Eng vs SA, 3rd Test 2022

Outgoing coach Mark Boucher expressed disappointment that South Africa’s batters didn’t give their bowlers enough of a chance to challenge England in what he called a “missed opportunity” to win what was his last Test series in charge. Speaking after the 2-1 defeat but before his resignation was made public, a visibly dejected Boucher lamented the lack of runs in South Africa which failed to sustain a strong pace.

“I’m disappointed because it’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “We played very good cricket but then we let ourselves down. We just didn’t put the runs on the board so we never really knew how to test England. We thought we had the bowlers to take 20 wickets , but you have to score points.”

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But as much as Boucher was unhappy with his batters, he couldn’t bring himself to put the blame entirely on them, instead splitting it between the opponent’s bowling, England conditions and lack of experience.

“I’m disappointed but I understand our boys didn’t go out to play maverick cricket. We tried really hard. I could see it yesterday [day four of the Oval Test when South Africa worked their way to 83 for 1, but they went on to lose 9 for 86]. The boys were tested and came up short technically, but also because of the good bowling. We knew England had a good attack and we would be tested. Unfortunately we couldn’t stand it.

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“We always knew we would be under pressure if the conditions changed a little bit. In South Africa, the conditions are not the same. That ball doesn’t swing, the points of contact are different and these batters who are here always have been the best hitters in our country.If you look at the last top seven that came to England and won the series [in 2012], between them there were 470-odd Test matches. With 10 of our batters hitting in the top seven in this series, we’re at about 170. There’s a big difference. The only way to get experience is to get out there and play.”

And that’s where South Africa struggles. They have just one run of three tests left in the current cycle of the World Test Championship (WTC), against Australia over the festive period, and will then play two series until hosting England in 2026. Like captain Dean Elgar, who routinely complains about the lack of test cricket, Boucher also argued for more games, albeit that the next Future Tours program (2023-2027) is being decided and there is very little leeway.

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“It’s a fine line as a coach because a man comes in and you don’t want to change him. This is not an academy to learn. This is test cricket”

Mark Boucher, South Africa coach

“It’s not great to lose track of Test cricket and lose games,” said Boucher. “I’m a purist. I love test cricket. It’s the purest form of the game and one that we really need to take care of. The heads in the game need to come together and find a way to play more test cricket,” he said. “And it’s exciting, especially with the way the games are played now. It’s rare that you have draws. The game has moved forward, maybe because of T20 cricket. Guys are playing shots that they normally would never play. It is offensive and it’s a fun game to watch right now, so the more we see it, the better it will be for everyone.”

That may also be part of South Africa’s problem. While their test hitters cannot be accused of playing an overly aggressive T20 style, they can be criticized for a lack of innovation leading to limited scoring opportunities and a cautious approach to scoring. While Boucher and batting coach Justin Sammons have transformed South Africa’s limited-overs approach, with players using more reverse sweeps and paddles than before, they haven’t been able to do the same with the Test lineup, and that may be because they are more stoic batters by nature, especially compared to a team like England.

“We give the boys the freedom to play and express themselves,” added Boucher. “The way England would like to go out to play, first of all you have to have the characters to do it. A lot of their lads are also good white ball cricketers. You have to trust your defence, under these circumstances. We haven’t been able to keep their good balls out It’s one thing to tell guys to go out and play with freedom but there are consequences when guys fight for their test spots and fight for their career As much as a coach can say: play with freedom, within your blueprint we want you to be nice and aggressive, we want you to play a good attacking style of cricket, it’s up to the individual and character that goes with it; who trusts their defense and goes out and tries to dominate an attack.”

Boucher was also wary of trying too much with the Test batters, who should have already developed a way of playing that just needs some fine-tuning once they are on the international stage. “It’s a fine line as a coach because a guy comes in and you don’t want to change him. This is not an academy to learn. This is test cricket,” said Boucher. “You don’t want to change him too much because you don’t want to give them the opportunity to say, ‘I came in here playing my way, and I went to Test cricket and you tried to change. Me. Maybe I should have just been myself.’ That’s the fine line as a coach you might have to go back to the drawing board and say let’s see how you play in all these different circumstances and experience all of this and hopefully try to get it right the next time you come back here ‘.”

And by citing an example of someone whose technique wasn’t good but eventually won, Boucher chose one of South Africa’s best. “Look at Hashim Amla. His technique when he started playing test cricket compared to what it is now is conditioning through a lot of time with a lot of experience; going through a few ups and downs. That’s what these guys have to go through.”

Amla played in a team with big run scorers and grew to be one of the biggest. South Africa now has no one in that form, not even Elgar, who is approaching 5000 runs but not as consistent as the batters of yesteryear. Perhaps it is unfair to expect them to produce the results of the past. And while we’re all exhausted reading how much South Africa is still in transition and learning, maybe that’s all. They made the changes they thought they could make by dropping Aiden Markram and exchanging Rassie van der Dussen due to injury, and now they have to support the batters in possession to avoid failing the same way.

“We were put in a position in this game where we had to give other guys chances. You can’t keep going with the same guys and they keep failing,” said Boucher. “Sometimes it’s in their head, and you can see guys trying really hard, but it’s like sinking sand — the harder they try, the further, the deeper they fall in.”

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South African correspondent

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