Gary Kirsten – Cricket’s most celebrated coach at the moment

Anybody who has been following South African cricket as closely as Indian cricket must by now be a huge fan of Gary Kirsten. I confess I am one of them. He has something in him which can make an average looking team become the champions in any format of the game within no span of time. Mind you, these days the role of the international coach is much more complex.

A drastic increase in the number of matches played these days probably for commercial reasons and the advent of T20 leagues across the world courtesy the Indian Premier League, will result in player burnout. And a player burnout means stress levels also keep increasing by the day for the players. Issues such as being with family, money, physical and mental fitness become primary and thus playing for the sake of winning matches for the national team becomes secondary. This makes the role of the coach much more than just advising the players how to bat, bowl and field better.

Man management skills become so important for a modern day coach to possess and it can be said that Kirsten has them in abundance. England have Andy Flower, who was one of Zimbabwe’s top batsmen at a point of time before he became their coach. Similarly is the case with South Africa, which has Gary Kirsten who was the country’s top batsman at a point of time and now their coach. I suppose playing international cricket does make a player learn a lot about coaching and how it is so dynamic in nature.

Kirsten and Flower, former players and now successful coaches
Kirsten and Flower, former players and now successful coaches

The coach could be the reason of England’s success in the last two years which made them the No.1 Test team in the world for a year, No.1 T20 team and the No.1 ODI team in the world recently. Under Kirsten, South Africa could be the second team to achieve this success if they beat England in the ODI series which starts today. The country’s rise to the top in all formats of the game was hard to imagine after the World Cup 2011 in the Indian subcontinent, in which they infamously lost a won game to New Zealand in the quarterfinals. They seem to have come a long way since then, and they seem to have bright future of maintaining their quality of cricket as long as Kirsten is in the coaching set up.

Before Kirsten joined, South Africa was very much one of the best in the business. They had the same players that they have at the moment. After all, it has only been 8 months since he has been the coach of the side. It is just that the team was nervous when they were inches away from either winning a game or actually becoming the best team in the world. So what Kirsten had to exactly do is to change the mental attitude of all the players, and make them strive to believe in the word known as ‘concentration’. Concentration is when you do not allow yourself to go back to the past or think about the future when performing an activity, but always being in the present. Although this is a very spiritual quality, Kirsten today has successfully managed to implement it into the team in a short period of time. Fortunately for him and the diehard fans, the team has been receptive of his views and have worked on them extremely well.

For instance, in the Test match at Lords, England had every chance of winning since Jonny Bairstow and Matt Prior played quick fire innings after the top order collapsed and started the chase very slowly. The old South African side would have had their hearts in their mouths and actually faltered in that situation by allowing Prior and the much capable England lower order to finish the game off. But it was not to be, as South Africa managed not to ‘choke’ and win the game easily once Prior was dismissed. This was a game which was far different then that against Australia in Johannesburg last year when they allowed their nerves to win over their confidence, which is why they failed to defend 320 against an Australian batting line up which was not at their best and that too in suitable conditions for bowling. If South Africa would have even drawn that game, they would have won the series and become No.1 a long time ago perhaps. But I guess, whatever happens happens for the best.

The first assignment for Kirsten as South Africa’s coach was a Test series against Sri Lanka at home. South Africa won the first Test convincingly by an innings and 81 runs, but went on to lose the second Test at Durban by 208 runs as they fell to the spin bowling of the Lankans. Kirsten surely had the responsibility of reminding the team that their standards had slipped and they were on the verge of losing a home series. South Africa had not won at home since 2008, but it was under Kirsten that they finally broke that drought as they went on to create history by again not choking and defeating Sri Lanka in the final Test at Cape Town by 10 wickets.

After they beat the same time in the home ODIs, they followed that up with a near to perfect performance in all the formats of the game against New Zealand in New Zealand. Although the Black Caps are not the same force as they were in the past, yet an away series win is always a good achievement for a team these days. The hosts were swept aside by the South Africans in all the T20s and ODIs, and could consider themselves pretty fortunate to have drawn two out of the three Tests against them.

Mike Horn, the key to Kirsten's success with India and South Africa
Mike Horn, the key to Kirsten’s success with India and South Africa

Of course the IPL meant that South Africa had no international commitments. But Kirsten was able to foresee the danger of the side being underprepared for the tour of England, since England is a place where the team has to play as a unit by hook or crook if they have to win. So Kirsten had to think of a masterstroke, something which the team would accept. He decided to contact his friend again, Mike Horn. Horn was the man who gave motivational speeches to India in the 2010-11 season, prior to the World Cup. Today, the Indian team acknowledges his contribution in helping them the biggest prize of them all in world cricket.

This time though, Horn was responsible for guiding the South African cricket team to cycle up the Alp slopes in Switzerland, skiing there as well as hiking for miles and miles. The idea behind Kirsten asking Horn to spend four days with the team in such activities is so that the team can gain mental strength by exerting themselves as much as possible physically. He knew he was taking a big risk with the players’ fitness but he had the confidence in them to come out injury free because unlike India, this team’s fitness levels have always been excellent and Horn has been an excellent guide in the past as well. Through the Switzerland trip, Kirsten was able to bring in to the South Africans the feeling of ‘conquering’ something and this made them at last believe that the No.1 spot was theirs in Test match cricket if they believed in themselves all the time and looked into their strengths and weaknesses more than that of the opposition’s.

So when Mark Boucher was unfortunately injured in the practice match against Somerset prior to the tour and had to quit international cricket indefinitely, South Africa were shaken but had not lost their belief. The firm focus continued to be on the cricket and for the first time, they accepted change quickly. AB de Villiers did a decent job behind the stumps throughout the series and by the time the team had conquered England and the No.1 spot, it was instantly dedicated to Boucher since Kirsten also realizes what a player he has been for South Africa since the last 15 years.

