Proteas: Nkwe jumps into icy deep end

Cape Town – They say risk brings reward … well, Cricket South Africa could be said on Friday to have taken a particularly high-risk route toward that goal.

That is due to the confirmation that Enoch Nkwe, reasonably inexperienced coach of the Highveld Lions and Jozi Stars and presumably riding the wave of higher approval based largely on his 2018/19 season success at those levels, has assumed the reins as the Proteas’ interim team director under CSA’s much-debated structural shakeup.

It means he will effectively take charge of both head-coaching and manager needs, specifically for the looming Twenty20 and Test tour of India – a venture that, to be blunt, brings a high likelihood of a back-foot start to a new regime amidst a team rocked by recent retirements of seriously heavyweight figures like Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla and no guarantee others aren’t quite hot on their heels.

Immediate reaction has been decidedly mixed -- though when isn’t it to such matters in our often highly complex and still polarised country, and where so many people have a quick-trigger point of view more inflexible than they may realise?

The Soweto-born former first-class cricketer (an all-rounder, which isn’t a bad start for the coaching side of things) simultaneously becomes, at 36, the youngest to take charge of the national side -- and now with weightier responsibilities/powers to his title than any head-coaching predecessors for South Africa.

There is some sentiment doing the rounds that he has been catapulted to substantially loftier levels now as a “one-season wonder” at the domestic tier of the game, and at a time when it arguably suffers a bigger gap in standards to the international arena than at any prior juncture in South Africa’s history.

It is an unsettled environment, marked by the increasingly acrimonious legal tussle between CSA and the South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA) over plans to dismantle the six-team franchise system and return to a broader provincial format, the glaring lack of sponsorships for the major competitions and the gradual turning of the landscape into a sad wasteland from a spectator attendance perspective.

Against that bleak backdrop – can anyone convincingly argue against that? – Nkwe bravely takes a large leap forward, also not helped by the air of despondency and fragility around the Proteas following their limp 2019 World Cup.

Writing him off before he even begins would be unreasonable to the point of callousness.

Someone had to fill the void after the major clear-out, and given CSA’s deeply precarious financial situation, maybe it was unrealistic to anticipate that they would coax a Stephen Fleming or a Steve Waugh type of global icon to the position Nkwe has assumed (perhaps on a more kindly “rands-based” basis, if you like, than might have been expected by international candidates).

If it was always likeliest to be an internal appointment, there is a lobby who would have favoured for example, either of Ashwell Prince (Cobras) or Mark Boucher (Titans): they are better established with their franchises, each is six years older than Nkwe and, something that has long provoked strong views either way over its relevance, also boast playing experience at the very highest level … significantly so, of course, in both cases.

Had either of those instead got the nod, the move would have far more greatly paralleled the trend among the other six major current national Test teams not sporting vacancies (Pakistan and Bangladesh are presently in that boat) in the chief coaching position.

Of those half-dozen incumbents, England’s soon-outgoing Trevor Bayliss is the only one not to have played international cricket himself, though the 56-year-old was a first-class campaigner and sports a globetrotting coaching CV stretching back 15 years.

Otherwise, all of Gary Stead (New Zealand), Floyd Reifer (West Indies), Justin Langer (Australia), Ravi Shastri (India) and Sri Lanka’s seemingly precarious Chandika Hathurusingha have played for their countries.

The average age between the six is just over 50.   

I have reservations about Nkwe’s promotion, as a conspicuous greenhorn, at this vulnerable bend in both the Proteas camp’s and CSA’s road: I can’t and won’t hide that thought.

It is potential for a problematic cocktail.

Right now, that Indian tour looks no less formidable than it did in 2015, and we all know what happened then -- with a generally more seasoned crop of touring players, too – and the scars that lingered so tangibly for months, and beyond.

I do sense another video nasty, especially in the Test portion (SA’s debut in the new ICC Test Championship).

And what if the Proteas are notably bludgeoned again?

Is that grounds for a swift hierarchical rethink, given that Nkwe, remember, is only “interim”?

But that would hardly seem fair; he’d surely warrant longer to establish his template.

So, prosper or bomb on the Subcontinent, maybe he is going to receive a more permanent vote of confidence from the shrinking group of major-policy commissars at CSA anyway.

Whatever the more medium-term future may hold, I am also quite heartily prepared to give Enoch Thabiso Nkwe his fair chance at the enormously tough gig he has signed up for.

If a hidden gem comes to light … wonderful.

His Lions team last season played with a pleasing enterprise and spirit, from what I could gauge in some televised fixtures, and I have heard good things about his character.

Instant pessimism isn’t always a good, or helpful quality.

Even if, admittedly, I may fall prey to some accusation of that very hallmark …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing ...

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