher started steering South Africa towards better results, his detractors began running out of arguments and the noise dissipated. Adams' bombshell replenished them and the din for Boucher and, illogically, Smith to go has risen to a crescendo. Boucher is also facing charges around his allegedly poor treatment of Nkwe – who resigned in August last year citing issues with a team culture he had previously lauded – and that he had made a hash of handling some of the white players' reluctance to take a knee.

Boucher and his players have taken all that to Christchurch, where South Africa will play two Tests starting on February 17. Will they win despite the situation at home? Who cares. That doesn't matter.

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