Is Ontong’s return a sign of Nkwe’s struggle?

Justin Ontong. Picture: Gallo Images
Justin Ontong. Picture: Gallo Images

The return of Justin Ontong to the Proteas set-up highlights the awkward position interim team director Enoch Nkwe has found himself in while trying to round up his coaching staff for next month’s tour of India.

Former South African batsman Ontong – who was given his marching orders along with the rest of axed Proteas boss Ottis Gibson’s assistants earlier this month – has retained his post as fielding coach, with Cricket SA (CSA) high performance manager Vincent Barnes reprising his old role as bowling coach, and the 1999 World Cup player of the tournament, Lance Klusener, roped in as batting coach.

As part of its statement announcing the assistant coaches, CSA said that Nkwe was still looking for a “batting coach who has extensive knowledge of Indian conditions for the test series, and will be in a position to announce this successful candidate shortly”.

But the composition of the coaches in place hints at the difficulty Nkwe would have encountered trying to convince his peers to join him on the monumental task facing him.

Because of the temporary nature of the job, not many would have been keen on leaving their jobs for the guarantee of one tricky tour to India, and that’s not even factoring in the affordability issue for a cash-strapped CSA.

Ontong’s situation is a case in point. Having presided over some of the worst fielding witnessed from a Proteas team at the recently concluded World Cup, one would have expected that he, like batting coach Dale Benkenstein, was not going to make a speedy return to the coaching staff.

But seeing that he probably hadn’t even been taken off CSA’s payroll, he was probably easier to secure than another fielding coach fretting about job security. In all fairness to Ontong, though, quite where to put the blame for South Africa’s abysmal fielding is difficult to pinpoint.

The Proteas’ fielding was densely populated with older (Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Imran Tahir) and not exactly athletic (Amla, Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi) figures. And, as acting director of cricket Corrie van Zyl said in the press release, Ontong is recognised as an expert with good ideas in the field.

His detractors might point to a fielder usually as excellent as David Miller suddenly not being able to catch a cold at the World Cup as proof that maybe Ontong didn’t live up to his billing, but this second chance should tell a fuller story.

As high performance manager, Barnes was already on CSA’s payroll, so it would have been easy to second him to the national team to reprise a role he has played under a few national coaches.

Barnes’ experience should also come in handy in helping the Proteas’ 36-year-old interim team director. Klusener, the former Proteas all-rounder, was the nearest thing to a free agent, having left his Zimbabwe coaching job and recently been appointed the Glasgow Giants’ head coach for the Euro T20 Slam.

With regard to the batting coach for the test series, there was talk of former Proteas all-rounder Jacques Kallis – who is South Africa’s highest run scorer – having been approached. But his close links to Mark Boucher, who was not approached for the interim team director job, and affordability would have raised doubts that that would happen.

Apparently, fellow former Proteas batsman HD Ackerman, who now lives in Australia, is on the market for these kinds of jobs, having recently assisted Namibia.

The Proteas coaching squad will assemble at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria and the team will join them two days later, before they all depart for India on Friday.

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July 2020

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