Russell Domingo may (or may not) have taken charge of South Africa for the last time. He has (or has not) said goodbye to the men he has mentored for the last four years. He can (or cannot) take stock.
Nobody knows, not even Domingo himself, whether he remains South Africa’s head coach. All he knows is that his contract expired when the tour of England ended, that the five-man panel, who were due to recommend a candidate for the new coach were delayed in their work, that the English media have reported Ottis Gibson has been approached and Cricket South Africa (CSA) remains loudly silent. And that has been the case for months.
This is the kind of uncertainty Domingo has operated under since January 28, when he found out mid-game along with the rest of the world, that his position would be advertised. Whatever your opinions of Domingo as a coach are, you will have to agree that that is unfair on him and the squad he has to work with. They have been on two full tours in that time and to a major tournament and as much as they’ve insisted the lack of clarity has not affected them, it must have. Just think about it: they have played this entire year not knowing whether the coach will remain the coach.
When news that Domingo would not have his contract roll over for a fourth time first broke, AB de Villiers said it was a “bitter pill to swallow,” and that there would be “a few sad hours in the change room”, instead of celebrations post their victory over Sri Lanka. De Villiers made it sound like it was a done deal that Domingo would be gone after the England tour.
In the days that followed, it was revealed that opening applications might have been a mere formality, put in place to meet corporate governance requirements. Domingo had has his deal extended three times since he was appointed in June 2013 and another automatic extension could bring complications for CSA in labour-law terms. The board clarified that Domingo was welcome to reapply for the role. But Domingo’s nose was put out of joint and he told the media he would need to think about whether he wanted to carry on before he made any firm decisions.
Domingo’s reaction was understandable. CSA had already had their chance to get rid of him mere months before, when they conducted a wide-ranging review after the disappointments of the 2015-16 summer. South Africa lost Test series to India away and England at home and slipped from No. 1 to No. 7 on the rankings. They were booted out of a triangular ODI tournament in the Caribbean in the first-round and heads needed to roll. They didn’t. The review went in Domingo’s favour and he stayed. And he succeeded.
“South Africa’s results over the last three months have not been a sterling endorsement for Domingo, with just four wins out of 13 fixtures in England”
South Africa went through a redemption of sorts in the 2016-17 season. They beat New Zealand at home, they became the first ODI side to whitewash Australia 5-0, they beat Australia in a Test series away, they wiped the floor with Sri Lanka in a Test series at home and then, CSA decided Domingo might need to be replaced. As far as timing goes, it was worse than being through a pull shot only to realise the ball is about to hit you in the nose.
Given the state Sri Lanka were in on their tour to South Africa, dealing with them for the rest of the series did not take too much out of South Africa. They didn’t need to be high on morale or strong in character. They could just win.
It was different in New Zealand, where conditions were challenging and very different in England, where everything was challenging. South Africa needed to be entirely focused on performance and have everyone to be pulling in the same direction. Instead, they had de Villiers’ indecision over his future – a subject that has dominated headlines since December 2015 – being linked to the future of the coach. The only thing everyone agreed on was that they wanted Domingo to stay. At various stages of the England tour, players like de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar and Vernon Philander said so. And at some point midway through the tour, someone on the board or the five-man panel CSA appointed to recommend a suitable candidate for the coaching job also thought so.
After spending months without knowing what – if any – process he needed to follow to reapply for his job and not having found out anything further a week before the deadlines for applications closed, Domingo had a sudden change of heart and put his name in the hat. He returned home to South Africa during the T20s because his mother had been involved in a car accident and it was there that he was interviewed at the 11th hour, seemingly because the panel were not convinced of any the candidates they had been presented with.
Among them was Geoffrey Toyana, the Lions coach who was thought to be the frontrunner for the post. Toyana has had a successful run at domestic level with four trophies in five seasons and has had many of the current crop of internationals – Kagiso Rabada, Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma and Chris Morris – come up under his watch. Now it seems likely that if the Gibson deal comes through, Toyana, or Malibongwe Maketa from the Warriors, may be signed on as his assistant. Leaving Domingo completely out of the picture.
Take the fact that this saga has dragged on for eight months out of it, and that seems reasonable. South Africa’s results over the last three months have not been a sterling endorsement for Domingo. They return home empty-handed, having won just four out of 13 fixtures in England. The manner in which they exited the Champions Trophy – an implosion under pressure amid a tragicomedy of run-outs – suggests that even Domingo, the only coach who has won a World Cup knockout match with South Africa, is not the man who can break the major tournament trophy drought.
Though he has seen the Test side climb back up to No. 2 – no easy feat considering the players they have lost to retirement (Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Alviro Petersen), Kolpak deals (eight, including Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw), seen less of due to injury (Dale Steyn and Philander) and sabbatical (de Villiers) in Domingo’s time – they now appear stuck. They need new ideas and fresh eyes.
So even if Domingo was not under pressure in January, and his contract had not been a topic of conversation since, he would have returned home to scrutiny after these results and rightly so. Now CSA has to ask itself how many of these results are a consequence of the fact that Domingo has been under pressure since January? How much additional pressure was on the squad to perform, knowing that was the only way they could make a case for Domingo? How many of them only want to continue their careers under Domingo? How many of them have spent the last eight months anxious;y awaiting communication from CSA, even if that communication was only to confirm that Domingo was done?
Du Plessis confirmed there was some talk early on, when the players were asked if they were happy with Domingo. “We said we were,” he said. “The panel’s decision was to see if there was someone out there to take the team forward and I said Russell was doing a good job but if there was someone out there who can challenge the team more then, by all means, have a look.”
Since then, there have been no follow-ups. The least CSA could have done was tell the players they were having a look and let them know where Domingo stood before the tour ended, if only so he and his support staff could plan their futures. While assistant coach Adrian Birrell is understood to be keen on moving on, the bowling coach Charl Langeveldt, batting coach Neil McKenzie and spin coach Claude Henderson all seem to have done solid work with individuals in the squad and their future is also up in the air.
The new coach would do well to hold on to some of them, especially since they already have relationships with the squad and du Plessis has identified man-management as the biggest task that awaits Domingo’s successor (if there is to be one).
Like many, du Plessis anticipates it will be Gibson who will take over and has done some homework. “I have asked the England team and they have given me positive feedback,” he said. “The players are good judges and they will give honest opinions on the reflections of a guy who will work as head coach. If he is going to be the guy then we’ll have to learn about each other and that relationship will take time.”
Everything now seems to hinge on whether CSA will buy Gibson out of his ECB contract. If they do, he may (or may not) have taken charge of the England attack for the last time, he might (or might not) have said goodbye to men he mentored for two stints, and can (or cannot) start to take stock of what lies ahead.