Russell Domingo will finally know what it really feels like to be David Moyes. On Friday, Domingo will take charge of a team at Old Trafford, not the same one Manchester United plays at, but it’s close enough.
Four years ago when Domingo, a massive Manchester United fan, took over from Gary Kirsten, he compared his situation to Moyes’, who had just taken over from Alex Ferguson. Though the South African cricket team cannot claim to have the same global fanbase as Manchester United, both Domingo and Moyes were succeeding legends. Kirsten had won the World Cup with India and taken South Africa to No.1 on the Test rankings, Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles with Manchester United. Neither were easy acts to follow.
While Moyes signed a six-year contract with Manchester United in May 2013, Domingo signed a two-year deal to coach South Africa in July. By April 2014, Moyes had been sacked. He has since been fired from two other jobs. In that same time, Domingo has had three extensions, but questions over his suitability for the role have been endless.
Many of doubts stem from knee-jerk reactions to Domingo’s almost non-existent playing career and can be ignored as hot air but some of them put the microscope on where he has taken the team and should be addressed.
Let’s begin with the numbers. In four years under Domingo, South Africa have won eight out of 13 Test series, during which time they dropped from No.1 to No.7 and bounced back to No.2 in the Test rankings. In ODIS they have won 14 out of 22 ODI series, which included a stint at No.1 and a first-ever win in a World Cup knockout match. The T20 team have only claimed six out of 16 series but the overall win-loss record of 23 wins from 42 games is still above 50%.
The numbers are sound but the context less so. In this time, South Africa’s unbeaten run on the road, which stretched back to 2006, was broken in India in 2015 and a global trophy still remains absent from their cupboard. Still, Domingo’s run can be considered a success, especially because a coach’s tenure is not judged on results alone. It is also about man-management.
During Domingo’s early days, South African cricket went through its biggest transition in more than a decade. The retirement of Jacques Kallis six months into his tenure removed the most reliable name on the team-sheet and Graeme Smith’s stepping down three months after that meant Domingo had to fashion a completely new side.
South African cricket had got used to one leader, suddenly they had three in Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis and it took another two years before they distilled that down to du Plessis as the most competent. As much as they lost experienced personnel, they found promising youngsters. Under Domingo, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada have emerged as some of the most exciting prospects of this era.
At the same time, a transformation policy was enforced on the national team which stipulated that they should field a minimum average of six players of colour including two black Africans over the course of the season. Strictly speaking, the selectors would have had to manage this more than Domingo but he also has a say on the panel. In the first season after the implementation of the targets, the 2016-17 summer, South Africa exceeded their requirements and won every trophy available.
Broadly speaking, Domingo has ticked all the boxes which is why it seemed strange that CSA were seeking to replace him. Their announcement to advertise his post came during a match in January, in the midst of the South African resurgence, and was quickly explained as an exercise in corporate governance.
Having had his deal extended three times, Domingo was not entitled to another automatic rollover and so certain procedures had to be followed. Domingo was welcome to be part of the process. But in the months that followed, there were whispers that Domingo wanted out and even that he was more interested in being involved in the less-pressurised environment of the A side. It was only before this Test series that Domingo confirmed he actually wanted to carry on.
“I love my job and it’s exciting to work with this group of players because we are by no means the finished article,” Domingo said after The Oval Test. “If you were rocking up with Smith, Kallis, Steyn, Morkel, Philander, de Villiers, it probably gets easier. But here your work is cut out. You’ve got to juggle and sit around and try and find the right balance. We’re ranked number two in the world but we’re a long way from being the best team in the world. There’s still a lot in our game that we need to work on. That’s exciting because that’s what coaching and managing are about, finding the right pieces of the puzzle.”
South Africa have been trying to complete the picture during this England series. For the first time in five years they changed the balance of the side from seven specialist batsmen, three seamers and a spinner to six batsmen, four seamers and a spinner. At Trent Bridge it worked. At The Oval, it didn’t.
At Old Trafford, it may decide whether South Africa are able to square the series and so, it would seem to be crucial to Domingo’s future. But du Plessis does not see it that way. “I honestly think that this match will have no bearing on whether Russell will be reappointed or not. I think they probably would have made that decision even before these five days,” he said.
“They,” is the CSA board who are still waiting on the word of the five-man panel appointed to recommend a candidate for the coaching position. The panel were originally supposed to reveal their choice on July 21 but that day CSA said they were “delayed” in their work. It is more likely that they were asked to delay their work, for the sake of not disrupting the ongoing series.
On the panel is one Gary Kirsten, the Alex Ferguson to Domingo’s David Moyes. Like Ferguson, Kirsten has previously endorsed his successor and there is no reason to think he won’t do so again. But as Moyes found out, the blessing of a predecessor can quickly become meaningless if expectations are not being met. And even though Domingo has met several of his, his days in charge may end at Old Trafford next week.