Couch Talk 151 (Play)
Guest: Kepler Wessels
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is former South African captain Kepler Wessels. He talks about his return from Australia in 1985 and the chance to play for and captain South Africa in the 90’s, the 92 World Cup, South Africa’s first Test after readmission vs. West Indies, how he tried to mold the team and also the captaincy legacy he tried to leave behind amongst other things.
You retired from playing for Australia in 1985 and you moved back to South Africa and played provincial cricket. Mr. Nelson Mandela was released from government detention in February 1990. Did you positively believe that you would be playing international cricket again, and this time for South Africa?
Kepler Wessels (KW): No, I didn’t. When I came back from Australia in 1985, I thought my international career was over. I wanted to continue playing but also wanted to combine a career outside of cricket with my playing days still. It came as a surprise to all of us in 1991 when ten days or so before we went to India the tour was announced. It was a surprise to all of us, but for me, it was terrific to be back on the international stage.
SJ: In the 1991 tour to India for 3 ODIs, you were suddenly put together as a team. How hard was it to come together as a team?
KW: I think, for me, since I had been to India before, I knew what to expect. So I was really looking forward to going back. For the other guys, it was a novel experience. We had never played together as team, in South Africa, outside South Africa, not certainly in the sub-continent. So they didn’t know what to expect.
We had a wonderful week. The tour was short, just for a week, only 3 matches. It was a wonderful week topped off by the winning the last game in Delhi, which for us was a good thing.
SJ: After that, you headed to the 1992 cricket world cup. You were leading the team and Clive Rice was dropped. How did you want to mold the team? Were you focused on giving a good performance in the world cup, first and foremost, or were you thinking of building something for the future?
KW: It was absolutely about putting in a good performance at the world cup. Although there was no international experience in the side other than myself, there was a lot of first class experience. A lot of players in that team could play competitively at that level for a long time, and I knew the side was a good one. I also knew that even though we were lacking in international exposure, I was confident that we would give a good account of ourselves. Making the semifinal was an added bonus.
SJ: Four days before the semi-final, there was referendum on political reform in South Africa, and the result of the vote seemed vital for South Africa’s continuing in the Cricket World Cup. Some even suggested that the team would be withdrawn from the tournament, if the result of the referendum had been negative. What was the mood within the side? I’m sure plenty of attention was paid to the referendum back home.
KW: We were. We had to. We were very stressed because the tournament was a very successful one for us. We thoroughly enjoyed it. Politically, we didn’t know which way the things were going to go. We were hopeful it would go the right way. And once it was announced that it did, there was a sense of relief that we could stay on in the world cup and continue to compete.
SJ: You had your experience of playing in Australia, for the domestic side there as well as the way the Australians play it. How much of that was an influence on you in shaping the South African team?
KW: Massive influence. I was lucky to play under some good captains in Australia – Ian and Greg Chappell, and Allan Border, and just the whole way the Australians play their cricket. That had a big impact on my own career, as far as preparation and on field intensity was concerned. So, that played a huge part in me trying to shape a certain style of play, and certain way with the South African side.
SJ: When you say “certain style of play”, was it something you were consciously aware of that was lacking within the South African side that were in charge of?
KW: Absolutely. Initially, I understood the strengths and weaknesses of the team at our disposal. I knew how to go about making that team successful. Clearly, by the time my captaincy finished in four years, the team had progressed a long way. And then, when Hansie Cronje took over, they were then able to play with more fair, more experience on the international stage, and could play more aggressively, and adventurously, if you like.
But at the initial stages, it was about not losing matches. It was about competing and it was about players that came in to the side understood the demands of international cricket.
SJ: What are your memories of the 1992 semifinal in how it ended? I am sure you were all disappointed but you must have been happy with how you did overall?
KW: Yeah. I think there were two issues. First of all, we were absolutely delighted with making the semifinal. The competition itself was pretty unforgiving in those days, because each team played every other team and the top four progressed to the semifinal. For us to qualify in the top four, we had to beat India in a rain-shortened game in Adelaide, which was a good win. SO, we were delighted to get to semis.
Knowing how hard it is to win a final, I was very keen on us winning the semifinal and get to the final. Clearly, we were on the wrong side of the rain rule at that time. If the Duckworth-Lewis had been applied, we would have won by three runs. Actually, that [match] brought about the change [in calculations for rain-shortened games]. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of the result. It was devastating and disappointing, but looking back on it, the tournament was a huge success for us.
