Watching Gary Kirsten take the victory lap around the Wankhede stadium and being hoisted on to the shoulders of the Indian players who displayed their affection for the affable South African in no uncertain terms I immediately thought of Greg Chappell. Was he watching this back home in Australia? Did it rekindle memories of that disastrous campaign four years ago in the Caribbean when he was the autocratic coach?
What a difference a more amiable coach makes! From the moment he took over charge of the Indian team more than three years ago Kirsten made all the right moves. Over more than 1100 days there was no let-up in this direction and the result is there for all to see, gape and admire. The No 1 ranked Test team in the world, the No 2 ranked ODI team, a number of notable triumphs in all formats of the game and a level of performance much higher than ever before. It was Kirsten who installed the sense of self belief in the players and made them mentally strong and this has culminated in arguably the greatest triumph in the history of Indian cricket. And as he takes leave he can look back on a job very well done while we say a big "thank you" to the best coach the Indian team has ever had.
It was a crucial time when Kirsten took over. The Indians had just undergone a turbulent period under Chappell. The team had flopped at the World Cup in the Caribbean. There was urgent need of a healing touch. Kirsten provided this and more. The turnaround was now only a matter of time. The Test team was aiming for the No 1 spot but was not quite there yet. Under Kirsten this was finally achieved along with a No 2 ranking for the ODI squad. And now comes his crowning glory.
Even before he took charge Kirsten made all the right moves. While spelling out his policy, he said in an interview "these are international cricketers and they know how to succeed. But whenever they need me for anything I am always there." In this sort of amiable atmosphere it was clear that great things could be achieved. He made it clear that he wanted the Indian cricketers to play less as individuals and more together as a team. "There are fantastic players in the group and I am looking forward to working with them," he was quoted as saying. Expressing confidence that India would have a successful tenure under his stewardship Kirsten said that having played the game at the highest level he could impart some expertise to the team's planning and performance levels. "There are many experienced players in the team and together we can hope for a couple of successful years," he said in an interview to a television channel. What a refreshing change from the dictatorial Chappell! The dressing room atmosphere gradually became upbeat and the quietly efficient Kirsten was rightly given a lot of credit for this.
Kirsten was undaunted by the rather harsh criticism from certain quarters with regard to his appointment. I remember how former England captain Tony Greig hit out at the BCCI's decision to rope in Kirsten. His theory was that Kirsten would be nothing more than a puppet in the hands of senior players. "Kirsten's appointment came as a bit of a surprise to me. It probably has something to do with employing someone who is likely to let the senior players have their way and definitely not someone who will impose himself on the team the way Greg Chappell did," he was quoted as saying in a newspaper interview.
Greig was of the view that the BCCI was perhaps wary of having an assertive person at the helm after having to deal with the many controversies during Chappell's tenure which ended with India's disastrous World Cup campaign in the West Indies. He also said that Kirsten would have a torrid time dealing with a lot of off-field issues while being with the Indian team and felt "internal politics" within the BCCI was one of the reasons why Indian contenders were overlooked for the job. "This is a job that is so difficult and so political that the Indians are reluctant to appoint an Indian," Greig said.
Former Indian cricketers chipped in with their usual criticism parroting their oft quoted theory that it was best for an Indian to be in charge of the team rather than a foreigner while Indian newspapers quoted anonymous senior players as saying that the management structure at the time was working well and that Kirsten's appointment was unnecessary.
Now interestingly enough a stage has been reached when MS Dhoni among others is pushing to have the South African's contract as Indian coach renewed. Only a couple of days ago the Indian captain paid him rich tributes saying that "everyone knows what he has done for the team. He is probably the best thing to happen in Indian cricket." Others who have spoken of his contribution in glowing terms include Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh who has hailed him as a "father figure". The players certainly would like him to renew his contract but Kirsten is firm on his decision to bid adieu for family reasons. At least he is going out in style.