SOUTHERN COMFORT FOR A PROTEA TURNED REDBACK
Johan Botha has beaten adversity and scrutiny to radically transform his game and become a career cricketer on the global stage. He has captained his country and established himself as one of the prized signings in T20 cricket leagues around the world. Now he is taking a new path in Australia.
Johan, you’re one of the biggest names in the world when it comes to T20 cricket. Did you ever imagine cricket would set up your life like it has?
It’s been an amazing journey so far. Cricket has changed so much while I’ve been in game. And T20 has changed my life. Everybody said it would be the death of spin bowling and we’d get smashed around but we’ve proven that wrong. It’s been unbelievable.
You were once a medium-pacer. Do you think you’d have the life you have now if you’d kept on bowling seam-up?
No way. Although I think probably half of my first-class wickets have been as a medium-pacer. Just before I switched over fulltime I was trying a few things out and would come on sometimes with some off-spin to see if I could break a partnership. Then I got a back injury and I had to decide whether to change my action completely or switch over to spin. Mickey Arthur was one of the main guys encouraging me to switch over at the time. Mark Boucher and Justin Kemp too. And it’s something I will never regret.
Was it something you just taught yourself to do?
The main guy I watched was Harbhajan Singh. Just the variations he had. And the way he bowled and how well he bowled against Australia. Spin bowling has really turned my career around and I’ve become much more than I ever thought I would be.
It’s even brought you to South Australia where you’ve been captaining the Redbacks and Strikers
Yeah and it’s been great. We’ve got a really good bunch of guys and excellent coaching staff and support staff around the team.
You’ve got a young family. How have you managed to make it work?
That was probably the biggest challenge of all. When we moved to Australia we had one toddler and our second child has been born while we’ve been living in Australia. Credit to my wife. She just goes on and runs our lives while I am off playing cricket and everything else.
So you’ve bred a future Australian cricketer?
Haha. It’s a little girl so I’m not sure if she’s going to go on and play in the world cup winning Australian ladies team but we’ll have to wait and see.
How did the move to South Australia come about?
I came over last year for the Big Bash and got a taste for it and really enjoyed it. I love Adelaide. I realised that if I played for South Africa I would only be playing one-day cricket and probably not the longer formats. I’d worked with Darren Berry at the Rajasthan Royals and he sold the idea to me and I was up for it.
I’ve been in the team environment with Darren Berry and I know he’s a big supporter of you as a person, a cricketer and a leader of men. It must make for a great working partnership?
Yeah I just try and do what I’ve always done and Chuck sees other qualities in me which I appreciate. We’ve just always got along really well. When you’re involved in the IPL you travel a lot and spend a lot of time away from cricket and that’s how it started. He’s great at planning a game strategy and that helps me a lot so as captain I can just focus on the on-field stuff.
There was a bit of criticism when it was announced you were going to be captaining the Redbacks. Some said you were taking away an opportunity for a local player. That’s a tough initiation!
Yeah it was but I tried not to focus too much on the media. I just saw it as more of a challenge and I wanted to help South Australia improve and to get some respect back. The Redbacks have been pretty good at one-day cricket but poor in first-class cricket. I wanted to change that and make sure that when teams came to Adelaide it wasn’t just an easy six points or when we visited it would be an easy game. I think we’ve shown already that we’re competitive again in Shield cricket and we want to keep building on that.
You must be really proud of the progress you have made?
Yeah I think what we’ve achieved is something pretty special and quite memorable but the measure of our team will be how we can back it up next year. That will really tell us where we’ve got to.
It’s more than a year since you last played for South Africa. Have you given up any hopes of playing international cricket?
Yeah when I moved to Australia I thought well if I never play international cricket again that will be fine with me. I wanted to take up this challenge and do something totally different. I hadn’t played four-day cricket before this season for about three or four years so I wanted to give all three formats one good last go and see where it takes me. And I must say I’ve really enjoyed it.
You were part of the South African team when it was really starting to climb up the rankings. What was the vision back then?