SJ: After that, soon after, by the time the tournament was ending, you were told that you would be going to the West Indies for three ODIs and a test match, the lone test match, and you mentioned about how the guys had first class experience but didn’t have international experience, but that was 50 overs. Now actually going and playing a five day match in the West Indies, in Barbados, how did you get the guys to prepare for it?
KW: Well, again, I knew that was going to be tough, the test match in Barbados, because we all know what a fortress, in those days, Barbados was. Again, I didn’t want to instill any fear in the team. Unfortunately we had a couple of injuries before that test. There was no Brian McMillan. Our team wasn’t balanced. There was no Jonty Rhodes either, they were both injured. We played really well for four days in that test match against a strong West Indian side with Ambrose and Walsh and Richie Richardson and Desmond Haynes, so there were a good team. We competed very well over those four days and possibly should have gone on to win the test match, but, I knew day four that the game was by no means over. We only needed 70 runs and I think some of the guys on our team probably thought it was. We had eight wickets in hand. But it was a rude awakening of what can happen in test cricket, the fact that we lost. It was really disappointing from my point of view because I really wanted us to win that test match, but you know after that we went on and in my tenure we never lost another test series for the next four years, so I suppose it was good preparation for what lay ahead.
SJ: There is of course underlying political ramifications as well, of South African team going in to West Indies with a history of rebel tours and all that. Did any of that play any role?
KW: Not at all. I think we were made incredibly welcome on that tour. We had absolutely no issues whatsoever from that point of view and even though we lost the test match I think all players who went on that tour thoroughly enjoyed touring the West Indies. I must say, from the time we came back there was not one political ramification or incident which we all are very grateful for and was very good.
SJ: Coming back to captaincy, it was said that you were a “draw first” captain. Is that a fair assessment, and even if it is, that you are learning to play test cricket, your thoughts on that?
KW: Yeah, absolutely! I mean for me it was, first of all, putting the team in to a position where we couldn’t lose, and if there was an opportunity win from there, that’s the one we would then try and take. My feeling was we needed to, early on in our re-admittance, learn to play for five days. We needed to be able to compete for a five day period and put ourselves in a secure position, and win if we could. We also played against some strong teams at the time. Australia was very strong at the time and we drew 1-all in Australia and 1-all here. Same in England. So that’s how we played at the time, and that was the strategy.
SJ: It’s kind of baffling, I suppose, that you say you learned your captaincy ropes from the Chappell brothers and others, and there’s a thing where say Australia, they are willing to lose to win, whereas you came at it from the other side where you said, “I don’t want to lose first.”
KW: I think it’s more of… what you learn from the Chappells and those people is to have a ruthless approach—to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team and then make it as difficult for the opposition. So if, had we been further down the track, and had we played further test matches, my approach would have been different. There is no question. I would have been more adventurous, I would have done things slightly differently. But we weren’t. The team was in a developmental phase as far as test cricket was concerned. They were developing an understanding of how a test match works, because up until that point, first class cricket was three day cricket in South Africa, so there is a big adjustment and a big bridge to overcome. We believed it was the right way to go about it at the time, and, as I said, we competed successfully.
SJ: Hansie Cronje came under your wing. He learned the art of leadership from you. How big of an influence were you, and what were the things you hoped he would learn from you and implement on the field when he became captain?
KW: Well I think the way we were similar is that he also wanted the team to be run in a very organized, disciplined fashion, and I think there was no difference as far as our leadership was concerned as far as those two issues, and also as far as physical fitness is concerned, he also believed in that. What he could then do was… the players by then were more experienced. You had Allan Donald who had developed his bowling, you got good all-rounders onto the team like Shaun Pollock, Brian McMillan, so you had a more rounded team, and I think from there it was easier for him then to.. whereas before we were looking to get into a position where we couldn’t lose first, we could adopt an approach where we needed to get into a winning position first, so I think that that was the difference. Also in one day cricket along with Bob Wormer they developed quite a nice style of play in the one day game which worked pretty well. I think the whole handing over of the team was at the right time and it all was a progression that led upwards.
SJ: From then on, from Hansie, you go to Graeme Smith, who was under some turbulent conditions in South Africa cricket, but he was only 22, had only played seven tests, what were your thoughts when that happened? Were they making the right decision?
