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Boucher’s exit after eventful tenure leaves big hole in coaching staff

It would always be a mess.

From the day Mark Boucher was named national men’s head coach by his former captain and friend Graeme Smith, his tenure had been tainted with allegations of favoritism. That’s despite his status as one of the country’s most celebrated cricketers and, of late, a successful coach. With mixed success walking away from the job he did and becoming one with an IPL franchise, Boucher remains an important figure in South African cricket.
This is not an easy story, because nothing about South Africa and its institutions is simple. You’ve heard this before (sorry), but it’s hard to avoid filtering something in South African society through the lens of race. Therefore, when analyzing Boucher the coach, we must remember that he is white and male and was born in a time in South Africa (1976) when those were the two most important things to be. He went to an elite school, with an emphasis on sports, which he was good at. He was chosen for age group level teams, climbed the ranks and became South Africa’s best wicketkeeper in their best side of the Test, captained by Smith.
Boucher was known everywhere as a bulldog: aggressive looking, feisty, resilient and fiercely loyal. For his teammates, he was the glue that held them together. He was respected by the fans, but not loved the way someone like AB de Villiers was. When his career was ended by a freak injury at Taunton, there was sympathy, but no public outpouring of grief. When he re-emerged as a coach, he seemed to feel right at home. Boucher won five trophies in three seasons with Titans and there was talk that he could one day take over the national team.
But Boucher wasn’t really among the candidates to replace Ottis Gibson after the 2019 World Cup because no one, not even Cricket South Africa (CSA) knew what they wanted to do. At the time, CSA was led – not particularly well – by Thabang Moroe. He chose Enoch Nkwe, who had just completed his first season with the Lions franchise, where he won two of the three tournaments, as well as the inaugural Mzansi Super League. He was also the first black African to be appointed head coach of South Africa. Nkwe took South Africa to India where they lost the test series 3-0.
By the time Boucher took over, Smith (white and male) had been appointed director of cricket and Jacques Faul (white and male) was the interim CEO (Moroe was fired for misconduct) – this was ultimately seen as a “white takeover ” from the board.

You could of course conclude that the nomination of two white men should be less relevant than the fact that they were two of the best names in South African cricket, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Smith and Boucher were destined to be judged not only by their origins, but also by their whiteness.

And in Nkwe, Boucher replaced someone who was black and better qualified. Nkwe did not have Boucher’s international career, so he was retrained with a Level 4 certificate. Boucher decided not to go beyond a Level 2 (awarded to all former internationals), in part because CSA asked him to teach, without payment, the same Level 3 course he planned to do. As a foretaste of the clashes to come, that was a tough one.

Boucher started as head coach in December 2019 to some outrage and relief. He acknowledged that South Africa’s players were technically behind. He had a diverse technical staff with him, consisting of Charl Langeveldt, Justin Ontong and later Justin Sammons. He also recruited consultants such as Jacques Kallis and Paul Harris (two other veterans of South Africa’s golden age who would come under criticism for their whiteness), then Neil McKenzie and Vincent Barnes.

Collectively, that expertise gave South Africa four Test series wins to eight, two ODI series wins to eight and five T20I series wins to 12. Overall, South Africa under Boucher won as many series in different sizes if lost – 11 – but his term will not be judged by numbers or race alone.

Boucher faced more problems off the field than most coaches, most notably the resurgence of BLM and the Covid-19 pandemic. The first prompted CSA to launch the Social Justice and Nation Building Hearings, which Boucher didn’t come close to doing, particularly when he was exposed as one of the players in Paul Adams’ damning testimony. CSA was forced to intervene, demanding Boucher’s resignation as coach and opening the door to those who were not happy with the way Boucher had been appointed.
By the time the charges were dropped, the damage to Boucher’s relationship with the board had been done. It sparked an avalanche of very public, highly polarized opinions about Boucher: the team supported him (test captain Dean Elgar often spoke about the dishonesty of the coaching staff being criticized) and seemed to get better under him; others saw no future for someone who had admitted racially discriminatory behaviour. There was no middle ground.

Does all this sound exhausting? It must have been.

It couldn’t have been easy for Boucher. And while Boucher knew his past behavior was wrong and apologized in a written statement, he never appeared at the SJN. Whether he would have known and apologized without the hearings, we’ll never know. Whether he’s changed for the experience, we can judge from the current team talking about an inclusive culture that works for everyone. On the face of it, South Africa confronts their racial issues openly and honestly.
After all that, there was some cricket. Boucher was in charge of a team that had the same problems as when he started: the percussion was fragile and not getting the support it needed.
South Africa’s domestic teams are now playing fewer first-class matches than they were two summers ago and the new SA20 will squeeze that even further. South Africa’s national side will play fewer Tests during the next FTP. They may not automatically qualify for the 2023 World Cup and instead of supporting their chance of getting there, their own board has withdrawn them from competitions that could help them qualify, to create a window for the SA20 , the tournament that South Africa needs to succeed. Essentially, Boucher works for an organization that has had to sacrifice the international game in which he made his name for a lucrative competition in which he has been given a coaching role. Somehow intricately all this contributes to his decision to quit?

The task for the new head coach is far from simple, as the need to revive a team in transition remains secondary to the need for transformation. The right candidate should not only be an excellent coach, but should understand that providing quality opportunities is not just about color by number. Foreign coaches, even those of color like Gibson, usually struggle with this.

Whoever enters cannot be after a lot of money. CSA doesn’t equate to cash and their head coach’s salary doesn’t match the amounts available in the IPL or county scene. Boucher himself will earn more from his SA20 stint of a few weeks than from an entire year as national coach.

CSA could also start knocking on the doors of a few former incumbents. One of Gary Kirsten, Russell Domingo, Graham Ford, Adi Birrell (who worked as Domingo’s assistant) can be persuaded to an interim position while CSA works out the process to find someone more permanent.

One thing is certain: this time they will do everything in their power to get it right. The job will be advertised, candidates will be interviewed, t’s crossed and i’s dotted to avoid the chaos that clouded Boucher’s tenure. Because they can’t stand another mess like this.

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