At last, Ray Jennings is about to take his place on the international stage. It has been a long and often tormented wait, and if nothing else its end should ensure that England's tour of South Africa this winter will not founder for want of an opinion.
Jennings is South Africa's new coach, partly because of his surprising success in previous jobs, partly because there was nobody else left to ask. He is taking over a team beset by confusion, inertia and defeat, but if that means the only way is forward it is already being suggested that he is behind the times.
Such a judgement is clearly premature, as not a ball has yet been delivered or received under his direction, but it is probable that a laptop computer will not be the first piece of equipment in his kitbag. Jennings belongs firmly in the motivational school of coaching, and the early signs are that he will not ruffle feathers so much as tear them apart.
He has been appointed for three series: against India, where the team fly on Thursday; against England at home for five Tests; and against West Indies away in the spring. Whatever happens, he will pour a lifetime of missed chances into the next six months.
"I've lacked opportunities all the way in my life," he said. "In 1970, when I was a 16-year-old schoolboy, I was picked to go to Australia but the tour was cancelled, and 20 or so years later I was picked for a world XI at Lord's, but Ali Bacher asked me not to go. I have been deprived of international exposure, so my passion lies in being a coach, probably more than any player who ever represented his country.
"I'm going to have huge energy, all that I was never able to express as a cricketer. I am going to come out fighting with anything that comes to mind and make sure the players express it on the field. I am going to take all that passion from the past 30 years and make sure I put it into my gameplans and try to make a huge difference to South African cricket."
There spoke a man with pent-up feelings. This is perhaps understandable, because during South Africa's isolation, justified though that was, Jennings was one of the best wicketkeepers in the world. His career almost exactly spanned the country's banishment: he was too young at the start and too old at the finish. His only international cricket was played against rebel touring teams.
At 6ft 1in he was the forerunner of the tall breed of wicketkeepers, flying to third slip to take catches. He was sleek and quick and everybody knew him as Jet. There is little doubt that he would have been a spectacular adornment to the world game, and equally likely that he would have let the batsmen know it. Jennings did not exactly invent sledging, but he was usually in the lead toboggan.
It is an abrasive attitude he has already demonstrated as a coach. He was in trouble several years ago for apparently offering money to his bowlers if they hit Allan Donald with the ball, which he later said was a jest. He has punished loose bowlers by making them run round the ground, he has disparaged energy drinks and said tap water will do. He rubbished Mark Boucher, and Boucher has been dropped.
This is all good knockabout stuff which adds to the gaiety of the nation, but it is not redolent of coaching sophistication. Actually, it might be. Jennings' brother, Ken, is a sports psychologist who has been used by the team before, and may well be again now.
Jennings'experience is limited, but he took unfancied Easterns to the provincial championship two years ago, instilling a zeal for victory in his players. He gives the impression that will be a more useful commodity than tactics.
"Tactics can play a very small role," he said. "I can be a brilliant tactician, but if I'm unable to put those tactics into the players' heads and give them the confidence to use them it doesn't matter. I can work out opposition weakness from having spent 20 years behind the stumps but you've still got to motivate your players."
The quota system is still operating in South Africa to ensure that black players who were outcasts for years are given a fair chance. This has not exactly won over much of the white population (England's new recruit Kevin Pietersen left the country because of it), and there were suspicions that Jennings effectively circumvented it in his time at Easterns by picking players who did not bowl or keep wicket and batting them at seven or eight.
But when asked about the selection of Hashim Amla, the first Asian in a South African squad, he said: "I just don't see him as anything else but South African. He's a true South African and it's good for South Africa, not the Asian public. We've turned the corner in the last 10 years and I don't get involved with quota systems. We've had a lot of injuries and this is not our best squad, but I'm happy with it."
The selectors had not given him a specialist spinner until yesterday, however, when Robin Peterson was added almost as an afterthought, perhaps prompted by the new coach. Abrasive and passionate he may be, but he is talking up the team's chances neither against India nor England. South Africa have won only one of their last five Test series and one of their last 12 one-day matches.
"It's going to be a difficult period and there are some areas where we just don't have experience," he said. "Spin in India is one of them. With England, they have Duncan Fletcher, who's done a hell of a job. I don't see it as myself against Fletcher, but I've got to make sure my group do the maximum they can."
Jennings' relationship with his forceful captain, Graeme Smith, will be crucial. He knew Smith as a schoolboy in Johannesburg, before Smith went to Cape Town, and claims they have a strong relationship. He also intends to use the experience of Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis. Jennings, though, will supply much of the vibrancy. If they win, he will be Jet Jennings all over again.Reuse content