How Rob Walter helped South Africa reach the ICC T20 World Cup 2024 final

After seven failed attempts and 32 years, South Africa have finally reached the promised land of an ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup final.

Cricket - Second Test - South Africa v India - Newlands Cricket Ground, Cape Town, South Africa - January 3, 2024 South Africa fans in the stands during the match REUTERS/Esa Alexander
South Africa fans will hope there's no more heartbreak in store for them when their team plays in their first ICC Men's Cricket World Cup final on Saturday [File: Esa Alexander/Reuters]

After years of suffering the pain of late tournament knockouts, South Africa stand on the brink history and glory in their first ever ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup final.

And after several terms of high-profile international coaches, it is the relatively unknown Rob Walter who has brought them here.

The Proteas booked their place in the final of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024 with a brutal defenestration of Afghanistan and will now face India in Barbados on Saturday.

Walter is the antithesis of high-profile coaches – he was never a star player, he stays resolutely grounded in interviews and if he is prone to outbursts of raw emotion he does not put them on public display.

Just one journalist attended his news conference before South Africa’s semifinal on Wednesday.

Monkey off the back

The previous 12 South African white-ball coaches include storied names such as Mike Procter, Bob Woolmer, Mickey Arthur and Mark Boucher and yet it is the 48-year-old Walter who has succeeded in shaking off the chokers’ tag that dogged a side that could reach semifinals, but no further.

Walter said he believed the team had already overcome their biggest psychological hurdle.

“Getting through the semifinal, not having done that before, came with its own pressure,” he told the AFP news agency.

“Now that they’ve done that I’m just hoping the guys will go out, play freely and express themselves.”

Up until now, South Africa’s results in the knockout stages of a men’s ICC World Cup made for woeful reading.

The Proteas played in six 50-over World Cup finals and lost all of them, in a combination of cruel and comical circumstances. In the T20 version, they were knocked out at the last-four stage twice, in 2009 and 2014.

While South Africa will be relieved to have the semifinal monkey off their backs, their former players and fans will be hoping their team can deliver the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Former fast bowler Dale Steyn, who is on the tournament’s experts’ panel, was seen on the sidelines after South Africa’s win over Afghanistan.

The speedster was on the losing side of South Africa’s last two semifinals, at the 50-over World Cup in 2015 against New Zealand and the 2014 T20 World Cup against India.

Steyn was visibly emotional as he embraced the South African players and later admitted in a social media post:

If they win, it will be a significant triumph for Walter, whose playing career peaked at schoolboy provincial level and who had only been involved in coaching at age-group level before becoming South Africa’s strength and conditioning coach in 2009, a position he held until 2013.

The recommendation of previous national coach Gary Kirsten helped Walter land a job as head coach of the Titans, South Africa’s most successful franchise.

The team won three titles in three seasons, leading to head coach positions with Otago and Central Districts in New Zealand.

He was appointed South African white-ball coach in January 2023 and has brought a calm to the dressing room, although he admits that outward appearances do not tell the whole tale.

“I wouldn’t say there aren’t emotions deep inside, but there’s a calmness required on the side of the field,” he said.

“Our job as coaches is to prepare the guys beforehand and make sure that everything’s in place before the first ball is bowled.

“Once that happens we try to stay in communication with the captain, but basically, it’s over to the players.

“I try not to get too emotionally attached to the result, more to concentrate on how we prepare.”

South Africa's bowler Dale Steyn reacts on the pitch after New Zealand's Grant Elliot hit a shot for six runs to win their Cricket World Cup semi-final match against South Africa in Auckland, March 24, 2015. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
Dale Steyn bowled the last ball that saw South Africa go out of the Cricket World Cup in 2015 [File: Anthony Phelps/Reuters]
Cricket - T20 World Cup - Semi Final - South Africa v Afghanistan - Brian Lara Stadium, Tarouba, Trinidad and Tobago - June 26, 2024 South Africa's David Miller with former player Dale Steyn REUTERS/Ash Allen
Dale Steyn embraces South Africa batter David Miller after their semifinal win over Afghanistan [Ash Allen/Reuters]

‘Very level-headed, very calm’

The results, though, have all gone South Africa’s way with eight successive wins, several of them nail-bitingly close.

The only truly comprehensive win was against Afghanistan in the semifinal in Trinidad on Wednesday where the Proteas romped to a nine-wicket win after bowling out their opponents for just 56.

Walter has high praise for captain Aiden Markram, who he describes as “very level-headed, very calm,” with a tactical astuteness that has enabled him to make crucial decisions under intense pressure.

Given that his team have played on atypical and unpredictable pitches, Walter said they would not have any preconceived ideas about what to expect in Barbados.

But Walter is confident they will be able to rise to the occasion if conditions in Barbados are more favourable for batsmen, as suggested by earlier results.

“The batters have all contributed at different times. We’ve had two decent wickets for batsmen which in eight games is not a lot.

“The bowling unit has been unbelievably good, but the batters I am sure are looking forward to better conditions.”

If South Africa succeed on Saturday, there can be little doubt that Walter’s low profile may not stay that way for much longer.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies