South Africa were playing more than just the opposition over the last few summers with matters coming to a head this season after their coach, Mark Boucher, was charged with gross misconduct by Cricket South Africa (CSA). Boucher received his charge sheet - which confirmed CSA will seek his dismissal - on Monday, two days ahead of the ODI series against India that South Africa swept 3-nil.
Boucher's charges relate to historic and current handlings of race issues, which have always been part of South African cricket's narrative but became even more topical since the Black Lives Matter movement's resurgence in sport in 2020. Since then, South Africa have appointed their first black African ODI captain, Temba Bavuma, who now outlined the difficulties of being in charge of a team that continues to face issues off the field.
"I don't think it's easy (captaining the team). There are a lot of dynamics that you need to manage. For me, the biggest thing is trying to keep cricket the main focus amongst the guys," Bavuma said. "I hate to bring this up but it's been a challenging period for the team, for the players, for particular members of management. There's been a lot of scrutiny surrounding the team and surrounding the organisation, so to manage the conversations happening around the change-room and to ensure our energy is 100% geared towards performing out there, for me, has been the biggest challenge. It has been a big responsibility but has also been a privilege. But it's not easy."
Bavuma did not name Boucher specifically and when the man himself was asked about the difficulties of coaching a team that is constantly facing off-field pressures, Boucher said: "I can't answer that. Not now in any case."
ESPNcricinfo understands that Boucher has been advised not to discuss matters related to his disciplinary hearing as it is part of the ongoing investigation. Boucher and his legal team will meet with CSA on Wednesday to outline a timeframe for the hearing, but it is unlikely to begin before South Africa return from their two-Test tour of New Zealand, which starts on February 17. Afrikaans newspaper Rapport reported on Sunday that Boucher's defence will be bankrolled by a group of wealthy businessmen, and though it did not name any of them, billionaire Johann Rupert, an entrepreneur, issued a tweet in support of Boucher earlier in the week.
Despite what could be a rocky few months ahead for Boucher personally, he was positive about the development the team has made under his watch to beat India in both the Test and ODI series this season. "The progression has been great," Boucher said. "We turned the corner a while ago, from a team perspective. We tried a few things in Covid times when we had to get a deeper squad and we gave a lot of opportunities to a lot of players. We are starting to reap the rewards now. It's all falling into place, which is nice."
While acknowledging areas for improvement, such as the fielding in particular, Boucher said the ingredients in the squad could make a recipe for future success, especially because internally there's a sense of harmony. "There are always places we can improve. I don't think our fielding was great. But I like the look of this batting team. I like the balance. We are getting hundreds, and that's with one or two of those guys out of form. I believe we've got a classy top six," Boucher said. "And now with allrounders, we've got a couple that we can look at. We have an environment which is very good. The change-room is a happy change-room and the players are growing as cricketers and human beings."
South Africa will celebrate their twin successes against India, but Boucher said their feet remain "firmly on the ground", and Bavuma, speaking from both a captaincy and batting perspective, echoed that. "It means a lot as a player. Knowing I contributed to the winning cause makes it better," he said. "You will always be judged on your record and to convincingly beat an Indian side speaks a lot to my captaincy. But things are still early from a leadership point of view. I will take the positives but I will try very hard not to get ahead of myself."