KW: Yeah, I was sort of out of the loop a little bit by then in the sense that I’d gone in to broadcasting—I might even have still been playing, I can’t even remember, but I wasn’t involved in the decision at that time. I think just from what he said himself, Graham Smith, he said, I think he admitted or said that he felt maybe it had been a little bit too early, but as it turned out he had a fantastic career as test captain and had a fantastic team under him for many years. So yeah, it probably was the right decision, I don’t know. It came in a controversial way, that world cup in South Africa. I think he took over from Shaun if memory serves me correctly, after the Sri Lanka world cup game in Durban, so it came out of controversial circumstances, but I suppose history shows it was a good decision.
SJ: Were you able to see certain leadership seeds that you had sowed that Hansie took over for you and then on to him?
KW: No, I don’t think so. I think he came too long after me to compare or make sort of that assumption. I think from myself to Hansie definitely, probably Hansie to Shaun, and then as I said I was out of the loop then, it was hard for me to sort of determine that.
SJ: I want to talk a bit about Graeme Smith and that epic tour to England where he had the large very high scores, 277 etc.. How important do you think that was eventually in the long run for himself, the team, but more for establishing his credentials as a captain?
KW: Yeah I was actually in New Zealand at the time coaching in Auckland, so I wasn’t that closely associated with the South African team then, but I think any captain who leads from the front in a positive aggressive-like manner and who does very well and contributes match-winning performances, that’s got to be a good thing. I think that tour probably really established him as the leader of that group, and it showed that at the top of the order, he was a very good player. So, I think that probably, I won’t say a coming-of-age, but definitely a defining moment when he got all those runs in England, and you knew then that, as young as he was, he was going to have a long career as a South African captain.
SJ: South Africa are unquestionably the number one side. From that side that you led to the West Indies, Barbados, 1992, to where they are now, how would you describe the rise, the growth, of the team?
KW: If you look at South African sport in general, South African people are very competitive. They play the game in a ruthless way in that they want to win all the time, and I think that although the population who play cricket is possibly smaller in nature in relation to the whole population, I think it’s produced some magnificent players, and world-class players all through the time. If you look at the last few years, I mean if you look at people like AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, the players that the system has produced, a lot of credit has to go to the way that players develop in this country.
SJ: The team itself, in how they’ve progressed, there was a time when they were number one for a brief time and then India took over, and now they’ve come back, England came up briefly, but in everyone’s book South Africa would be the number one test team, so that maturity….
KW: Yeah, I think what happens is, if you look through history, if you look at the Australian team of the mid-70s, and then you look at the West Indian team of the 80s/early 90s, and you look at the South African team, I think when you have a group of world class players that mature at the same time, and are roughly the same age, and are able to play a lot of cricket for a number of years together, I think that’s when you end up in this kind of situation. I think if you look at all those great teams, that’s exactly what happened, and that’s what’s happened with this team as well. The players, they’ve had probably six or seven world-class players turn the game on their own, and they’re all in the same era, so that makes a huge difference.
SJ: Coming to the one-day side of things, it is a shock that South Africa has not won a world cup. Especially where you took an inexperienced side that went to the semi-finals. Where do you think they are lacking?
KW: It’s a really strange scenario because as you rightly point out, not only world cups but also World T20s. If you look at the ability in the teams that have gone (for SA)… The 1996 South African team was an excellent one. Yes, they made a selection error when they played the West Indies in the quarterfinal. They left out Allan Donald in favor of a spinner. In 1999, I thought they were the best side of the tournament, and then that unfortunate situation happened. In 2007 in the West Indies also, I thought South Africa really were a good side and probably, if not the best, one of the best two teams at the event.
I think what’s happened is that the South African sides tended to play very well in the qualifying stages, but when the pressure of the knock out stages came along, probably made a couple of mistakes – either in selection, tactically or on the day, outplayed by the opposition. You are right, it’s a monkey on their back and until they win one of these events – which they will eventually [laughs], it may be this year who knows – it is always going to be a case of people referring to them as not playing their best under pressure. I think we are all aware of that.
SJ: On the Test side, Australia have always been a thorn in South Africa’s side, doesn’t matter whether SA are No.1 or No.2 or No. 4. Somehow Australia have this knack of winning in South Africa. What differentiates the two cricketing countries, since you have played for them both?
KW: I think what happens is that the Australian teams, they are always up for a fight. They have been, at times, not very good, but generally speaking, they are never intimidated. Where as some other teams may be intimidated by the pure presence of somebody like Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers, the Australian team will acknowledge how good those players are, but they are not intimidated. So, they will look them in the eye and take them on. The contest between the two sides with the exception of the time when Australia beat South Africa 5-0 in Australia, have always has been very close. South Africa have drawn in Australia, won twice, and Australia have come here and done well. So, the contest has been very good and I think Australia stand up to the challenge better than some of the other nations, and possibly, South Africa stand up to the Australian challenge as well.
