AR Hemant

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Somewhat of a contrarion.

How Kirsten Plotted India’s Rise

If you want to know about Gary Kirsten’s work ethics, who better to tell you about it than a childhood mate? Herschelle Gibbs in his no-holds-barred autobiography, To The Point, offers excellent insights into what makes Kirsten tick.

Gibbs befriended Kirsten as a 16-year-old. They went on to forge a successful opening partnership in Test cricket for South Africa. Their method of net practice was simple yet intense: they took turns to throw balls at each other at great speeds from 16 yards. Sometimes, one would hit the other on the helmet and then return the favour.

“The practice sessions Gary and I had together were sometimes more draining than actually facing bowlers in the middle,” Gibbs wrote. “Gary practiced like he played – with a lot of heart and determination. He always wanted to get things right.”

In one stroke, Gibbs explains why India are No. 1 in Tests and South Africa aren’t. He reckons members of the current SA squad are spoilt and selfish. “The guys won’t throw to each other,” he writes. “I know that Gary spends hour upon hour practising in the same way he and I used to with the Indian national team he’s currently coaching, so you don’t have to wonder why they’re currently number one in the world. And why the Proteas aren’t...”

Kirsten’s tireless right arm is one of the reasons why India’s batsmen have done so well in recent times. He is at it all the time in the nets, throwing one fast ball after another, minute after minute, session after session to the Indian batsmen.

As VVS Laxman puts it, "From the first minute of a net session to the last, he's either giving throw-downs, hitting catches or talking to someone. He's always busy. His capacity for work is unbelievable and that's been infectious."

Saturday’s World Cup final is Kirsten’s last match with the Indian team. And what a run it has been. After Greg Chappell’s exit, India were No. 6 in ODIs and No. 4 in Tests. They’re now the clear No. 1 in Tests, and were No. 1 in ODIs briefly. With a World Cup win, they will be within an earshot of the top spot again.

Four years ago...

... after India made an early return from the World Cup in the West Indies, Chappell’s divisive reign ended. For something like nine months, several men warmed the coach’s chair. Ravi Shastri was used in Bangladesh. A 72-year-old Chandu Borde was pressed out of retirement for the tour of UK.

Lalchand Rajput next held the job when India won the World T20 in South Africa and did well in Australia. In between, Graham Ford, former Proteas coach, Dav Whatmore, Sri Lanka’s 1996 Cup-winning coach and John Emburey were some of the people who threw their hat in the ring. With Kirsten’s decision to return home citing family commitments, India are back to square one.

It was this period when Kirsten, who had his own coaching set-up in Cape Town, was working with the Zimbabwe squad. Later at the World T20 in South Africa, the unfancied team stunned Australia in one of the league games.

Kirsten was approached eventually, but getting him to the job wasn’t easy. Apparently, some senior players weren’t on the same page as the BCCI. Kirsten finally took the job in December 2007 after being assured of full support. India have risen steadily since then.

It’s worthwhile going through what Kirsten does for the team. His approach to coaching is wholesome. And he has done it all with a soft touch. Right from finding the right practice methods, he advices the team on mental conditioning, eating habits and managing one’s role perfectly. He tells you how it is with an arm around your shoulder. And when a man with 7200 Test runs and 6700 ODI runs gives you advice about cricket, you listen.

He encourages players to write down their goals, to crack jokes in the dressing room, take pictures, learn to smile and say thank you, be willing to forgive team mates, and even watch TV comedies to take their minds off cricket.

But the one department even Kirsten seems to have given up on is India’s fielding. He has admitted this aspect has remained ignored during his tenure. Recently he had set a target for every fielder to save eight runs a day, show positive intent on the field by wanting the ball to come to you, to score the match-winning catch or run-out.

Nevertheless, this pain point remains in Indian cricket.

As a parting shot...

... here’s another clip from Gibbs, who describes his feelings after Kirsten made a gutsy 227-ball 76 to save what was his final game for South Africa.

“It is not often that a great cricketer ends his career with a great innings but unfortunately this servant of South African cricket left the field having given his team one last master class on how talent and application make a formidable combination,” Gibbs wrote.

“Two hours after Gary walked off, the tears were still there… The only time I’d ever cried like that was at Hansie Cronje’s funeral. But, ja, Gary Kirsten is just a genuine, true and complete human being.”

A World Cup win may be another master class from Kirsten. And his supporters will share Gibbs’ feelings when he walks away after Saturday’s final at the Wankhede Stadium.

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