Enoch Nkwe and cricket’s doubting Thomases

The interim Proteas team director faces an army of doubters despite winning three of the four franchises trophies on offer in his first year as a coach in South Africa.

South African cricket may be a lot of things, but it is seldom boring. After a Cricket World Cup campaign to forget, things are going in a dramatic new direction. Cricket South Africa (CSA) has adopted a management style not dissimilar to that of elite football, embracing some of the tricks that worked a treat for new cricket world champions England. 

“This change will herald an exciting new era, and will bring us into line with best practice in professional sport,” said CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe.

The nature of South Africa’s World Cup failure necessitated change and the premature suggestion that heads would roll, uttered by CSA president Chris Nenzani, held unerringly true. Ottis Gibson and his coaching staff were culled and the retirement – full or to some extent – of JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla has added to the sense of a new beginning. 

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In changing the structure of the management team, the CSA has entrusted the director of cricket with being the conduit between the team director and the chief executive. In turn, the team director – currently Soweto-born Enoch Nkwe, on an interim basis – will report to acting director of cricket Corrie van Zyl. The team director can also pick his coaching staff and team captain. Nkwe’s support staff for the upcoming Proteas tour to India includes Lance Klusener (batting) and Vincent Barnes (fast bowling).

When all is well, this structure works, as it allows the team director to focus purely on getting the best out of the team. The director of cricket deals with issues such as contracts and the like, and the chain of command is designed to come with transparency at every level.

Enoch is at the wheel

The immediate challenge for the CSA is to make permanent appointments to these pivotal positions, to remove any apprehension caused by senior management operating in interim roles. England proved that consistency in thinking and application from management yields positive results.

Nkwe’s appointment as interim team director has already been widely queried, especially by those who judge a coach almost exclusively by what he accomplished on the playing field.

“As a coach [at the Lions], he brought a whole new perspective. He is very professional and meticulous in his planning. He places a lot of emphasis on discipline, in training, how we carry ourselves in the public eye and in public places. From that side, he is really good,” said South Africa and Lions batting star Rassie van der Dussen. 

In coaching terms, the 36-year-old is still young. Most men his age are in the final throes of their playing careers, still chasing a Twenty20 cheque. But once injury and circumstance got the better of him, Nkwe quickly moved on to the next phase of his love affair with cricket. 

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He is highly respected in the Netherlands, where he cut his global teeth working with the development of the next generation of cricketers. That work convinced the Lions that he was the right man to take over at the Bullring, and the three trophies he won with the Lions and the Jozi Stars last season added to his credentials. 

“There is a big thing being made of it [his age] and there always will be until we get the desired results. Only then will people really stop doubting,” said Van der Dussen.

The lanky batsman – who was the silver lining to a gloomy Cricket World Cup for South Africa – knows all about people forming opinions about your abilities based on little but hearsay. Many wondered about the new name pencilled in at No. 4 just before the World Cup. His sheer weight of runs soon evaporated any lingering doubts, but his was yet another case study in the obligatory pessimism about anything unfamiliar in South African sport.

5 May 2019: Then Lions coach Enoch Nkwe with batsman Rassie van der Dussen during their CSA T20 Challenge final against the Warriors at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photograph by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Proving doubters wrong 

“He is all about constantly bettering himself and he has studied a lot, in sport and business as well. I think there are obviously a lot of similarities between business and sport, so he understands the psyche of successful people and knows what to look for in people,” said Van der Dussen. “He is the type of guy who will learn as quickly as he can, and also get as many insights as he possibly can. He just wants to learn and get better. Age is not a thing for him, because he is looking to constantly improve.” 

Just as Van der Dussen was constantly asked what it felt like to “replace” AB de Villiers, Nkwe’s first press conference as interim team director saw him asked if he felt like he had been handed a suicide mission with his opening assignment. Given Nkwe’s capabilities and the talented pool of players he has at his disposal, it was a heck of a question.

But he is young, black and new to the eyes and ears of those who do not really follow domestic cricket. Whatever worldly qualifications and experiences he has had, whatever peaks his playing career might have reached had it not been for injury or, incredibly, whatever feats he may have already achieved as a young coach don’t generally matter to the notoriously pessimistic portion of the audience – not that doubting Thomases will dictate terms to a man who is sure of his place in the world.

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“When he got to the Lions, the first thing he said is that we want to win three trophies. He then elaborated on how we would go about getting that but, immediately as a team, we had that goal in mind. That kind of clarity in the squad is massive. As a player, when you are clear where you want to go, it helps a lot. I would say that communication is one of his biggest strengths,” said Van der Dussen.

Playing India in India is the ultimate test in Test cricket. Nkwe has an almighty task ahead of him, to hit the ground running in the most inhospitable of environments. South Africa were annihilated 3-0 the last time they contested a Test series against the bristling Virat Kohli and his men, dismally failing a trial by spin. And they will face a similar challenge on the pitches of Ranchi, Vizag and Pune. 

Trial by spin 

South Africa sent a task team on a spin camp to India ahead of the tour, to try and get a few key players familiar with conditions. It is a noble idea, but nothing adequately prepares you for the reality of a raging turner, with the Ravis, Ashwin and Jadeja constantly at you and your stumps, and a confident choir surrounding the bat, baying for a false stroke. It is a place that requires strong minds, which Van der Dussen insists Nkwe has. 

“He is very good at staying calm, which is ideal for a team as well. When whoever is in charge is quite confident and collected, the players feed off that. He spends a lot of time talking to guys individually, so they know exactly what is expected. He leaves no stone unturned. He brought in a very good support team with him at the Lions and he was very approachable. Everyone knew what the plan was.

“As a coach, when you move up in the levels, you work with better players, who are more experienced, and know the game and their own games. Enoch is a good man-manager, so when you work with experience, the emphasis is less technical and more on planning and strategising.”

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Nkwe is a nuanced student of the game – and of success in sport. He is an almost obsessive student, his thirst for knowledge compelling him to constantly seek the secrets of those who get to the top and stay there. 

Proteas look to ‘Pep’ for inspiration

Crucially, Nkwe doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has the ability to have a laugh, even in the midst of some very real pressures of the job. The Lions were successful last season, so it was easy to smile. But as several players who were in the squad admitted, that smile was in place before the team was collecting trophies. Nkwe quickly got the nickname of Pep Guardiola, a moniker in which he revels. 

“We know that Pep is his idol. He reads a lot of books, including books about Pep, so it came from there. Obviously, there are a few similarities between the two of them as well,” said Van der Dussen, chuckling.

The similarities include starting young and hitting the ground running, but they also include an unrelenting drive to get better and better. Football coach Guardiola left Barcelona and Bayern Munich wanting more from him, and he and Manchester City have an extremely public obsession with winning the Champions League.

South African cricket supporters certainly know what it feels like to have silverware appear more and more unachievable by the year. But as the next World Cup cycle begins, if Nkwe can leave the Proteas wanting more then he would well and truly be justified in being dubbed the Pep of South African cricket.  

But first, India and a brutal trial by spin awaits.

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