World Cup heroes: Gary Kirsten, the man who ran the engine room during India’s 2011 World Cup triumph
Gary Kirsten is carried by Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli after India won the 2011 World Cup. © AFP

One of the most endearing memories from the sea of emotions displayed after India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup was of six men, each wearing red t-shirts and dark blue shorts, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, slowly jogging behind the team.

They were laughing, smiling, and savouring the moment. They were detached from the players ahead of them, the men who had contested and conquered the final on the field, but were no less vital to the victory. The most important of these six men was the one in the middle; a lean, bald man with expressive blue eyes that in the moment were overcome with emotion and glazed over with the smallest of tears.

Former South African batsman Gary Kirsten, became coach of the Indian team in 2008. He will be remembered as the man who helped take India to No 1 in the Test and ODI rankings; the man who had won over a nation; the first South African to win a World Cup.

What are the parameters by which to judge a coach? The statistically-minded might look at the win-loss record of the team that plays under him. Others may prefer to judge him by the way his players accept and value his contribution, forming their opinions based on anecdotal evidence. You can also speak to those who employed a coach, to see what their reasons for hiring him were and whether he lived up to expectations. In the case of Kirsten, whatever way you choose to judge him by, the results prove he was a success by all parameters.

(READ: ICC World Cup 2011 final: MS Dhoni headlines India’s epic win)

Unlike John Wright before him, Kirsten did not take over when Indian cricket was at its lowest ebb. It had won the inaugural ICC World Twenty20, but was in a time of flux. In Test cricket, it was still a team viewed as on-tour beat-downs, despite having beaten England in England for the first time in 21 years. Rahul Dravid had given up the Test captaincy and the mantle had been passed to Anil Kumble, a veteran of 15 years but whose appointment, especially when a much younger and MS Dhoni had been entrusted with the Twenty20 captaincy and succeeded in winning India its first global final – against Pakistan no less – in 22 years, seemed a step backward in some ways.

Gary Kirsten MS Dhoni
Eye on the ball: Gary Kirsten and MS Dhoni oversaw India’s run to No 1 in Tests and the 2011 Cricket World Cup. © AFP

India had faced an embarrassing dismissal from the first round of the 2007 World Cup and was still reeling from the dark days of Greg Chappell.

A change was needed. India, bitter after the Chappell fiasco, needed a coach who was unobtrusive. A coach who could handle the egos – there were three former captains in the Test squad – and expectations and pressure of working with a notorious selection panel and the largest and most intimidating cricket media in the world.

(READ: Gary Kirsten: Ace batsman, world champion coach)

Kirsten threw himself into the role – his first as a coach. Having played with a few members of the team, Kirsten was a much closer wavelength than Wright or Chappell had been. He warmed himself to seniors like Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman. He did not alienate, as Chappell had done and he did not try to shake things up dramatically.

Instead, he won the players’ respect by working, in an understated manner, behind the scenes. His work method as a coach was as tenacious and precise as it had been when he was a player. Once a talented and hardworking batsman for South Africa, Kirsten channelled that gritty determination and hunger for runs into his role as India’s coach.

Kirsten’s relationship with the players was the most harmonious for any foreigner associated with the team, and he grew to be accepted by players, officials, selectors and the media during his tenure. Under Kirsten, India lost just one Test series while beating Australia twice en route to becoming the No 1 Test team in the world. In the Test arena, there were also series wins over New Zealand (home and away), Sri Lanka, and England. In ODIs, India won fixtures such as the CB Series, the Asia Cup, the Compaq cup, and bilateral series over Australia, England, New Zealand (twice), West Indies and Sri Lanka (thrice).

In 2011, they won the World Cup to become ODI champions.

(READ: 12 interesting facts about the South African who coached India to World Cup win)

Today, Dravid terms him a friend, Laxman an inspiration and Tendulkar admits Kirsten’s throw-downs helped him keep the hunger alive. Kirsten helped take the Indian cricket team forward from the disruptions of the Chappell era to world champions in the Test and ODI arena.

Gary Kirsten Sachin Tendulkar
Sachin Tendulkar has credited Gary Kirsten’s relentless throw-downs as instrumental in keeping his hunger alive. © AFP

After the celebrations had been completed and the team was back in the dressing room, and beads of champagne trickled down the World Cup trophy, Kirsten addressed the players for the last time. “You are the world’s best team and you have to continue that,” he signed off on. “The spark is there, don’t let it extinguish.”

Personally, my abiding image of Kirsten is not of him arriving at practice sessions with a kitbag slung over his shoulder or of him throwing endless balls down to Tendulkar or Dravid in the nets. It’s not of him walking into a press conference after a bad day of Test cricket and offering reasons for their poor show. Neither is it of him rising to his feet to applaud a century or hugging a team member, fellow South African and the Indian team’s mental and conditioning coach,  Paddy Upton after another victory.

It’s of Kirsten, shoulder to shoulder with his back-room staff, barely breaking into a jog behind the victorious Indian team at the Wankhede Stadium on the starry night of April 2, 2011. This was how he wanted it; the players to lead after doing all the hard work on the field, the players to cheer and cry and whoop it up and enjoy the moment of being crowned world champions. Kirsten’s job had been to run the engine room and that’s what he and his team had done. He would have it no other way. Unassuming, restrained, never one to hog the limelight.

While it was stirring and poignant that Kirsten was grabbed – and those six interlocked shoulders for the last time snapped – and hoisted on to the players’ shoulders as they continued to circle the ground in celebration, I got the sense that even in that moment Kirsten felt awkward. He would much rather have had his feet grounded, for that’s what he is all about.

Yes, that was Kirsten, a grounded man who enabled a team to soar.