I can remember the first meeting we had when Gary Kirsten took over and he said “we want to be the best team in the world” and that was the first time anyone had actually said that among the group. So Gary and Paddy Upton set about telling us how we were going to do it and broke it down. That’s how it all really started and all the players began to buy into it and now you can see it’s a pretty solid group. The squad hasn’t changed too much in test cricket for two years and that’s a big part of it. Everyone knows each other so well.
How much of it is down to the leadership of Graeme Smith?
Graeme has had a big influence all the way through. That started when Mickey Arthur was there. But I think when Gary and Paddy came in there were some fresh ideas and they brought something different. Graeme has been there through it all. Now you have AB de Villiers. Hashim Amla. They’ve played a lot of games. Jaques Kallis. Dale Steyn. Morne Morkel. Now you’ve got a group of six, seven, eight experienced guys and obviously that really helps when you get into tough situations.
But as good as South Africa is, they’ve been great in series, but poor in tournaments. Why is that?
I wish I knew. Even in my time, when we played ODI series and it was the best out of three or five, we rarely lost. We’d play really well. But we’d have off days at the wrong time in tournaments. But it’s like any team. If you get over that hurdle once, I think if South Africa win this next Champions Trophy or the World Cup or the T20 team can get over the line once I think they’re going to be a danger for the next few years.
Is Australia in good hands with Mickey Arthur?
Definitely. I think Mickey and Michael Clarke have worked well together. He was my first coach with South Africa and I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. There are a lot of young guys in that Australian team and they’ve just been to India which is definitely one of the tougher tours. I think that’s where South Africa has an advantage now. They’ve got a lot of experience. I think if Australia can pick up a bit of momentum early in the Ashes there’s no limit for them if those young guys get that taste of winning.
Almost immediately after your test debut in 2005 you were reported for an illegal bowling action and the ICC made you undergo testing in Perth. I was there that day and I remember feeling really sorry for you. It looked pretty humiliating.
It’s a different type of pressure that’s for sure. Normally you’re competing against guys on a field and some days it goes well. Other days it doesn’t. But you know bowling in a science lab like that. That’s for your career. That’s for your life. You’re bowling to prove your existence in the game. Yeah that was a very tough period.
Did it toughen you as a cricketer?
Yeah it did. I think it built my character. Not necessarily to become a captain one day but to prove that I could take care of my own game and also focus on the guys around me and try and help them.
But then a few years later you got reported a second time. That must have been crushing?
Yeah it was and the timing was bad too. It was just before the first IPL. Look, over time the testing has changed and I think that’s good and the ICC should stick with that and stay consistent.
Do you see actions in world cricket now though and think ‘gee they’re getting away with more than I did?’ Is there a little resentment towards them and the system?
At times yes a little bit. But going through that made me work on my action and improve my off-spinner over time because now I don’t have as much variation as I did before. So in a way it has improved my skills a bit. But I can’t worry about other guys. I have a lot of people saying to me ‘oh what about this guy’ or ‘that looks dodgy’ but I know from having gone through it myself you can’t call anyone from the naked eye. Things happen so quickly and there’s shoulder rotation variables where it looks like your arm straightens. You’ve got to be sure before you make a big statement like that because when you accuse somewhere of an illegal action people start looking at it.
Mud sticks doesn’t it? You know that better than most.
I know with me it’s something people always think and say. I have to live with that. But people have to be 100% before they brand a young guy because it does stick. And that’s probably a message for young guys coming up. If any coaches have any doubt they should get it fixed before they step onto the big stage and into the limelight because trust me, then it really blows up.
When you see footage of your bowling back then, are there times where you’ve thought ‘maybe they were right?’
Yeah at times. I’ve seen a couple of clips from a long time ago. My action is a lot different now than it was back then. I think that came about just from watching other guys and trying to learn how to bowl off-spin. I think over time it’s become my own action again. I’ve been able to work on things and change things pretty quickly because I’ve done it over the years and had to do it.
They were the lowlights. Safe to say captaining your country is the highlight?
Yeah captaining South Africa the first time was great. And so was winning my first cap for my country and beating Australia 4-1 away. But more recently, getting that first Shield win as captain of South Australia. It was a big one. To get that win under the belt was a massive relief. Hopefully I’ve got a few more years left in me yet and I can help a few teams I’m involved in win a few trophies along the way.