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'The essence of leadership is to move people forward'
Subash Jayaraman: It is quite rare for someone like you - a very accomplished player who played more than a hundred Tests - to become the head coach of a national team, and on top of that be as successful as you have been, with India and South Africa. What got you motivated into entering coaching so soon after retirement?
Gary Kirsten: It was something that I always wanted to do. For me, the privileges I had while playing the game at the international level for 11 years and playing professionally for 17 years in South Africa, where we had just returned from isolation from international sports, I felt I had something to offer to the younger guys coming through.
SJ: When you played for South Africa after the isolation, the head coach was Bob Woolmer, who was ahead of the time as a cricket coach. What sort of impact did his methods and coaching techniques have on you?
GK: I had a lot of coaches who influenced me. Certainly, the type of information that I was receiving from different coaches - what was making sense and what wasn't making sense - was really helpful for me when I moved into coaching. Being a player and listening to leaders and coaches and what kind of impact they were having on my life, I have learnt from that and it became part of my philosophy of coaching that any information that I was going to pass on was going to be of relevance to the player.
SJ: Lately, there have been a lot of discussions on the role of coaches. How do you define the role of a coach? How does it vary from being a head coach of a national side versus a first-class side or a junior side?
GK: A coach's role can be potentially a significant role. I guess I don't like it when people downplay the role of a coach, because you can have a significant impact on the players and you can have a significant impact on people's lives. You can have a look at Darren Lehmann and what an impact he has had on the Australian team to realise that coaches can play a really significant role. Coaching isn't just about running nets sessions, telling someone how to pick a bat, or how to hold a ball. It is far more than that; the ability to get the best out of people. Man-management skills are probably one of the most important things. My job is to get the best out of an individual and allow him to thrive in the space.
SJ: Were there certain mechanisms you wanted to put in place that you thought would make you more successful as a coach?
GK: I think you have to understand the environment you're going into. When I was with the Indian team, as with the South African team, there was enough talent in both to know that they should be the best in the world. I think there is a subtleness to understanding what needs to be done to drive people towards a goal and drive them in a way that everyone goes in formation. It is a leader's responsibility to make that work. Many teams have lots of talent but the team underperforms. That is what I love about coaching in a team sports: there is a variety of people as individuals, and it is your responsibility to move everyone in the right direction.
SJ: A question from a listener, Siva. You have been credited with getting the best out of the Indians. You took them to No. 1 in the world in terms of Tests. They won the World Cup when you were the coach, and now with South Africa you took them to No. 1 in Tests. A lot of that credit comes to you. Does Gary Kirsten deserve that sort of credit for the success, considering the players were of such high quality and talent?
GK: I don't do it to win trophies. I do it to add value to people's lives, so I can help a group of people move forward in terms of where they are. One has to be realistic about one's goals. For the Bangladesh team to strive to be the best cricket team in the world is probably unrealistic. They don't have the players to do that. If you do have the players, then why was India only ranked four or five in the world with such talent? And then to take them forward is a collaborive effort, where everyone buys into the way of doing things. For me, the essence of leadership is to move people forward from where they are.
"As a coach, you can't be seen as 'one of the boys'. I was clear to every player that I coached that my role is to get the best out of you and that it will require me to challenge you at some stage and I am not shy to do that"
SJ: You retired from international cricket in 2004 and you signed up as head coach for India in December 2007. Basically, you are coaching people that you played against, your contemporaries, and in South Africa's case, you played under Graeme Smith as captain after which you became his coach. What sort of set-up or mechanisms should you put in place before you start the job to make sure that you carry out your job as head coach properly and the mateship or prior relationships don't mess with it?
GK: Do I put anything in place to control these things? No, not at all. I realised that I was in the same space as a leader of a Jacques Kallis and a Mark Boucher, whom I played a lot of cricket with. I was now leading them. Like any leader in industry, you have to be careful how you conduct yourself, you have to be careful how you behave in front of other people, and I was very aware that if I was going to stand up and ask them to do something in an intense, highly pressurised situation, my credibility was on the line as an individual. I was not seen as their friend but as their leader. There are certain things that you have to do, and [you have to] behave in a certain way as a leader to inspire people that you are working for.
SJ: What are the things you have to do to operate in a leadership role rather than a friend role?
