Captain in the cauldron: Open letter to AB

Pat Symcox (Supplied)
Pat Symcox (Supplied)
Dear AB,

Having watched the Tests series in India and the current travails against England so much has happened that I’m afraid not enough of it is within your control right now. I’m really worried that one morning you’ll wake up and decide that it’s simply too much to deal with and opt to stop playing Test cricket. Nowadays, the lure of the dollar in the T20 series around the world is heady. It makes for such easy cash. Even though I know you treasure playing for the country and captaining the team, it can prove almost overwhelming at times.

You have one Test to play against England and although the series is gone, losing another match will create even more mayhem in the eyes of those who buy tickets and support the boys through thick and thin. Somehow one will need to get through it unscathed and take it on the chin at the post-match duties. You are always gracious when you do so, but that will be particularly tough to deal with seeing as you’ve only been captain for the last two Tests.

It was a surprise you were only appointed for the final two Tests and not as the new captain going forward. It was as if they wanted you to be on trial. I can’t think of any other person in the wings that could even remotely serve as an alternate candidate. The decision created even more unnecessary pressure. Unfortunately, you’ve taken over the reins at a time when the convenor of selectors, Linda Zondi, and some of his panellists are extremely inexperienced. They have very little feel for the pressures of what a Test series brings and how the subtleties hang together. One can see it in their selections and those impact upon the team.

Test cricket is all about building pressure and the attack you were given at the Wanderers was never going to afford you the chance to do that. Shaun Pollock once had a similar predicament against Australia when Allan Donald was injured, and we lost the series badly.

Back to the third Test, and sadly we allowed England to score too many runs. It happened again in the middle overs when the ball becomes older and skill is a prerequisite for success.

Kagiso Rabada is an amazing talent and is learning with every game he plays. However, Morné Morkel looks exhausted and is labouring badly. His workload throughout the Indian series has taken its toll. In Chris Morris and Hardus Viljoen you have bowlers with some talent, but undeveloped ability to consistently hit the right areas. It means you are plugging holes when batsmen are in and the ball isn’t swinging. You badly needed someone to tie up an end at times, and not playing a spinner to bowl tight was probably a poor call. Granted the pitch wasn’t a raging turner, but it turned enough to bowl at around two-an-over and not let the game get away from you. Hardus has real gas, but that counts for nothing if you aren’t accurate. Both he and Chris need to play a season or two of county cricket to hone their skill just like almost every great fast bowler has done at the beginning of their career.

From a batting perspective, you probably know more about it than anyone. For some reason we just aren’t clicking as a unit. Our starts are putting the rest of the order under pressure and although Hashim Amla batted beautifully at Newlands, his form hasn’t helped. However, that happens and he will come through it. Dean Elgar has been magnificent, but he needs a right-handed partner for obvious reasons and someone who has some confidence. The stubbornness not to pick Stephen Cook for whatever reason created a situation which placed the incumbent under too much pressure to perform. Sanity has prevailed with Cook’s inclusion for the final Test. I feel for Stiaan van Zyl. It’s been a long, hard road for him. Facing a new ball from quality bowlers in South Africa is a tough job at the best of times and if a guy has no form or is struggling mentally, it’s a recipe for disaster.

In Temba Bavuma you have found an absolute gem and, if nurtured, his contribution to the Test team will prove massive over the coming years. What a talent! The key is going to be the expectation levels he will feel as time goes on because there is just so much at stake for this man. I’d like to believe that this has been identified by management and is understood.

Meanwhile, the out-of-favour JP Duminy is much needed because he offers you the spin option and is an experienced campaigner. Whilst his average doesn’t match up to his talent, he is a top player who can make a massive contribution with both bat and ball. Keep him close to the system. I like his outlook on the game and the respect he holds for Test cricket.

So much is being written and spoken about Faf du Plessis at the moment. For some reason, he’s battling to find the balance between defending and attacking. It’s as if he is confused with his role. His record proves that he’s a fine player. All players experience peaks and troughs and it’s crucial is to keep him positive and working hard. India was a really hard knock for him, but as time ticks by he’ll recover. I’d urge management not to panic with him.

The greatest predicament you’ll now face is that your management team will have started to doubt their roles. They may not show it outwardly because that’s the nature of the beast in those positions. However, when the team gets klapped badly too many times in a row it’s a natural consequence. Owing to the circumstances, they may feel the heat more than you may think. Most of them are just quiet, introverted guys going about their tasks. None of them have faced the crisis as a captain that you now face and it’s understandable that they keep saying the same things over and over. Alas, if you keep doing what you have always done, you will get what you have always got and in the last while that is not what you need.

I believe that you may well have to look for some assistance from outside the inner circle. As long as your help is there for a clearly defined role it shouldn’t be a problem. Get your management team to open up to it immediately. Someone like Gazza (Gary Kirsten) comes to mind. Meanwhile, I reckon that Jacques Kallis would be a real bonus with your batsmen.

Calls will come for change of coach too. That is normal. It happened with the Springboks and will get even worse if we lose the last Test. Russell Domingo is a good bloke and his heart is right with the team. However, he needs to understand the balance you must have as the new captain, and the right to impose your own ways on the team and to fight for what both of you require from the system. In fact, it’s the first thing I’d be strategizing with him about.

At present, our domestic talent isn’t quite as good as it has been in the past. The pool of fringe players aren’t being toughened up in the franchise system in order to step into international cricket without a considerable period of feet-finding. Russell needs to send a powerful message to all coaches. However, he can only do that if he himself feels confident and is in a good space with his own employers. Talking about being in a building phase simply doesn’t cut it. Nobody is interested in supporting a losing team while they learn on the job. Moreover, don’t let the junior players talk to the media about team strategy or possible issues they know very little about. Either you or the coach always need to front up.

And somehow you will need to keep the troops divorced from outside influences, but not allow a full-on laager mentality to develop. As the leader, you will need to take charge and in some way control your own destiny as captain. Right now, we are very blessed to have you as an amazing ambassador and role model to our future generation of cricketers. Long may it continue. Good luck for the final Test and remember to keep enjoying what you do. 

Greetings from the coast,


Former South Africa international Pat Symcox played 20 Tests, took 37 wickets and scored 741 runs. He is a self-proclaimed cricket fanatic, struggling golfer and addicted writer.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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