When Gary Kirsten became the coach of India, almost automatically results improved. For the first time, it seemed as if India was actually playing as a ‘unit’ and not a group of individuals who wanted their needs to be satisfied before the team’s. Kirsten took charge of the team’s fortunes and instead of seeing their differences, he saw the similarities. MS Dhoni was obviously relieved of the man management part of leadership, and focussed more on strategizing off the field and using more of his instincts to captain the team on the field.

India beat Sri Lanka in September 2008 for the first time ever in a bilateral ODI series and a month later; beat Australia at home to win back the Border Gavaskar Trophy. With these two series wins, began India’s journey to the No.1 spot in Tests and ODIs. Kirsten made them believe that they can achieve it, if they focussed on consistency. India continued to dominate at home, whitewashing England 5-0 in ODIs and winning the 2 match Test series, 1-0. The Test victory was when they chased down a mammoth total of 387 in Chennai, something which is a rarity.

Virender Sehwag probably considers Gary Kirsten to be the best coach he has ever played under, is because more often than not, he encourages him to play his natural game. Sehwag did that exactly against England and his 80 odd quick fire runs set the tone for an unbelievable chase. That was followed by another ODI series win in Sri Lanka, where the team was unaffected by the fact that they were batting first or chasing which is unlike the India the world knows. This team was confident to deliver its best, irrespective of the situation and Kirsten was the one who made them think positive all the time.

Dhoni and Sehwag seemed united when Kirsten was around
Dhoni and Sehwag seemed united when Kirsten was around

MSD and co. then tasted rare success in New Zealand, when the home team was beaten 1-3 in the 5 match ODI series and 0-1 in the 3 match Test series. It was perhaps after ages that Indian fans saw their players perform extremely well in alien conditions, although New Zealand were hampered by retirements and injuries of some players. The likes of Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Suresh Raina actually blossomed under him. Sachin Tendulkar managed to rediscover his prime in the years 2009 and 2010 since Kirsten was so supportive of his role in the team being that of a mentor-cum-player.

One of Kirsten’s failures as the coach of the Indian cricket team was when they were unable to defend their World T20 title in England in 2009. India’s batsmen were caught napping against short pitched bowling yet again, whereas the bowlers could not make full use of the conditions. The IPL got the better of Kirsten’s plans and thus injuries and not adapting to the conditions was inevitable. The story was almost the same in the following year in the West Indies, where India were knocked out in the Super Eights round despite being one of the favourites to win the tournament.

But when it comes to consistency, India’s results were better than perhaps any other team’s in Tests and ODIs. This was the reason why India were the World No.1 ODI team as per the ICC ranking even though it was only for 24 hours, in August 2009. Although the ICC Champions Trophy did not go well for India in South Africa in the same year, they managed to beat the Champions Trophy winners Australia twice in a 7 match series at home. They should have two more games, which they lost by 4 runs and 3 runs unfortunately.

India however, won at home against Sri Lanka and South Africa in ODI series against them. In Tests, South Africa proved to be their toughest opponents as Graeme Smith and co. managed to draw level a 2 match series, 1-1 with an innings win in the first Test in Nagpur. 2010 was a successful year for Indian cricket, because they realized that to win the World Cup 2011, they had to have the dream and then create a plan to achieve that dream months before.

Kirsten could not have his way all the time with an at times irrational BCCI but kudos to his patience that he hung on to his job until his contract expired. They drew level Test series in Sri Lanka and South Africa, won in Bangladesh and won at home against New Zealand in both formats of the game. This made India a respectable No.1 Test team in the world, if not lovable because they were at least fighting champions, if not dominating ones.

And then of course came the magnum opus World Cup win at home in April 2011. India did not surrender under pressure and that was admirable to watch. Kirsten had a massive role to play in the championship win since he roped in his friend Horn and encouraged Paddy Upton, the mental conditioning coach to have more sessions with the team especially when they were feeling the heat.

When it comes to the strategizing, in fact it was Kirsten and not Dhoni who suggested that the captain should go ahead in the batting order ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the tense World Cup final in Mumbai. This is because he believed that Dhoni was better equipped to play Muttiah Muralitharan, as he kept wickets to him for the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League for three years. Plus, Dhoni’s adaptive batting style was suited for the team as the required rate was still above 5.50 when he came to the crease. And the rest they say is history, as Dhoni played one of the finest knocks in a final of a World Cup, similar to that of Ricky Ponting against India in 2003.

India pays tribute to Kirsten after their World Cup 2011 win
India pays tribute to Kirsten after their World Cup 2011 win

Kirsten was given a fitting farewell by the Indian team as he too was carried on their shoulders and what was heart-warming to see, was that the whole crowd at the Wankhede Stadium that day not only gave him a standing ovation, but also cheered for him like they did for Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni or Yuvraj Singh. Such were the man’s contributions, but he was still silent about it. That is a true coach and clearly what is India’s loss is South Africa’s gain as India’s performances have dipped since April 2011.

Anyway, South Africa’s next assignment is against Australia in Australia and to beat Michael Clarke’s men in their own turf is quite a possibility. It will be another clash for the World No.1 spot, but I am sure that with Kirsten around, the Proteas would consider it more to be another series in which they have to produce high quality cricket. Besides, Graeme Smith was at the helm when the nation beat England in England and Australia in Australia in the same season four years ago. Certainly, they have the ingredients to remain the best side in the world for a long period of time in all formats of the game as Kirsten eyes history by being the first coach to lead two teams to the World No.1 ranking in Tests as well as ODIs.


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