March 24, 2011

In the nets with Gary

On one of his last training sessions with the team he has overseen for three years, India's coach was, as ever, focused, attentive to the details and a glutton for hard work

Gary Kirsten walked into the afternoon sun, shades on, sun cream smeared across his face. He dropped the fielding nets down, placed them at a particular distance and set the markers at specific points. Like a master tailor drawing precise lines on fabric to get the right cut, Kirsten laid out the distances and the angles.

He looked up. "Eric, get me the kitbag, I need the tennis racket and stuff," he shouted, looking towards the dressing room. Simons, India's bowling coach, arrived with the bag in hand and emptied its contents out.

Kirsten returned to the changing room and came out with a white sack full of balls in his left hand, the catch boards in his right and Sachin Tendulkar walking alongside him. The weight of the balls was pulling him down, but Kirsten walked unbowed - just like during all those memorable back-to-the wall innings in Test matches for South Africa where bloody-mindedness was the fuel that carried him over the mark.

Meanwhile, in the near distance the rest of the Indian squad was loosening up, getting ready for a game of soccer. Just as he was cross-checking if everything was in place for the fielding drills, the football bounced close to him. Instinctively, without turning, Kirsten raised his left leg and kicked it.

A minute later he walked towards the rope-lined perimeter drawn up to cordon off the Motera pitch, hidden under a layer of gunny sacks to keep the moisture in. Tendulkar joined him and both men walked up to the wicket. The grounds personnel let the two a good look at the track. They were joined by the curator, who spoke briefly to Tendulkar.

Kirsten stood on the other side of the pitch, left hand clasping his right behind his back, in contemplation. He slipped his hands into his pockets, paced a little. He and Tendulkar walked away and joined the football game.

Kirsten asked Ramji Srinivasan, the Indian trainer, to throw him a black training vest. For the next 20-odd minutes he loosened up, ran swiftly, tried to defend against younger feet, mostly in vain, but never gave up. He took off his cap to try and head the ball, and always maintained his mid-field position. It was a reflection of how he goes about his job at large: he knows his role, the responsibility that comes with it, and he will not abandon it for anything.

No sooner did the final whistle bring the soccer to an end than Kirsten picked the bat up to hit balls to the fielders who man India's inner circle - Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Yusuf Pathan and Piyush Chawla. He planted a rubber stump while the fielders stood at a distance of about 20 yards from him. He then hit balls along the ground as hard as he could. The fielders needed to take turns to intercept the ball cleanly and throw it back at the single stump. Neat pick-ups and direct hits earned healthy praise ("Hit it, good. Hit it, brilliant. Hit it, Perfect.") When Chawla failed to pick up the ball travelling to his right, Kirsten screamed "Aaarggh." He wanted more effort. But his tone remained encouraging throughout.

Kirsten runs a lot. It is his way of meditating. He runs on the ground, on roads, on the treadmill. He reads lots of books. Running and reading help him refine his thought process

On Thursday the fielding could once again be a crucial differentiator between India and Australia, and Kirsten did not want the Indians to feel the pinch of the absence of a fielding coach.

He then made his way to the batting nets, separate from the main ground. The first thing he observed was Virender Sehwag batting on a spinning wicket. "Why is Viru batting here?" he asked Simons. "He should be playing on the seaming pitch." Kirsten is a man of details, keeping track of everything. He is not, though, a control freak - one of the reasons the players like and respect him is, he leaves things to them.

Kirsten lay on the ground and did some stretching. Soon he would morph into a bowling machine, hurling balls down at the batsmen, non-stop. At 4.26pm Tendulkar walked in and for the next 33 minutes Kirsten only took a minute's break, to have a word with MS Dhoni. The rest of the time he kept returning like a conveyor belt to issue throwdowns to Tendulkar, another man for whom the minutiae matter a lot.

After Tendulkar left, more batsmen walked in to face Kirsten. He remained relentless. Behind him, Paddy Upton yawned. It was a striking contrast. Kirsten knew that if he let himself switch off, the intensity would drop.

VVS Laxman wondered how Kirsten was not a fast bowler, considering he manages to give the players so many throwdowns during every training session.

Kirsten runs a lot. It is his way of meditating. He runs on the ground, on roads, on the treadmill. He reads lots of books. Running and reading help him refine his thought process.

If India win against Australia, he will spend another week with the Indian team. If they lose this will have been his last training day. Either way he will not be emotional or otherwise call attention to himself. That is another thing about him that Laxman and every other Indian player acknowledges: how Kirsten works hard in the background while the team earns the plaudits.

After 180-odd minutes of training Kirsten stopped once, and sat down for a few minutes to have a bottle of water. Otherwise he was a workhorse. He was the last man to walk out of the training, head up, eyes on the ground in front of him.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo