December 5, 2007

Gary's the man

Why Kirsten is the right choice as India's coach

Gary Kirsten: patient, approachable, insightful © Peter J Heeger

Gary Kirsten's appointment as India coach has once again raised the issue of coaching in today's game.

There is plenty of debate about the need for and the role of the modern-day cricket coach. The intellectual coach, skilled in modern management theories and in possession of all the required coaching certificates is in vogue today. His support staff includes sport scientists, who over the last decade have become a strong feature of the game.

The time, though, has come to work out what in all this is, in fact, cricket-specific and what is not, and what does add to individual and team performance success. I am a great supporter of the scientific development of the game, but there needs to be greater understanding. Different methods and beliefs are in use, and often cricketers don't really know why they have to subscribe to these, or what specific benefits are being offered. Kirsten is the first coach who as a player has experienced all of it first-hand and can offer an opinion on what is applicable and what is not. He could be the new breed of coach which the game needs.

Kirsten wants the job and is determined to prove himself as an international coach of distinction. In him we have, for the first time, a young coach, recently retired, who has been a success at the highest level, and has been schooled in all the facets of sports science. He also has health and fitness on his side. Importantly, he can coach cricketers in the art of playing the game, which is something we need to see more of these days.

I first met Kirsten when we were youngsters, and our careers spanned the same era. A talented and hardworking batsman, his gritty determination and hunger for runs were an inspiration. His cricket pedigree is undoubted: his three brothers played first-class cricket, as did his father. Kirsten senior was the curator at Newlands cricket ground for many years, and the family lived on the ground premises. Gary would often joke that Newlands was his back garden.

His international career record speaks for itself; he proved to be a great performer both home and away, standing up to all the challenges of his day with success. He captained his country, and had it not been for the fact that he played in the Hansie Cronje era, he would have done so more.

A few months ago we did our Cricket South Africa Level 3 coaching course together. Always insightful, he has clear views on the game and is comfortable in the knowledge that he has earned the right to voice his opinion, while never been imposing and dogmatic. He thinks there is not enough time spent talking cricket these days.

Kirsten's term may coincide with putting a succession plan into place for Indian cricket. Above all else, the way he handles this issue could prove to be crucial to whether he stays in the job or not.

His other great attribute is that he is a patient and approachable man. He was always well liked within the team and was able to move easily between senior and junior players. He will know from his private coaching stints that an environment of learning can only be created through friendship and respect. Without this the world's greatest cricketing brain will not succeed. He will also respect the view that he cannot take South African ways to India wholesale, and would need to be sensitive to the unique demands of the Indian situation.

With this in mind, his greatest challenges will be off the field. Working with three former captains in the side, a selection panel which in itself is a cricketing story in India, and the world's biggest cricket media, will test him to the limit. My Indian Cricket League team manager was an India selector for four years and his advice to Kirsten is simple: In India there are two things you don't do - argue with your wife or the media! Having said that, I expect Kirsten to be good in this regard. Cricket is big news in India and it is not just about a winning Indian team but getting a story. All the media would ask of the coach is that he is polite and gives them their due. He would do extremely well to win them over. An Indian coach who is good with the media will spend more time in the job, even with a losing team.

Critically, he will value those around him, and I hope that he will have a say in appointing his support staff. His other challenge will be to win the support of the senior players who are coming to the end of their careers. Some players at such a stage in their careers tend to become cranky and go into self preservation mode. Kirsten's term may coincide with putting a succession plan into place for Indian cricket. Will he be the man to end some great careers? How will that affect his position as coach? Above all else, the way he handles this issue could prove to be crucial to whether he stays in the job or not.

I firmly believe that Kirsten is the right man for the job and that he has what it takes to keep Indian cricket growing and being successful. Whether he can take India to new heights remains to be seen, for Indian cricket is a complex issue. I am proud that the most demanding job in cricket has gone to a former team-mate and a South African. I wish him well.