September 19, 2014

Zulu finds fulfilment in coaching

After limping out of international cricket, Lance Klusener slipped off the radar, but his coaching stint with Dolphins has given them a higher profile and self-belief

Klusener is best remembered for his swagger, never more so than during the 1999 World Cup © Getty Images

If all that was known of Lance Klusener was the way he lit up the 1999 World Cup, it might be expected that his career ended with similar lustre. It didn't.

Five years after the fireworks, Klusener fizzled out of the international arena. No fuss, no fanfare. There was a three-year gap between his penultimate Test and his final one and he spent nine months out of the ODI team following a loss of form, which he did not regain on recall. The only sign of even a sputtering came about 12 months before his eventual stubbing out, when Graeme Smith said Klusener was "not very good" as a team man, and can "bring down the youth".

Those words were the furthest thing from an endorsement for Klusener's future involvement in the game - which at the time seemed unlikely, and unwanted by the man himself. Shortly after Klusener's career had run its course, a journalist who considered himself close enough to ask wondered whether Klusener would be interested in collaborating on a biography. The scribe received a one-word answer: "No." And that was the end of that discussion.

Klusener did not show much interest in creating a legacy despite his legend, perhaps because he did not quite understand it. He had just missed the days of cricketers attaining superstar status, and he tried to lengthen his career, to make money. He had a stint in the unsanctioned Indian Cricket League and another in Zimbabwe when cricket in that country benefited from a small cash injection. Then he all but disappeared from the view of cricket's cameras.

It was only through his friendship with fellow Durbanite Shaun Pollock, which had survived his late career storm, that Klusener returned to the public eye when he joined Mumbai Indians' support staff. Fittingly, it was in the IPL, a tournament where the Klusener of old would have been right at home at the crease, hatchet in hand and blood on his mind, that the new Klusener's interest in coaching grew. He nurtured it slowly.

Back home Klusener worked with the High Performance Academy and then the South Africa A side but his big break came in an emergency. "Graham Ford was coaching the Dolphins and mid-season he left to go to Sri Lanka. The Dolphins were in a bit of a jam about what to do so they asked me to take over for the rest of the season," Klusener said.

He did, and stayed. But he only stayed because things changed. Klusener was put in charge of Dolphins in the middle of the 2012-13 summer, shortly after they finished second from bottom in the 50-over competition. They had gone eight years without winning a single trophy and Klusener would sense lethargy and low morale. "The players were sick and tired of losing and it was about making them realise that. What's the point of coming to work if you're not going to win anything?" he said.

Changing that mindset required more than just the introduction of an icon. Klusener actively sought out younger players and preached a philosophy of excellence, though the Dolphins squad was not filled with international names, unlike Titans or Cobras. "We didn't have many national players so the only thing we could do was make a few of our own," Klusener said.

At the end of that season, the seamer Kyle Abbott was picked in the national squad to play Pakistan. He became the first player from Dolphins to earn a Test cap since 2009. When Abbott phoned Klusener for advice the night before his debut, he did the bulk of the talking and Klusener's sole sentence was, "Just keep it tight." Abbott went on to take 7 for 29 in the first innings.

For Klusener, that was the start, but he knew they had much more ground to cover before they would see the kind of success that is measured in silverware. The following winter, change swept through the franchise. Hashim Amla, their pride and joy (although he was not often available for them), left for Cobras. His older brother Ahmed Amla retired. In those two moves, the Dolphins lost some of their establishment. But they gained as well.

Morne van Wyk, the South Africa wicketkeeper-batsman, moved from Bloemfontein to captain Dolphins. He wanted a change and a challenge and in Durban, he found both.

Klusener's approach excited him because it was about simplicity, and it was focused on an end result: winning. "He is a perfect fit for what the Dolphins need. He is a local guy, well respected and highly regarded," van Wyk said. "With Lance, you always know where you stand. A lot of people can talk but they are not really communicating. Lance doesn't talk a lot but when he does, he is very clear."

While Klusener's personality influences his straightforward coaching style, it also fits in with the modern, process-driven approach, which is centred on holding players accountable to themselves and their team-mates. Van Wyk immediately found that was how Klusener handled him. "He gives me a lot of scope. As a captain, it is my ship to run. His job is preparation and we have a nice recipe that is working."

The pair have clicked so well that in their first summer together, Dolphins claimed a title. They won the T20 competition and will appear in their first Champions League T20 (they had qualified for the inaugural event in 2008, which was cancelled following the Mumbai bombings). Before this year, Dolphins were the only South African franchise who had not participated in a Champions League.

For Klusener, the journey does not stop at simply turning up. "It's a massive challenge but we have earned the right to play there," he said. "We are going there to win and not to make up the numbers. Everybody has bought into the philosophy that in a short tournament where there is a quick turnover between games, you play a certain way. We don't want to be too conservative, we will be aggressive."

Assertiveness and intent are two qualities that made Klusener's playing style but he knows there is much more to him as a coach and he wants to steer away from creating 11 Mini-Mes. "My playing days are gone. I am here to get the best out of my team. The way I played may not work for everybody so this is about how they want to play. It's their team," he said. "For me, it's important to keep improving as a coach, otherwise I'll get left behind. It's important for the team; I owe it to them to keep learning."

Dolphins may feel they owe Klusener something that he came close to getting in his playing days: a major trophy. And for his part, Klusener knows those fireworks could be in his future, but these days his job is only to light the match.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent