South Africa celebrates their numero uno status in Test cricket as they snatched the crown from England in their own backyard. Gary Kirsten, the man behind the scenes, maintained a balanced and cool look even as his men celebrated the triumph. Nishad Pai Vaidya explores Kirsten’s journey – one where he took India to great heights and promises to do a lot more for his homeland.
In a game that witnessed an unpredictable ebb and flow of momentum – South Africa trumped England to clinch the series 2-0 and the coveted crown – the number one spot in the Test rankings. It was a result of years of hard-work and consistency across continents that culminated in the conquest of the summit. Graeme Smith and his men – overjoyed and excited – celebrated their feat at the Mecca of Cricket with great spirit and a sense of fulfilment. Through all that, the man behind those scenes, Gary Kirsten, maintained a balanced and cool demeanour. Since he took up the South African job last year, Kirsten has set the tone for the remainder of his tenure – one where South African cricket promises to touch dizzying heights.
It has been a fantastic journey for Kirsten as a coach starting with his stint with the Indian team. While he has recorded a brilliant achievement in his tenure at South Africa, it was his stint with the Indian team that caught the eye. Coaching the Indian cricket team is arguably one of the toughest jobs in the world. Not only did he have to handle a bunch of stars, but also shoulder the burden of the expectations of millions of fans – who asked for nothing but success. It was in such high-pressure conditions that Kirsten took his first steps as a coach.
To say that Kirsten’s journey at the helm in India was a remarkable journey is an understatement. He came into the fray in 2007-08. The tumultuous Greg Chappell era had jolted Indian cricket and it took them a long time to find a suitable successor – one who could calm and steady the ship. Kirsten was bit of an outsider when he was named and he trumped more established names to take up the coveted job. Ironically, his first assignment for India was a home series against South Africa – which was drawn 1-1.
As time progressed, one realised that Kirsten’s methods were in stark contrast to Chappell’s. While the Australian didn’t mind becoming the face of the team and approaching the press as the man running the show, Kirsten took a backseat and went about his job quietly. From the outside, the dressing room atmosphere looked good as the players were comfortable during his tenure. Many of them have gone on to express their gratitude towards him. When they clinched the 2011 World Cup, some of them were adamant on giving him a victory lap around Wankhede, a la Sachin Tendulkar – a huge gesture of gratitude.
Kirsten formed a good rapport with Mahendra Singh Dhoni – a crucial association for the success of the team. That partnership saw India winning the ultimate prizes – the World Cup and the No 1 ranking in Tests. Such was the camaraderie and trust that Kirsten said at the end of his stint that he would go to war with Dhoni by his side. He had a tremendous influence on the players’ confidence. After the World Cup final, Gautam Gambhir said, “I feel I can smash the wall with my head.”
South Africa took a smart move by appointing Kirsten as the coach immediately after he finished his term in India. The Proteas had “choked” yet again on the big stage and although they were consistent for a number of years, the failure to perform on the big stage was a huge setback. With eyes set on world domination and shedding the unwanted tag, the South Africans appointed a man who worked magic in India. While his previous team slid to horrendous nadirs in the aftermath of the World Cup, Kirsten’s Proteas made a steady ascent to the top starting with a couple of home series’.
To move from one team to another in such a short span of time and work with a similar approach is truly commendable. Kirsten would feel at home in the South African dressing room as he has shared with some of the members of the current squad. However, the time in India may have changed his mindset a touch and it would have been a bit of a task readjusting to his old culture. When compared to India, he doesn’t have to worry about the fitness of his players too much though.
While the world heaps praises on Kirsten’s silent yet strong figure, one mustn’t forget the pillars that stand by him. The members of his support staff have been fantastic and were also a crucial ingredient in India’s success – something Tendulkar mentioned in his emotional discourse after the 2011 World Cup final. Paddy Upton (mental conditioning coach) and Mike Horn – a courageous explorer whose feats have defied logic – help create a positive and winning atmosphere. To include a person like Horn is a fantastic idea. An explorer of his calibre has a lot to share on braving the odds and emerging victorious. More importantly Kirsten brings him in at crucial junctures – he was there during the World Cup final for India and also flew down to England before the Lord’s Test.
Allan Donald – the former Proteas great – wasn’t a part of the Indian setup, but is an integral cog for South Africa. South Africa probably have the most threatening bowling attack in the world comprising the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Lonwabo Tsotsobe to name a few. Add the wealth of experience and tips Donald passes on to them and one can only imagine what the pack would be.
Knowing Kirsten, he would treat South Africa’s latest achievement as a launch-pad for bigger things. Great performances to live by reputation have to come in the big tournaments. Starting from the ICC World T20 2012, all eyes would be on South Africa and whether or not a new mindset has been able to battle the demons of the past. Having done exceedingly well for India, Kirsten has all the goods to help South Africa to history.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44 )