GK: For instance, socialising is a very dangerous space. A game ends and everyone goes out to enjoy themselves. As a coach, you can't be seen as "one of the boys". You have got to move away from that space. The one-on-one relationship, as well. I was clear to every player that I coached, even the ones I played with, that my role is to get the best out of you and that it will require me to challenge you at some stage and I am not shy to do that. They never tried to encourage me to be one of the boys. There was a lot of respect for that.
SJ: Meher asks: You took up the job so soon after your retirement. Does having coaches who are relatively young make more sense, because they could relate to the players in terms of the modern game's pressures?
GK: It helps hugely to have played the game at the highest level, because you understand the pressure that each player is under. For me, there was the benefit of being still physically fit and being able to identify the current trends in the game, because I have not been out of it for a long time. Although I am only retired nine years, I missed out on T20. Definitely, it helps being a young guy who is fit. A lot of my work is very physical, and to be able to offer myself physically to the players is very important.
SJ: Cricket coaching and managing of the team has become regimented. It is almost like the balance has shifted to analytics. How was it under your watch as the coach of India and South Africa? How did you strike a balance?
GK: You are right, it is a sort of balance. Every professional cricketer uses an analyst, uses the data available. A lot of decisions that you make are about instincts. That is why you have been appointed to that position, because people feel that you can make such types of decisions. I certainly use the video analysts and the data that they have available to help me in my decision-making. The captain-coach relationship is a crucial one, because the coach is the guy who looks through all the relevant information and feeds that information to the captain to go and make use of it. Our focus was to make sure that my captain can grow on the field and be comfortable with the knowledge that our preparation will support the team for success.
SJ: How does the balance of power between the coach and captain work?
GK: The modern-day captains are taking on a more balanced role now. They don't want to be involved in all the decisions of a professional team day in and day out, on the road travelling, practising and playing. These are complementary roles. The better the relationship between the captain and the coach, the more value comes out of the leadership positions. I have had two very strong relationships with my captains, but they also expected me to take on various roles of decision-making and responsibility for the outcome of the performances of the team.
SJ: Ed Smith, the former England player, wrote recently about the role of coaches in cricket and said that it might be time that head coaches are also given the job of selection. Is that even possible, considering the head coaches travel so much with the team that they perhaps do not get a good look at the feeder line of players?
GK: The coach definitely needs assistance in the selection of a team. I do think that the coach should have the final say in the XI. In both my jobs at the international level, I have been given that liberty.
I think there are a lot of players you don't get to see. You need people on the ground watching the guys coming through as the next best.
SJ: There are players under tremendous pressure, a lot of focus is put on them. Even a slight change in their performance in the wrong direction, they are blamed for a lot of different things. How did you handle that?
GK: What you do is try to prepare the players as well as you can mentally for the competition. A lot of it comes in the nets - they hit lots of balls, they do a lot of tangible physical training but very little effort and focus is put on the mental training. What I would do is pull experts in to help me with that. Paddy Upton did a fantastic job as a life coach. With a cricket background and cricket knowledge he was incredibly helpful to me, working at a one-on-one level with the players. That role is very important.
"Every individual needs someone to play for. And I wanted them to play for me. I wanted them to know that I have put so much time and energy and invested so much of myself into their games that they felt they were playing for me"
You don't always get it right, but you put in a lot of effort in [with regard to] the mental demand of the game to make sure that the player is allowed to express himself as freely as possible.
SJ: Cricket is a sport, especially from a batsman's point of view, built around failures. You score a fifty once every four or five innings if you are really good. Jeet asks: what were your processes in terms of dealing with failures, close losses, heartbreaks?
GK: If you think of the best batsman in the world, he scores over 50 in one in three innings, that is 30% of [the time] making a score of 50. Each player is different and manages that space differently. It would be our responsibility to help him get back in that form. Ultimately we have recruited him to the job because we think he is the best. But it is part and parcel of the game, dealing with failure. The older you get, the more experienced you are, the greater perspective you get on results.
When we prepared for the World Cup 2011 with the Indian team, I can't remember one occasion where we spoke about winning the World Cup. We knew that if we did things right, we would get the best chance of success. So we spent less time worrying about the results and more time worrying about our processes.
SJ: Talking about that Indian team, when you became the head coach, there were names who were absolute legends - Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Laxman, and then you had Sehwag, Gambhir and Zaheer Khan. How did you deal with all these names, egos and talent?
