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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • laxman on December 7, 2007, 15:00 GMT

    At first sight it appears to me that Gary Kirsten is clearly a dark horse. If he succeeds, Sunil Gavaskar who searched him will become a hero and may turn out to be major victory for him after his retirement from active cricket. There are many good qualities in him. Greig Chappel came with lot of confidence and visualised big dreams. But his ego and dectatorial attitude finished him. Unlike Greig, Gary looks simple and well balanced in approach. Basically he has come with no big dreams and may do his job without much ado and funfare. Being contemporary, he may remain friendly to the seniors and take them in full confidence in decision making process without being complacentat the same time.One of the biggest advantage for India having Kirsten as coach will be fielding. He is a very good fielder and naturally will put lot of emphesis on fielding and running between the wickets. Robin will also learn a lot from him. To support Gary BCCI should approach Fenil De Velliers as bowling coach.

  • Apyboutit on December 7, 2007, 8:52 GMT

    I was very hopeful after Kirsten's name came up as Indian Coach. But I am loosing it by the hour. First we saw Gary trying to protect himself by saying that he was approached rather than had applied for the job. What's wrong in chest beating over that fact? Well, I'll tell you what .... if you were up to it, ready for it and wanted honestly to succeed in such a high profile, challenging job, it would not matter how you got the job! Gary's stance seems more defensive than Geoff Boycott's, even before he has taken over the assignment. Then, he starts on the wrong foot, by having too many opinions on "handling" the retirement issue! Then, his colleagues, countrymen and well wishers start defending his "no case". The air is filled with a bad, strong scent of resentment. Why do I get the feeling of deja vu?!

  • ASHUTOSH on December 7, 2007, 8:05 GMT

    Besides romancing Aishwarya R, captaining the Indian cricket team must be every Indian's dream, yet two of the our greatest players turned it down ( the captaincy, I mean). Now we're saddled with an inexperienced coach who wasn't interested in the first place. A lot of noise is being made by Kirsten's mates to ease his entry perhaps, but seriously, BCCI is playing it blind here. They have no idea of Kirsten's coaching skills and post-Chappell, we know a good player need not make a good coach in India. With the amount of moolah involved, I don't think any of our seniors, barring Dravid, is going to retire gracefully. So it's seems the stage is nicely set with a new coach trying to instill his work ethics and superstars near and not-so-near their retirement trying to cope with it. Let's see how the cookie crumbles.

  • Apyboutit on December 7, 2007, 6:38 GMT

    In their enthusiasm to "protect" their country man, Neil and Daryll are harming him, his job - and Indian cricket. The "retirement issue" is an Aussie gift to the vulnerable Indian Team stability. Gary would be best served to realize just that and ignore responsibilities of identifying / informing "who's time's up". Honestly ignoring it will let him do the job - "talent management" (rather than "coaching") - and will show his respect for these guys, some of who have bettered his own contributions. Gary will push Indian cricket into new heights if he concentrates (ONLY) on teaching these guys what they DON'T already know -hunt in packs and keep at it over a series and be tough when the chips are down. If he comes to form a "new-look" Zimbabwaen team from dust, he, the team and the Indian fans will be in endless trouble. So, dear SA'n friends of Gary, (he is our friend too now!) if you want to help him, rub things on the right side. It is that "Straightforward and Simple".

  • Tasneem on December 6, 2007, 11:10 GMT

    India were looked upon as a good cricket team with the likes of world class dignified four main players - Rahul Dravid , Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble. I now pity Gary Kirsten once these guys retire, he will will have to be calm and be patient with lazy arrogant new Indian team. Kirsten will bring on his South African cultured bahaviour and the right attitude. All the Way Gary! get behind these players and prove to them its not only an Australian who can coach them .

  • Kenny on December 6, 2007, 10:01 GMT

    Gary Kirsten has always been a pleasure to watch with a bat in hand. Not much is known about his coaching skills yet, but it seems like a good prospect for someone who never stopped learning the game. With the Indian cricket team already full of superstars, hiring a keen thinker and yet a relatively low profile gentleman, is one of the most sensible moves by the BCCI in recent times. I'm sure most of the players will welcome him with open hearts. His strategies will surely differ from what the Indian team has been used to in the recent past, but I'm sure there will be fair symbiosis. Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope for a good term under his tenure.

  • Harsha Kishan on December 6, 2007, 7:36 GMT

    This is one of the better decisions taken by the BCCI in the past few months. At the moment the Indian team needs a batting coach as Prasad and Robin Singh are serving in the bowling and fielding departments. This team is nearing a transformation phase with the big 5 coming close to the end of their careers. To happen this transformation seamlessly, they need someone with an excellent work ethic and who is approachable for the junior players. I believe Kirsten has these qualities. As far as attitude is concerned, how can you say an entire nation has the same attitude? How can you say that every South African is a choker?

  • Jurie on December 6, 2007, 7:13 GMT

    Kirsten is a great choice, I just wish he'd been appointed SA's coach instead of the feeble yes-man to Graeme Smth that Mickey Arthur is. Kirsten has test match experience (and Harshtmm, maybe check out his and SA's record against India before you accuse him and SA of being chokers). India's problem is not their coach or their players though, it's people like Harshtmm who buy into the media's every comment and cliche and make them a reality - 'SA are chokers', 'Ganguly can't play fast bowling', 'Dravid can't score quickly', 'Zaheer can't bowl long spells as he's unfit' - SA has great attitude and you'll see when Kirsten makes India into a decent team.

  • Vijay on December 6, 2007, 6:40 GMT


    We don't need another smart alec giving opinions and making controversial statements. We got plenty at home to do that incl officials and wanna be coaches.

    We want to hear your thoughts on how you can take Indian cricket to great heights. The moment you harbour an opinion about the big guys you will be engulfed in them and will be your downfall as thats pretty much the only thing you will be worrying about for rest of your tenure.

    And u want to do that for what reason? Do u really think this issue needs special attention from you? That says you already dont trust the guys in the team to do the right thing. They all are smart guys who have played honorably for the country and they will retire in no other way when the time is right. If they let the greed get better of them, rest assured the media and billion+ will tell them in no uncertain terms.

    We want to see you put your head down and get on like the way we know you can and enjoy your job,please. No Greg-2 needed

  • Dipankar on December 6, 2007, 6:35 GMT

    Am sure the BCCI(Cricket authorities of India) have made an excellent choice,for a change.Gary Kirsten seems to be just the right person for the job-a gutsy,superb,level-headed cricketer recently retired from international cricket who should be able to handle/man manage the ego-driven senior cricketers of India pretty well&ofcourse inspire the younger ones to greater heights Am all in awe of his valiant effort in Pakistan a few years ago when he returned to bat after his eye-brow/cheekbone was 'bloodied' by a Shoaib Akhtar bouncer BEST OF LUCK TO GARY KIRSTEN,MY GUT FEELING IS HE WILL BE JUST OUTSTANDING-HIS IS AN INSPIRED CHOICE,THANKS TO SUNIL GAVASKAR

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