December 5, 2007

Straightforward not simple

Kirsten's biographer on what "The Professor" brings to the India coaching job



Kirsten: 'A professor of cricket' © Getty Images

Describing people as uncomplicated or straightforward is, more often than not, interpreted as a euphemism for "simple", or even, heaven forbid, "simple". In Gary Kirsten's case, that could not be further from the truth.

His brief hesitation in accepting the post as head coach of Team India may have been interpreted as a lack of confidence following rumours that some senior players were unsure of the appropriateness of his appointment. Instead, it was an affirmation of the confidence that he has in his ability to interact with everyone, not just cricket people.

The difference between Kirsten and most other people handed such a high-profile job is that he never applied for it - he was invited for an interview and then offered the post. He was never tempted by money, prestige or power. In fact, he treats them with disdain. Well, certainly prestige and power, if not the cash with which he can provide a comfortable life for wife Deborah and sons Joshua (four) and James (three months).

If Kirsten had discovered any truth in the stories of malcontent among India's nationally contracted players, he would not have accepted the job. "The players are more important than the coach or the administrators and if they aren't happy with the working conditions or the staff then there's no point carrying on," he said. Kirsten's meeting with Test captain Anil Kumble two weeks ago was a great success, and Kumble's immediate predecessor, Rahul Dravid, was another whose support Kirsten could count upon, as Dravid's comments in Kirsten's 2004 autobiography prove.

"In a lot of ways I saw myself in him, in the sense that he was always more a stable, solid player than a flashy one. His ability to score runs for South Africa in difficult times amazed me. He showed that he was a genuinely big player, someone who could score big. In both Test and one-day cricket he was always developing. Every time you played against Gary in a new series, he was a better player than last time around," said Dravid. "I always remember him as a very tough competitor and someone who made the very best of his abilities."

One man almost certain to play a role in Kirsten's tenure as national coach - provided the BCCI approves - is Paddy Upton, South Africa's bio-kineticist and fitness trainer in the mid to late 90's, when Bob Woolmer was coach and Hansie Cronje captain. Upton has transformed himself since then from a conditioner of bodies to a honer of minds and is now recognised among businessmen and sportsmen alike as one of the country's foremost "executive" coaches.

Upton and Kirsten went to school together, but like many of the best working partnerships, theirs didn't form until both had flushed the excesses of youth from their systems. Today the two 40-year-olds still share as many jokes as they used to, but intersperse them with conversations and theories that vibrate with honesty and realism.

"Gary is a professor of cricket," says Upton. "He had to be given his lack of ability!" It is a tongue-in-cheek comment, of course, from a lifetime friend, but there is also some truth in it. Kirsten grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Peter, who was an established star for both Western Province and Derbyshire while Gary was still in his early teenage years. Gary lacked his brother's flair, but as Peter admitted way back in 1994 after scoring his only Test century at the end of his isolation-shortened career: "Look out for my boet - he has more heart than anyone I've seen," and, tapping the side of his head, "he has it here, too."

Kirsten talks about "creating the right environment" for players to succeed, rather than "coaching" them, and there is nothing dictatorial about his approach. But it is based on honesty. One of the greatest turning points in his own career came when he had the honesty to admit that he did, in fact, after years of furious denial, fear the short ball

Kirsten was forced to look further into the depths of his personality, temperament and technique than most players would have to in order to become as successful as he was, and that is why Upton describes Kirsten as a "professor".

As far as the Indian team is concerned, Kirsten is thrilled rather than daunted by the prospect of working with at least four players - Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Kumble - who are approaching the end of their careers. "I have always been in favour of players having the decisive say in the end of their careers," Kirsten said. "They are all great cricketers and if I can help them to map out what they want from the final 12, 18 or 24 months of their careers, then I'll be delighted to do so.

"There comes a time when you know it's over, even if you want to carry on. I know that. I was fortunate to score five centuries in my final year and average about 65, so there's always a part of you that says 'carry on a bit longer'. But there's no better feeling than getting out [while you're] at the top, and hopefully that's something we can talk about. But ultimately it should be the players' decision," Kirsten said. "I know what it feels like to wrestle with your emotions and have conflicting instincts. But they are all great players and they deserve to go out on their terms. I'd hate to see any of them dropped or carrying the drinks as 12th man."

Kirsten talks about "creating the right environment" for players to succeed, rather than "coaching" them, and there is nothing dictatorial about his approach. But it is based on honesty. One of the greatest turning points in his own career came when he had the honesty to admit that he did, in fact, after years of furious denial, fear the short ball. Once that recognition came, he was able to identify the effect that fear had on him, and quickly became able to play it so much better.

If any of India's players don't want to work with Kirsten or are unwilling to dissect their game in order to improve it, Kirsten would never try to insist. He believes that top sportsmen can only improve if they want to: coaches can only facilitate that process, they cannot force it. In that sense, Kirsten is, indeed, an uncomplicated and straightforward man. But the moment anybody makes the mistake of thinking he is simple, they may be in for one of the rudest shocks of their life.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency

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