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Preparation guaranteed success, Kirsten believed, and he trusted nothing more than hitting as many deliveries as possible going into a game.
Great expectations were built around the Test and ODI tour of South Africa in December 2010-January 2011. In the coach’s book, winning in South Africa was as big an objective as lifting the World Cup. To equip batsmen for the bouncy wickets, he fell back on his tried-and-tested formula.
“Three thousand each”, he estimated, should be the number of deliveries each top Indian batsman must hit while in South Africa before the first Test of the series. A very large percentage of these would originate from Kirsten’s right shoulder. After Centurion, Durban and Cape Town, India earned a hard-earned draw—the first time the side hadn’t lost a Test series in South Africa.
During his final training session as India coach, Kirsten sent down a series of throw-downs on Friday. Kirsten is known to keep his emotions in check but if on the eve of the World Cup final he entertained fleeting thoughts of his first few days with the Indian team, they would have drifted to a training session on the eve of the Perth Test in December 2007. Due to take charge of the team after the subsequent tri-series, Kirsten was observing and mulling over what inputs to give to the batting giants.
The frosty relationship his predecessor, former India coach Greg Chappell, had with the team seniors towards the end of his tenure must have made Kirsten extra cautious. He was still to break the ice with the players. To Kirsten’s relief, Sachin Tendulkar walked up to him and requested him to deliver throw-downs. A few minutes later, Tendulkar, happy with the way his strokes were shaping up, nodded back. It was the first time Kirsten used his indestructible throwing arm against an Indian batsman. Tendulkar’s approval was a significant gain.
Kirsten’s effort wasn’t lost on Tendulkar. After winning the ICC Cricketer of the Year award in October 2010, Tendulkar said: “Gary has been instrumental in making our batters play plenty of deliveries in the practice session. During net practice, he himself bowls thousands and thousands of balls. I have enjoyed playing my game under him.”
Coach and confidant
With his work ethic, Kirsten led by example. He was the first to arrive on field and the last to leave. The younger players in the side realised there were no short-cuts to success in Kirsten’s book, while the seniors’ admiration grew each day. He’s been the hardest working coach of an Indian cricket team.
In spite of being in the thick of things— be it shedding sweat during training or coming well-prepared to team meetings—Kirsten slipped under the radar rather effortlessly. When he spoke, his tone was measured.
VVS Laxman, who enjoyed a glorious run ever since Kirsten took over, was at ease with the South African who went about his work with quiet efficiency.
“His job was high profile but he never wanted to soak in the limelight or claim credit for the team’s success. Rather, he built trust between the coaching staff and the players. I could talk to him any time,” says Laxman.
The only time Kirsten took the liberty of dropping his guard and talking “off the record” to the media was to highlight the plight of the players. In July-August 2010, during India’s series in Sri Lanka, Kirsten threw his hands up and revealed his darkest fears—of possible burn-outs among players since they were playing back-to-back matches. After that Sri Lankan tour, the Indian team had to play a home series against New Zealand and an away series in South Africa. Kirsten was only trying to impress upon the mandarins of Indian cricket that resting players was important, as he watched young fast bowler Ishant Sharma clutch a swollen ankle in pain.
Sharma is one whose confidence has remained intact, in spite of losing a bit of his sting on and off, during the Kirsten regime. Once asked why he doesn’t pick the brains of his old coaches or former players while playing first-class cricket, Sharma said that he prefers going back to Kirsten who “channelises energy” in the right way rather than listening to someone who lists everything wrong with his bowling.
Sharma’s case showed how Kirsten pushed players to develop a strength outside their core competence, one of his mantras for a successful team. When as No. 9, Sharma held the fort with 31 off 92 balls, which allowed Laxman to script a win against Australia in the Mohali Test last October, Kirsten’s words of advice rang through Sharma’s head.
“Gary told me that as I am carrying my bats to practice every day, there is no reason not to work hard on batting skills too. I thought he made a lot of sense. He’s gone out of his way to change my mindset towards batting. He was always ready to devote extra time to my batting,” says Sharma.
During the chase against Australia in the Mohali Test last year, or in similar match situations—be it at the P Sara Oval or at Durban or at Kanpur—the Indian dressing room was a sea of calm.
The senior players’ experience helped as much as the unflappable nature of the coach and his right-hand men—mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton and bowling coach Eric Simons.
“Gary brought with him a sense of balance that wasn’t affected by the outcome of a game, be it the Test team or the One-Day side. His behaviour or reaction wasn’t extreme whether we won or lost,” says Rahul Dravid.