GK: I was fully aware of what a brand they are in their own country. At the end of the day, each of those guys had incredible success with the team when I was there. They started to play for each other. It was my responsibility to get their focus not on themselves and more on the team. That if they really made an effort to perform for the team, they would reach their own individual goals as well. It is amazing when you can do that. The superstar becomes just another player. So while high-profile Indian cricketers still benefited from the privilege of their brand, within the team they were just like another cricketer.
SJ: You were with the team for nearly three and a half years. In that period, so many fast bowlers appeared for India, yet none have gone on to greater heights. Yes, Ishant Sharma has played 60 Tests, but he sometimes struggles with the basics of bowling. Where do you see this problem stemming from?
GK: I think it is a deep issue that probably needs to be addressed at the lower levels of the game. Role modelling is important. It always fascinates me that Pakistan continue to produce great fast bowlers and India don't have that. Maybe they don't have the types of role models that Pakistan have. Everyone wants to be like a Wasim Akram or an Imran Khan or a Waqar Younis.
SJ: What kind of management job did you have to do to coax the best out of whatever bowling talent you had?
GK: Zaheer Khan was, at one point, ranked the No. 2 Test bowler. We did get the best out of him. He enjoyed the space. He took responsibility of being the leader. For a period of time he was at his absolute best. He has incredible skill for a guy who bowls at just around about not more than 135kph. Ishant Sharma had incredible success. He was the Man of the Series in India against Australia in 2008, which, for me, is a remarkable achievement for a fast bowler. We had sporadic success for our fast bowlers, but we also chopped and changed a little bit and tried different guys. We were always looking for guys who can swing it a little bit more. In certain conditions, like in South Africa, we wanted guys with a bit more bounce. So we did chop and change a little bit.
SJ: Since you left the job, the Indian team hasn't done well, especially abroad. Are we reading this correctly? That you were a major influence in how they performed - maybe not tangibly, but there is correlation to that.
GK: I don't like to take all the credit for all that stuff. I was really privileged to be with those guys. What I am trying to do is to focus my attention on adding as much value to each individual every day. Now, whether I was the individual who was making the difference, I think is incredibly debatable. I didn't go out on the field and make a play. Every individual that I have come across - certainly in my experience as a player - needs someone to play for. And I wanted them to play for me. I wanted them to know that I have put so much time and energy and invested so much of myself into their games where they felt they were playing for me.
SJ: There is the other way of looking at it: that Gary Kirsten knows the exact moment when to move away from a job!
GK: I think there are no guarantees to success. You have to be realistic about what you can achieve as a team. I try to focus my attention not on the results, but on just doing the job as good as I can, and then you do need a bit of luck.
SJ: Siddharth asks: which of your jobs, with India and South Africa, came with a lot more pressure and expectation?
GK: I think the South African one had lot more expectation and pressure because it was my own country. I arrived there on the back of being involved in a World Cup-winning team with India. Also, being a South African, I was a lot more involved 24x7 with the South African team. With the Indian team, once they weren't playing, I was committed to stay with my family.
SJ: You have taken up a job with the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL. What was your attraction to the job besides the fact that you will be away from your family only for seven to eight weeks in a year?
GK: I am glad you brought that up, because a lot of people haven't understood that. In 2012, I had 250 days away from home. So it is a slightly different prospect coaching an international team as opposed to coaching an IPL team. I always wanted to go back to India. The IPL was a vehicle that was attractive to me because it looked to be a pretty intense tournament for eight weeks. The rest of the year, I was committed to be with my family.
SJ: I can't even tell you how many people sent me this question: would you be open to coming back to India as the coach of the national team?
GK: I wouldn't necessarily say no. I had incredible fun with the Indian team. If a certain set of circumstances were right at home, and my kids are a bit more grown up and they are a bit more self-sufficient, that might be an option. But that is a while from now.
SJ: Finally, I want to ask you about your academy in Cape Town. How is that going?
GK: Before I started with the Indian team, I ran a cricket academy. I was working with guys in their gap years, finishing school, 17-19-year-olds. That is a very vulnerable stage for any young cricketer. I wanted to create an opportunity and offer my intellectual capital in that space. I had five or six guys from the UK coming to do some work with me. I really enjoyed it. That one-on-one work for me is the purest form of coaching. We started up again this year and are looking forward to expanding it. We will also be travelling to various destinations in the world to set up clinics and seminars and things like that. That is something that I am passionate about. Coaching coaches as well and to give them the understanding about the types of things that they should be trying and doing.
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Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch