Photo Credit: Micheal Sheehan/Gallo Images/Cricket South Africa
One would wonder about the wisdom of getting an ex-player or current coach as a guest speaker to address a hall full of teenaged players at events like the opening ceremony of the Cricket South Africa (CSA) U19 Khaya Majola cricket week.
They generally wouldn’t really know who he is, and what they really want is to go out and play, not listen to some old guy rattle on.
So, when they rolled out Adrian Birrell in Makhanda on Friday night, jaded, sceptical old me rolled my eyes a little bit. Thirty minutes later, I was applauding enthusiastically along with everyone else. The man is a natural storyteller, and he told the customer Eastern Cape narrative about two old farmers at the Pig ‘n Whistle in Bathurst – which is best not repeated – but his real impact was when he told the boys that the next four years are the most important of their lives, in cricket and away from it, and then explained why. They were spellbound.
For those who really don’t know who Adi Birrell is, he was born and raised in Makhanda. He played for Eastern Province at school and first class level, before turning to coaching. He coached at the Titans and Warriors cricket before coaching Ireland at the 2007 ICC World Cup.
In 2013 he was appointed assistant coach of the South African national team and he has been head coach of Hampshire in County cricket since 2018. He also coaches Sunrisers Eastern Cape in the SA20 tournament.
When he played at the, then, Nuffield Week, his dream was to play for South Africa, but he didn’t, and looking back he is glad that he wasn’t good enough, he told the boys. It was the reason why now, at age 63, he is still actively involved in cricket at a high level.
“My dream was to be a top professional cricketer, and when that didn’t happen I turned to coaching. I was successful because I believed in that dream, but also because I did the hard work that was needed,” he said.
Birrell’s father, Harry, taught at St Andrew’s College in Makhanda for many years and it was from his teachings that Adrian draws four of the biggest obstacles that get in the way of making it in the game. The first, he told he boys, is a failure to do the hard work. He distinguished between natural talent, which comes easy, but doesn’t guarantee success, and real talent, which is about driving yourself to be better, and doing it while no-one is watching.
The second obstacle is drugs and alcohol. Birrell himself does not drink, and he believes that having clear eyes and a sharp mind every day of his life has given him an edge.
Then there’s peer pressure. “You friends will try to distract you and it’s difficult to say no to them, but it’s a sacrifice you have to make, Birrel said. “You won’t make it if you don’t.”
“The biggest obstacle, however, is arrogance and ego. Natural talent means the game comes easy to some, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Those who aren’t arrogant and who work harder than anyone else, despite having the talent, will turn out to be superstars, he said.
His advice to the boys was to bear these things in mind for the next four years. “The next years will shape determine where you go, in cricket and in life: he said. “My dream was to play for South Africa, but I wasn’t good enough. I followed my father’s advice and it paid off, however. I’ve made a living out of cricket and I’ve loved every day of it.”
With that, he wished the players well for the week, and they left. If they weren’t inspired by him, they should have been!