You are the senior-most player and Test captain now. How has the team culture and environment within the team changed over the years?
There has been a massive transformation. When I started in 2012, the culture was strong but it was old-school mentality. There were a lot of big strong personalities then that ran the team pretty well. But now the culture is very strong too. We have made every player feel welcome as much as possible. Even with the younger guys, we have tried to make them feel as if they have been here for a few years already. I think that’s because they are more comfortable with the environment. We have also lost a lot of players, but we also have some young players which can be good as they bring a different spinoff to the environment and it’s something for me to get used to as well. It’s a work in progress, of course, but it’s a lot stronger than what other people outside think of us.
How difficult is it to be captain of a country like South Africa? How are you handling the pressure with so many things happening?
It depends how you handle that pressure. I have to see it as a privilege, and not a curse, burden. South Africa has its own challenges with regards to a lot of dynamics that make up South Africa; it’s pretty unique and special. I don’t think there is another country in the world that has to deal with this kind of dynamics in the society. I have never run away from pressure, I think it brings the best out of me as a person. My personality gravitates towards such challenges that come with the job. I kind of enjoy it.
There is always light at the end of the tunnel even though it can seem like a small light sometimes! There is always a glimmer of hope.
Being captain of South Africa isn’t just a cricket job; there are so many moral dynamics involved from inclusiveness, racism, and such. No other cricketing captain has to face this kind of pressure.
They are important for our social development. The way we have gone and the way things are right now in the team, I have never seen it better. The way guys respect each other and respond to one another is pretty special.
It’s one of the biggest challenges, of course. I have to connect with each and every one who is playing and who potentially will be coming into the team. I am fortunate that I have very good relationships with everyone right now. I have been around long enough and they know the kind of man I am.
There has been a bit of break now as I am not part of white-ball cricket but when we meet now, I don’t see problems in getting them back on my side and moving together.
It’s about finding a balance in the roles within oneself. Away from the field, you have to be a friend and someone who is willing to listen and learn. On the field, you have to kick into a different personality almost, as a leader. It’s one of the biggest challenges – having good people around you is important. You have to talk and learn.
Did you also have to educate yourself to be more socially aware about, say, what it means to be a young Black cricketer or the challenges Afrikaans face?
As a cricketer in South Africa, you must be able to have those conversations with the guys. You can’t be in a bubble. It happens by having conversations with players, understanding them, the issues. The conversations we have had in the past have been good from an educational point of view. It’s still a work in progress. We mustn’t stop learning about each other. We have to sit down and listen more. Listening is such an important skill in my role. Also speak, so that they understand you. Be honest in your communication.
I have spent a lot of time talking with Temba Bavuma. We know each other for many years, from A sides and for Proteas. Over time, we have been able to make one another comfortable with each other, to be able to speak to one another about all these things and it’s been a learning curve for all of us.
And guys need to know that you are not going to use it to your own advantage. Trust and being comfortable with each other. I think I have got that with my team-mates.
Have those conversations and the whole lived experience of the transition, not just in a cricket team but in the country, changed you in some ways?
Definitely. It has certainly made me more emotionally attached to the guys. It makes me a bit more concerned and wary about the past. It definitely is a massive learning curve. We all have a unique story, be it black, white, Afrikaans, English Afrikaans; in South Africa, it’s just that we have a lot more diversity.
Moving to cricketing matters, you have had 10 different opening partners in the last five years. Has it affected you?
It’s been quite a lot and has been disruptive. I didn’t think it would affect me as a player but as it has gone on, it has been a bit of a setback to my career. I am not going to use that as an excuse. It has put me in a more resilient position. It has not made me a better player or a worse player but has helped me develop as a character. Moving forward, I hope we have a solid opening pair with myself and Aiden Markram.
World over, there seems to be some sort of opening pair issues.
It looks like it. Perhaps the T20 influence. I don’t have the answer to it. It’s a specialised position and sometimes people forget the basics and fundamentals. But that’s my opinion.
You are seen as a fighter, someone who doesn’t give up or give an inch to the opposition. How did that personality develop?
From my childhood, I guess. I have always had to work hard. Back in my teenage days, going against adults, I would be stubborn, refuse to let them get me out. Even in the backyard, I would refuse to let the adults get me out. Childhood plays a massive role in the kind of person you are. I have a job to do. My job is there to go out, get runs, and get my team in a position to win. My character off the field is totally different to the character on the field. I am not there to make friends on the field. I am not going to let anyone walk over me.
Your interesting battle with Ravichandran Ashwin is going to resume. Looking forward to it?
Definitely, it has been a talking point. Ash is a world- class spinner. He has got the upper hand against me in India, but I have also done pretty well against him. We have had battles in county cricket too – the pitch I remember there was like Nagpur, I guess (laughs). The ball spun quite a bit. It doesn’t matter where you play in the world, it will be a tough battle. He is one of the best. There is a lot of mutual respect.
What makes someone like Jasprit Bumrah tough for an opener?
He is a world-class bowler and South African conditions suit him a lot with bounce and extra seam movement. It’s another great challenge. There are other good pace bowlers too in India; so, it should be a good contest.
Yes, we have to be mindful of that loss of experienced batters; you can’t fill those positions quickly but it has given a lot of opportunities to a talented young pool of batsmen. It’s going to be a challenge going into a big series knowing that we might have one or two young inexperienced batsmen. But they have performed in domestic cricket. It’s an opportunity and if you don’t grab them, there are other people waiting.
We have an upper hand that we are playing in South Africa, we know our conditions more than India but then India are the best team in the world. We know that they are coming here to try and beat us, which they haven’t done before. It’s going to be a tough contest but I am pretty confident since we are playing at home.
You have a Kolpak returnee in Duanne Olivier, the bowler coming back to play for you. A word on him.
He is a massive player for us. He has been given the opportunity because he has done well in domestic cricket.
People left because they weren’t given opportunities in South Africa. Every player has a choice and they actually took a massive gamble in going there and it has paid off for them. I don’t see any problem with that. If a young talented player feels they have to go overseas to explore opportunities, so be it.
You must have read about the captaincy changes in India. Virat Kohli is just the Test captain now and Rohit Sharma takes over the white-ball role. Do you think all these changes might unsettle India? How has your experience of playing India changed over the years?
I don’t see it affecting India too much. I think Rohit and Virat are similar stature players and characters. Rohit is quieter than Virat but India will still have a winning mindset. They are still going to be in a good leadership position. Virat is still the Test captain and he has lots of years left for India as a leader. India will still be quite a good team.
India’s travel record has been brilliant in the last few years. That’s one thing Virat has obviously wanted to do and they came out and competed well in Australia, in England, here.
How is the situation with the Omicron variant progressing?
Our bio-bubble is world class. The situation isn’t ideal but within the bubble, things will be good for the guys. I am pretty confident.
How do you think Bavuma has come on as a leader and player?
As a leader, he has come leaps and bounds. There is a lot of responsibility on Temba’s shoulders being given such a big honour to captain the white-ball teams. In Test cricket, as a player, he needs to work hard on his game but he is just one innings away from realising his potential as a Test batter. He is a very talented batter and needs to turn those 30s-40s into hundreds. And then, he can be on his way. He is not far from being a very good Test cricketer.
Finally, advantage South Africa or even stevens?
I think we are still the favourites going into the home series. Even though we haven’t played a lot of cricket in recent times, we have been good in what we have played. Anything can happen in Test cricket and India certainly is a very good side. Virat would no doubt want to come and beat South Africa in South Africa. This series is going to be so good. I can’t wait for it to start.