There are few pieces of information worth knowing that are unavailable to cricket coaches in 2020. Bat speeds can be measured to assist in shot selection. GPS tracking can help influence when to give a bowler a rest. Teams of analysts scrutinise individual frames to make informed options on opposition players.
In an age of endless reams of numbers and where the term ‘money-ball’ has long become an overused cliche, it seems inexplicable that Mark Boucher did not know of the rule that has cost him his main strike-bowler.
“I wasn’t aware of the demerit points, that whole system and how it quite works,” the Proteas coach told reporters after day two of the third Test at Port Elizabeth on Friday. South Africa were already staring at dire situation against England on 60 for 2, 439 runs behind. But that was not what the news hounds were here to talk about.
The day’s action had been coloured by the news that Kagiso Rabada had been charged with a level one conviction for “using language, actions or gestures which disparage or which could provoke an aggressive reaction from a batter upon his or her dismissal during an international match”.
That may sound vague but in the eyes of match referee Andy Pycroft, it accurately described Rabada’s celebration after knocking Joe Root’s off stump out the ground on day one. Upon beating the England captain for pace, Rabada charged towards his vanquished adversary, crouched low within touching distance and let out an earth quaking roar.
As many have rightly pointed out, the crime does not fit the punishment. Defenders such as Brett Lee and Michael Vaughan have argued that the ICC’s decision has not only diluted the series decider by robbing it of one of its main attractions, but could set a dangerous precedent which sees all the emotion drained from the game entirely.
A counter argument has just as much merit. This was Rabada’s fourth offence in four years. The law is clear no matter your position and defenders of this argument, including Kevin Pietersen and Michael Holding, rightly point out that the bowler should have known better.
That he didn’t is inexcusable. The Proteas management have access to the sort of space age technology that measures the movement of their players to the centimetre. Why then was the fact that Rabada was one dirty look away from suspension news to the head coach of the team?
“In our day we didn’t have to deal with this stuff because we could say pretty much what we wanted and get away with it,” Boucher said, like a member of the boomer generation who just can’t wrap his head around the snowflake ideals of millennials. “So it’s a learning curve for me with these new rules and regulations that have come in.”
Since taking the job Boucher has been commended for his straight talking honesty. He has not shied away from his team’s shortcomings and has been frank about the need to rebuild after a shambolic 2019.
After Friday’s press conference, Boucher was again praised for his honesty. It takes a man comfortable in his skin and at ease with his accomplishments to admit to ignorance.
But as praiseworthy as it might be, it should not be acceptable and cannot happen again. This is akin to an owner of a courier company not knowing what the speeding limit is and then shrugging his shoulders when one of his drivers had exceeded it.
The fact that Boucher did not know about the demerit point system or that Rabada was on the brink of suspension means he had never had a conversation with his bowler about it. Had such a conversation taken place, perhaps the bowler would have been more mindful and celebrated differently. If captain Faf du Plessis had been aware perhaps he could have intervened.
It’s hard to blame Boucher entirely. He is overseeing one of the most difficult rebuilding phases in South African cricket history. The batting unit is short of confidence, his captain has cast a dejected figure for much of the past year, the board that pays his salary is still reeling from self-inflicted catastrophes and he must untangle the Gordian knot that is racial transformation in the sport.
With his plate already full, why then was someone, anyone else in the management structure not aware of Rabada precarious predicament? If they were, why did they not raise it with Boucher? If they did, why was the message allowed to pass through one of Boucher’s ears and out the next?
These are the questions that need answering within the camp. Shutting the door after the horse has bolted will not bring it back, but making sure the lock is repaired and the hinges are well oiled might prevent it from bolting again.
Former England captain Nasser Hussein likened Rabada to a thoroughbred. Boucher has argued that his spearhead needs to be thrumming at a high intensity to bowl at his best. This has been allowed to run too far.
Rabada is not simply a brute who slings it down at an eye water speed. He is fast, there’s no denying that, but he is at his best when he has a fuller length, when he gets batters coming forward and missing straight ones or prodding at one that seams.
He is now forced to watch as his colleagues will enjoy the Wanderers pitch. Every bouncer that thwacks into Qunton de Kock’s gloves, every outside edge found, ever blood thirsty scream from the Bull Ring faithful will hurt Rabada. He’ll know that he has made a mistake.
He is not the only one. Someone in the management structure — it could have been anyone so they’re all culpable — should have realised they were sitting on a ticking bomb. Now that is has blown up, they might have already lost the chance of claiming the series.
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