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

It was always going to be messy.

From the day Mark Boucher was appointed the national men’s head coach by his former captain and friend Graeme Smith, his tenure was tainted with allegations of favouritism. That, despite his status as one of the country’s most celebrated cricketers and, latterly, a successful coach. Now, as Boucher walks away from the job he did with varying degrees of success and into one with an IPL franchise, he remains an important figure in South African cricket.
This isn’t a simple story because nothing about South Africa and its institutions is simple. You’ve heard this before (sorry) but it’s difficult to avoid filtering anything in South African society through the lens of race. Which is why, in analysing Boucher the coach, we have to consider that he is white and male and born at a time in South Africa (1976) when those were the two most important things to be. He went to an elite school, which put an emphasis on sport, which he was good at. He was picked for teams from age-group level, climbed the ranks and became South Africa’s best wicketkeeper in their best Test side, captained by Smith.
Throughout, Boucher was known for being a bulldog: aggressive-looking, snappy, resilient, and fiercely loyal. To his team-mates, he was the glue that held them together. To the fans, he was respected, though not loved in the way someone like AB de Villiers was. When his career was ended by a freak injury in Taunton, there was sympathy but not a public outpouring of sadness. When he re-emerged as a coach, he seemed right at home. Boucher won five trophies in three seasons with Titans and there was talk that he may take over the national side one day.
But Boucher was not 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 being run – not especially well – by Thabang Moroe. He picked Enoch Nkwe, who had just completed his first season at the Lions franchise, where he won two of three tournaments as well as the inaugural Mzansi Super League. He was also the first Black African to be appointed as South Africa’s head coach. 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 as director of cricket and Jacques Faul (white and male) was the interim CEO (Moroe was fired for misconduct) – this was seen eventually as a “white takeover” of the board.

You might conclude, of course, that the appointment of two white males should be less relevant than the fact 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 fated to be judged not only by their pedigree but by their whiteness.

And in Nkwe, Boucher replaced someone who was black and more qualified. Nkwe did not have Boucher’s international career, so he upskilled with a Level 4 certificate. Boucher decided not to bother going beyond a Level 2 (granted to all former internationals), partly because CSA asked him to lecture, without pay, on the same Level 3 course he had been planning to do. As a small taster of the clashes to come, that was a spicy one.

Boucher began as head coach in December 2019 to some outcry and relief. He recognised South Africa’s players were lagging behind technically. He had with him a diverse coaching staff, made up 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 face criticism for their whiteness), and then Neil McKenzie and Vincent Barnes.

Collectively, that expertise brought South Africa four Test series wins out of eight, two ODI series wins out of eight and five T20I series wins out of 12. Overall, under Boucher, South Africa won as many series across formats as they lost – 11 – but his term will not be judged on numbers or race alone.

Boucher had to cope with more off-field issues than most coaches, in particular the resurgence of BLM and the Covid-19 pandemic. The former prompted CSA to launch the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings out of which Boucher didn’t come out too well, specifically when he was outed as one of the players in Paul Adams’ damning testimony. CSA was forced to act, seeking Boucher’s dismissal as coach and opening the door for those who were unhappy with the way Boucher had been appointed.
By the time the charges were dropped, the damage to Boucher’s relationship with the board was done. It prompted an avalanche of very public, very polarised opinion about Boucher: the team backed him (Test captain Dean Elgar spoke often of the unfairness of the coaching staff being criticised) and seemed to be improving under him; others could not see a future for someone who had admitted to racially discriminatory behaviour. There was no middle ground.

Does this all sound exhausting? It must have been.

It can’t have been easy for Boucher. And though Boucher knew his past behaviour was wrong and apologised in a written affidavit, he never appeared at the SJN. Whether he would have known and apologised without the hearings taking place, we’ll never know. As to whether he changed for the experience, we can judge from the current team who speak about an inclusive culture that accommodates everyone. On the face of it, South Africa are confronting 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 batting was brittle and wasn’t being given the support it needed.
South Africa’s domestic teams play fewer first-class games now than two summers ago and the new SA20 will squeeze that further. South Africa’s national side will play fewer Tests in the next FTP. They may not automatically qualify for the 2023 World Cup and instead of supporting their chance to get there, their own board has withdrawn them from matches that could assist them in qualification, in order to create a window for the SA20, the tournament South Africa needs to succeed. Essentially, Boucher works for an organisation that has had to sacrifice the international game he made his name in, for a lucrative league he has been offered a coaching role in. In some convoluted way, does all of this add up to his decision to quit?

The task for the new head coach is far from straightforward, because the need to revive a team in transition remains secondary to the imperatives of transformation. The right candidate must not merely be an excellent coach but must understand that providing quality of opportunity isn’t simply about colouring by numbers. Foreign coaches, even those of colour such as Gibson, typically struggle with this.

Whoever comes in cannot be after much money, either. CSA is not flush with cash and the salary of their head coach will not match the sums available in the IPL or county scene. Boucher himself will earn more from his SA20 stint of a few weeks than for a whole year as national head coach.

CSA could also go 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) may be coaxed into an interim position, while CSA works out the process of finding someone more permanent.

One thing is for certain: this time they will strive to do 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 cannot go through another mess like this one.

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