When opportunity knocks Botha's door

Johan Botha is not one to pass up an opportunity. In 2012, the offspinner had a national contract with South Africa, an Indian Premier League deal with the Rajasthan Royals, a newly-built house in Port Elizabeth and had recently started a family. But when he was offered the chance to captain South Australia, Botha packed up the house, cancelled his national contract and moved to Adelaide.

“A couple of young players have asked me about it,” Botha reflects. “My wife Monica and I decided that we didn’t want to sit in Port Elizabeth one day and say, ‘What if’ or ‘I wish we had taken that chance’. Our philosophy has always been to go for it. If the opportunity is there and things feel right, let’s take the chance. It’s an advice that I pass on to young players who aren’t happy with where they are and get a chance somewhere else.”

Six years on from the big move, the Bothas still live in Adelaide, have Australian citizenship, and are preparing to sell the Port Elizabeth house. But Johan is speaking from Guyana, where he is preparing for his first stint as a head coach. It is not the cushiest job a new coach could ask for. Botha had no say in putting Guyana’s squad together for the sixth edition of the Caribbean Premier League – “I was the last piece of the puzzle,” he explains – and has been handed a squad that looks thin on paper. But he was not about to turn down a chance to step into the next phase of his life. While the 36-year-old is contracted to play for the Hobart Hurricanes in the next two Big Bash Leagues, coaching is increasingly taking over his calendar – he was an assistant coach in the last two editions of the Pakistan Super League.

Coaching Twenty20 teams looks a natural progression for Botha, whose career has followed the format’s evolution perfectly. He had three years of first-class cricket under his belt when T20 launched in South Africa, and his services have been sought around the world ever since. In a land full of quality spinners, Rajasthan at one point paid him $950,000 a season and kept him on for four years. After that association faded, Botha was contracted by Delhi and Kolkata. When the Big Bash launched, Botha was one of only three South Africans to get a gig. He made such an impression on the Adelaide Strikers that coach Darren Berry – who already knew Botha from Rajasthan – asked if he would return to captain South Australia the following season.

Botha’s quality of thought about the game is another reason he could make a good coach. Berry saw him as a natural leader, something that was apparent at international level when he stood in for Graeme Smith. In 10 ODIs as captain of South Africa, seven of which were against Australia, Botha won eight. Among those who have captained the Proteas in more than one game, it is a better win percentage than anyone except Faf du Plessis. In 11 T20Is, Botha won eight – the best of any Protea captain. Yet when Smith gave up the one-day captaincy after the 2011 World Cup, Botha lost the T20 reins as both limited-overs jobs were given to AB de Villiers.

“I thought I was doing really well, the captaincy went really well, and then all of a sudden things change. I’m not sure exactly why and how,” says Botha. “The thing that’s always helped me, and which I’ve enjoyed the most about captaincy, is trying to help my teammates. It’s taken the focus off my own game, which is good for me because I used to train a lot and almost overdo things. The captaincy eased that a bit and actually improved my own game.”

This assertion is backed up by statistics, which show that Botha averaged eight runs more with the bat and 13 runs less with the ball when he was captaining South Africa in ODIs. Without the leadership role, playing opportunities grew thinner. While the offspinner remained ever-present in limited-overs squads, he found himself sitting out more games than he felt was merited. “I still felt I was performing well enough to play one-day and T20 cricket but somehow things seemed to change,” he says. “The reason would be, ‘Aw, the other team has got a lot of right-handers so we need to play a left-arm spinner.’ I had been playing for the previous five or six years with 80% right-handers and seemed to do the job. Maybe there were guys that thought they should get rid of me.”

Botha says this with a sense of disappointment rather than anger or bitterness. He also notes that the team culture around the Proteas has changed significantly since his time – something he picked up when he was invited into the dressing room in Adelaide when South Africa were on tour. “It didn’t feel like there were young players and old players and senior players; everyone just felt a part of the team. When I started, you had your place in the team. You were a junior and you had to earn your stripes for two or three years. But they’ve sped that process up now and you can see it – young guys come in and perform straight away. That’s great to see. I’m sure they’ll be successful in one of these big tournaments soon.”

While there are days when Botha sits at home and thinks how it would have been to play more games for his native country, relocating to Australia has undoubtedly set him up for the long term. Playing every edition of the Big Bash has given him vast experience in the world’s second-most successful T20 league, while back home, Cricket South Africa’s governance problems have denied their players similar opportunities. “You can’t compare,” says Botha. “There are 40 or 50,000 people in the crowd most nights around the country in the BBL. I’ve looked at the Ram Slam ever so often over the last two years and that’s 2,000 or 3,000 people, so there’s no real interest.”

The constant exposure to high-quality T20 cricket, which included a stint in the CPL in 2015, has allowed Botha to track the trends over the years. He laughs when he thinks back to the format’s early years. “At the Warriors we had a really good bowling attack and we backed ourselves to defend 120 on most nights in PE. These days that’s not even close.”

Given that the format is largely a batsman’s game, it could be argued that a coach’s most important job is to help his bowlers restrict the opposition – something that Botha has spent his career trying to do. An economy rate of 6.48 in the format suggests he has largely succeeded. “It’s gone through phases where for a few years the batsmen really dominated and scores were very high, and then the bowlers have adjusted and found ways to restrict them with new slower balls, new tactics or set fields,” he says. “The wickets are so good, bats are really good, outfields are not very big, so the bowlers have had to adjust and now as coaches we need to find ways to help them keep control.

“There’s also the fielding, which is almost the skill I like to coach the most. We’ve focused on it in the last few days here and we’re going to keep that throughout the tournament – we want to be the best fielding outfit in the competition. If you can take a few half chances in a game, that can make a huge difference.”

With no big names in their line-up, Guyana will need to focus on such marginal gains. Botha has a few other ideas, and hopes his players will be able to think on their feet – something he has prided himself on as a player.

“In Guyana the wicket turns a bit and it’s a decent-sized outfield, so I think we’ll be okay because we have some really good spinners and our batters, like Shoaib Malik, play spin pretty well. My worry initially was how we would do away from home, but we have some allrounders who are putting their hands up as I get to know them a little bit better; hopefully one or two of them can have a good tournament. There are no superstars, so we have to play as a team as quickly as possible – that’s what creates success in these tournaments.”

When the CPL is over, Botha will return to Adelaide and start thinking about his playing preparation for the BBL. In October Monica will fly back to South Africa to sell up their old life. “We just want to simplify our lives,” he says. “Our family still lives in South Africa but I think it’s unlikely for us to move back any time soon. Our kids are settled, and we live in walking distance to their school and close to the beach. I have two years left with Hobart, probably to finish my playing career, and then with franchise cricket hopefully I can get (coaching) jobs around the world and still live in Adelaide.”

Opportunities are unlikely to be far away, and certainly won’t be missed.

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