Sourav Ganguly, who played the last few months of his career under the South African coach, believes the positive dressing room atmosphere has contributed to the team becoming world-beaters. “Gary allows players to execute their natural game without fear of failure. That has brought the best out of players as they are playing with a lot of confidence,” says Ganguly.
Laxman talks about how Kirsten never got upset if well-prepared game plans didn’t play off in a match. “I had practised hitting the off-spinner over mid-on ahead of the Test against Sri Lanka in 2009 at the Cricket Club of India. I had a plan against Muttiah Muralitharan. Yet, after making 62, I was caught at mid-on while trying to play over mid-wicket against Muralitharan. Gary told me that I had done everything right leading up to the game and had prepared well, so there was no need to be disappointed. Gary indirectly placed a lot of responsibility on players and wasn’t afraid to give them options,” says Laxman.
India won this game at the Cricket Club of India by an innings and 24 runs and took over as the No.1 team in the world, a position they have retained for 15 months. One of the “options”—as Laxman calls it—that the coach gave the team was optional practice sessions on the eve of a Test, a break from convention. It gave individual players the liberty to rest and relax or train at the nets.
“He spoke a lot one-on-one with the players and he took effort to understand a player's game and mindset better. He also allowed us to take decisions with regard to our game,” says Dravid.
Cricketing success, though, hasn’t been the be-all-and-end-all of Kirsten’s universe.
On a lighter note, players were given nicknames. Gautam Gambhir, who always found that the coach, himself a left-handed opener, understood his game well and fell back on his advice, is currently being called ‘street-fighter.’
Dravid found a friend in the coach. “One of my most cherished memories of Kirsten would be the chats we have had. I could talk to him about a lot of things, and not just cricket. We would talk about life, experiences and the larger picture. It helped in putting things in perspective. Gary has become a friend,” says Dravid.
Laxman found the former opening batsman to be an inspirational figure. “He is a very simple man and has strong family values. He gets along extremely well with everyone, be it the juniors or the seniors,” says Laxman.
Wanting to spend time with his wife and children, the World Cup was Kirsten’s last assignment in India. His successor has a tough act to follow. “The new coach will have big shoes to fill,” says Laxman.
To find a replacement for the man who fashioned India’s rise to the top will be hard. Finding a coach who can deliver endless throw-downs should be tougher.
Kirsten made his ODI and Test debut for South Africa in December 1993 at age 26
Hit 188 against the UAE in a 1996 World Cup game, the highest-ever score in the tournament till date
Made 275 against England at Durban in 1999, an innings that took 878 minutes—the second longest in terms of duration in Test match history
Retired from ODIs after a first-round exit at the 2003 World Cup. Finished ODI career with 6,798 runs and 13 centuries
In August 2003, made 130 and 60 in the fourth Test against England at Headingley. Postponed retirement plans after the fifth Test at the Oval
Became the first South African to play 100 Tests in March 2004.
He retired after making 7,289 runs and 21 centuries
After retirement, he coached the South African domestic team—the Warriors
Kirsten and India’s mental conditioning coach, Paddy Upton, went to school together
Kirsten runs a cricket academy in Constantia, Cape Town. The Indian team prepared for the tour of South Africa at the Gary Kirsten Cricket Academy located at the Claremont Cricket Club
Team India’s foreign coaches
John Wright (2000-05)
There was much scepticism when he took over as Indian cricket's first-ever foreign coach in 2000 but not only did John Wright assimilate quickly into the system, he went on to be its most successful coach, leading them to a World Cup final. While Wright was always happy to socialise with the players, on field, he remained a hard taskmaster
Greg Chappell (2005-07)
From the beginning, the Chappell Way never seemed right for Indian cricket. Not only did he struggle to manage the many egos in the Indian dressing-room, he also asserted his inflated ego on the team,
often being more open with the media than he was with his own players. His style ended up creating fissures in the team
Gary Kirsten (2008-11)
A leaked dossier relating sex to on-field performance might well remain one of the most-discussed points of Kirsten’s tenure but on the field, his legacy is one of making India the best Test side in the world and helping the team make rapid strides in One-day cricket as well. The former South African opener not only adopted the Wright-formula, he bettered it. He stuck to the same practices and values that brought him immense success in his playing career, and managed to be the most hard-working person in the Indian camp. He always was the first one out for the team’s warm-up routines. He made an extra effort to gain the trust of the players as coach and eventually became their friend and guide too.