India vs South Africa: Can Nkwe's Proteas imbibe Guardiola's tiki-taka?

South Africa radically overhauled its management team and interim team director Enoch Nkwe is faced with the daunting task of overseeing a team in transition.

Enoch Nkwe is inspired by the feats of Pep Guardiola, who coached Spanish giant Barcelona to success.   -  Getty Images

Shortly before South Africa left for the India tour, Enoch Nkwe, interim team director announced, "I understand that it's (India tour) going to be a big challenge, but I strongly believe that we can make an immediate impact. And if it doesn't happen, it's not going to be the end of the world. There's always a big picture to everything."

The Proteas radically overhauled their management team, moving to a football-style new structure. Members of the former team management, including the various assistant cricket coaches, were not retained as Cricket South Africa, instead, opted for a structure similar to that at top European football clubs where a technical director takes charge of the coaching staff and players.

And it is only apt that Nkwe is inspired by the feats of Pep Guardiola, who coached Spanish giant Barcelona to success in his 30s.

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Nkwe, 36, is faced with the daunting task of overseeing a South African team in transition, and that too in a country where, before Visakhapatnam, it had suffered defeat in last five Tests, including a 3-0 defeat in 2015.

"He (Guardiola) is a special human being," said Nkwe. "He has produced special performances and achieved quite a lot. The belief he has in his system, the drive he has to improve these systems and human beings to be better and better all the time. That's something I resonate with. I have so much to offer to the game back in our country. My biggest drive is to make a difference in human beings, to ensure the team keeps growing and keeps believing in itself and achieves greater heights."

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It was under Pep Guardiola that Xavi, Andreas Iniesta and Lionel Messi (L-R) hit their peak.   -  Getty Images

 

Under Guardiola, Barcelona doubled its number of Champions League trophies, claimed three straight league titles, won two Club World Cups, two European Super Cups, three Spanish Super Cups and one Copa del Rey. He oversaw the rise of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andreas Iniesta while propagating a style that made absolute control of the ball paramount. Or as Nkwe points out, 'dominating the key moments' in cricket.

"I suppose every coach has a different philosophy, and I want mine to rub off strongly into the team. The key is to be able to control a session for longer periods, with bat and also on the field," Nkwe said.

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Guardiola-led Manchester City racked up 98 points, two shy of the record it set the year before with 100 points,  netted a mammoth 98 goals and equalled its record of most wins (32) en route to the Premier League title last season. In his book titled The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul, British sports journalist and author Jonathan Wilson writes about Dutch great Johan Cruyff's philosophy, which eventually trickled down to Guardiola's philosophy, "There’s a ball and either they’ve got it or you’ve got it. If you have got it, they can’t score. If you use the ball well, the chances of a good outcome are greater than the chances of a bad outcome.”

"Unlike football, where possession of the ball is key, cricket's about trying and gaining 80 per cent control of the game to put ourselves in winning positions. Then it's about how often you win those key or significant moments," Nkwe said.

The attacking style of football, synonymous with Guardiola, has parallels in other sports, including cricket. And what Nkwe said, in light of his team's 203-run defeat at the ADC-VDCA Stadium, makes sense.

"I'm really proud of the first innings, the way that we batted. That was a real line in the sand for us as a team," skipper Faf du Plessis had said after the match on Sunday.

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South African skipper Quinton de Kock and interim Team Director cum coach Enoch Nkwe pictured during a training session.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

After being reduced to four for 63 in the first innings, South Africa counterattacked through Dean Elgar's cautioned aggression and Quinton de Kock's combative approach - the result? The visitor came within 71 runs of India's massive first-innings score, forcing India to bat a second time when at one point, an innings defeat for the Saffers seemed like a foregone conclusion.

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"I am very proud of the boys - how they responded after losing the toss, just the way they went about their business; determination and character. But the second innings wasn't quite what we had hoped for... the plan was to try and stretch the game as much as possible on day five and who knows what could've happened after tea," Nkwe said.

Now South Africa failed to capitalise when it had the game under control, albeit partially. Rohit Sharma's marauding form at the top of the order didn't help its case either but Nkwe feels the transitional Proteas are onto something. "The focus is to keep building on the team character. With the group of players, we have now, we can do something special in the future," he said. 

When Guardiola was appointed coach of Barca in 2008, he preferred to promote youngsters from the club’s nursery team rather than permit new signings to possibly upset the balance. Eleven years later, in a completely different sport, Nkwe has the next generation of Test cricketers in Anrich Nortje, Theunis de Bruyn, Zubayr Hamza under his watch. Whether he can conjure the same magic that made Guardiola's Barca irresistible and invincible, remains to be seen.