So, there are two teams that play uncompromising cricket and it’s always hard. It’s always tough. When South Africa dominates an opposition, they do it easy, as do Australia, but when they play each other, it’s always tough.
SJ: What is the role of a captain in such high-pressure games like South Africa v Australia? Just as an example, when Sourav Ganguly was leading India in the 2001-2004 time period, India always seemed to get up for a fight especially against Australia. They may be in indifferent form against other teams, but against Australia they were up for a fight.
KW: I think the role of the captain is huge. If your captain is in the fight and is producing under pressure – not only match winning performances but also right tactical decisions in the heat of the battle – that has a huge impact on the results. When South Africa play Australia, that plays a massive role.
Going back to when Steve Waugh was captain and Australia dominated, he was the guy. When South Africa won in Australia, Graeme Smith was the guy. Michael Clarke here [in SA] in the last series did very well. He stood up to a big battering at this very ground ]Newlands]. So, yeah, captaincy is a big thing when it comes to matches between these two teams.
SJ: With that, how would you rate how you, Hansie, Shaun and Graeme did in the role of captain?
KW: It was funny because Allan Border was captain when I played, we were close friends, and we played for Queensland together. Neither of us would give an inch. I think the end result was one-all there and it was one-all here. So, it was always going to be like that, I suppose.
I think Steve Waugh, at times, had the better of the South African set up or the leadership, may be. Just as Graeme Smith had the better of the Australian leadership when they won twice in Australia.
SJ: Were there aspects of Graeme Smith’s captaincy that you noticed and admired that the future captains of South Africa could learn from?
KW: I think the thing about him was that when he was playing well, he had a real presence. When batting, he had a presence, trying to take the game away from the opposition. With his physical size, he tried to, you can call it, intimidate, or tried to dominate, that’s probably the right word. By the same token, in the field, he was at slips, and he would catch well.
Hashim Amla, for me, would be a very good captain, in a different way. He absolutely leads from the front, with all the runs he scores. His calmness is very important for South Africa, and will be in what might become a transitional phase in the South African set up. He is very experienced, calm, and brings a lot of good things to the party. Although the two – Graeme and Hashim- are different, Graeme has made big contributions and I think Hashim will too.
SJ: It is said that when you lead teams like India or Pakistan, it is a high-pressure job what with cricket being a religion etc. What are the pressures associated with leading South Africa?
KW: Well, South Africans don’t like to lose. So, the expectations of winning is always there, whether it’s cricket, or rugby or football. South African fans don’t accept poor results. From that point of view, there is always going to be pressure. As a captain, if you lose a series or two, you are under huge pressure. I think everybody that takes up the job of captain knows that. While your reign as captain lasts, you are not going to have an easy time. That’s something in South Africa we accept.
SJ: In the socio-political conditions of what modern South Africa is, what is the captain responsible for? Is he only responsible to make sure South Africa wins?
KW: Absolutely. I think politically the sport is so well integrated. I don’t think any captain is even aware of that now. The only thing is that they are striving to win, and striving for excellence. I don’t think – when I say I don’t think, I mean, I am sure – there is none of those thoughts around at all. In that sense, it’s good that from 1991 we have come to a point where those sorts of thoughts don’t even enter anyone’s mind. I think that’s a good thing.
SJ: You talked about Hashim and his calmness and what he represents. Of course, he looks different from every SA captain before him. What does that represent for South Africa going forward as a society and as a team?
KW: I think the country loves Hashim Amla. Everybody likes him. He’s just a proud South African. He brings so many good things to the party and he will bring a lot of that to the captaincy as well. I think when his time is done, we will reflect on his era as captain very, very happily.
SJ: How do you see South African progressing, on the field?
KW: Well, I think it’s right now the short-term thing with the World Cup. I think that’s all encompassing thought now for all South African cricket people and followers. Once the world cup is done, one will have to reassess and see how it’s all going to unfold. But right now, over the next 2-3 months, it’s the only thing anyone thinks about.
SJ: And in the long run?
KW: In the long term, South African cricket will be like Australia, always competitive. They may not always be the best but they will always be competitive. Because, if you look at the domestic system, the players that have come through – we have so many players from the system playing in South Africa and around the world, and they are all good. So, as I said, they may not always be the best but they are always going be competitive.
Episode transcribed by: Subash Jayaraman