Kirsten does it again
When India won the World Cup in Mumbai a year ago last April, one man stood quietly in the shadow of the celebrations - modest, unassuming, satisfied. His part in the triumph was immense, his need for recognition nowhere in sight. Gary Kirsten was an excellent opening batsman for South Africa. Less naturally gifted than his illustrious elder brother, Peter - who was mainly denied by the apartheid years - Kirsten the Younger went about his business with an eye for detail and an uncomplicated application. He sold his wicket dearly and the South Africans loved him for it.
When he became coach of the India team, he brought the gift of serenity. Great cricketers, constantly on edge from the expectation of their people, were encouraged to breathe, to smell the flowers along the way. First interviewed during the crazy minutes that followed MS Dhoni's winning strike was Sachin Tendulkar. Amongst others, Tendulkar spoke warmly of Kirsten's contribution. Next thing Gary knew he was lifted upon the shoulders of the Indian players and paraded to the adoring masses.
Late this afternoon, while the South Africa team collected their winning medals from the suits on the podium at Lord's, Kirsten could just about be seen in the small walkway that divides the Pavillion and the Allen Stand. He watched proudly but detached. The players do the yards, the players get the prizes. On the evidence of the past month, South Africa are the undisputed Test match champions of the world. When Kirsten switched horses, returning home after the World Cup and waiting only a short while before taking the South Africa job, he moved from a team slipping over the hill to one still climbing it. A wise bird indeed. One appointed by wise men, for Kirsten knows how to get the job done.
For much of the long, enthralling final afternoon of the series he will have winced. Ye gods, England ran it close. Free to play without fear of defeat, the middle-order batted with striking purpose. First Jonny Bairstow, whose X-factor is worth the admission money, and then Matt Prior, who darn nearly played the innings of his life. The longer Graeme Smith persevered with Imran Tahir and tactic of buying wickets with the old ball, the more the impossible became reality. Had Graeme Swann not been run out, England were a few blows away from becoming favourites.
But Smith did persevere with Tahir, which is exactly what the Smith of bygone years would not have done. He would have run for cover, turned to the trusted, rotated the seamers, set the field back, instructed wider bowling and so on and so forth. Not now, not the Smith of today. With time and through battle, comes maturity. Once he thought himself bullet proof, now he knows they hurt. Thus he has listened, a skill in itself and allowed his imagination to take him places he has not been before.
That choker tag is a damn thing to live with. India's World Cup was one that South Africa fancied but Kirsten was doing for the Indian cricketers what the South Africans needed for themselves. He was taking the pressure off. He was encouraging them to play less desperately: to relax head, neck, shoulders, hands and to perform from instinct and passion. He was saying, it is all right to be who you are as long as you are just that and not a pale, self-serving imitation. Trust each other and take responsibility, said Kirsten. Be calm, he added, because no heated situation was ever won by frantic response.
So Smith persevered with Tahir while England took the risks required to save the series. Just as Smith places more slips, and for longer periods, while South Africa attack the off-stump more than a fourth and fifth stump. Just as Smith posts leg-gullies and fly-slips. And just as Smith surprised with his declaration at Headingley, sensing victory when others saw only parity.
It is for Smith that one feels most pleased. I have this image of him walking to the wicket in Sydney three and a half years ago, broken hand bandaged, to try and save the Test. The ground stood to him before a ball was faced one-handed. Imagine that, Sydneysiders applauding a Saffer for his courage. That match was ultimately conceded but his team have not lost a series away from home since 2006. In the modern age of fly, sleep, play that is something to behold.
The South Africans were not favourites when this series in England began and they only fiddled with practice amidst the soaking mid-summer. Rather than commit to another county game or two, they took the risk of a hardcore four-day mind game in the Swiss Alps. I'll bet Kirsten was behind this and Smith not far away. Mike Horn, the extreme explorer, took them to the corners of brain and body. He told them, don't think you can do it; it is a fact, he said, that you can do it. He helped to break down the mental boundaries that haunt sportsmen and in doing so, set up the 600 total at The Oval.
After an indifferent first day of the series with the ball, it appeared a mistake had been made and that the team were short of cricket. On the second day they looked full of it, by the third their cup was overflowing. Hashim Amla looked as if he could have gone on forever and, in the first match at the The Oval, South Africa did telling and lasting damage to England's self-belief.
Of course, the raw material is important. High-quality cricketers respond to a platform. Set them up, they will do the knocking over. Have you ever seen a man start a Test career like Vernon Philander? Ten months ago, it was "Who the devil is Vernon?" Well, now we know. An integral part of the one of the best fast-bowling attacks the game has known - balanced, smart, potent, accurate. His arrival in the team coincided with Kirsten's. No coincidence then.
What else has Gary Kirsten done for them? Well, Jacques Kallis. That's Jacques the bowler mainly and Jacques the batsman a bit. The finest all-round cricketer of the age - right up there in any age - was showing signs of wear. Kirsten re-fitted him, suggesting pace and variety were enviable gifts and that in shorter, sharper bursts he could bring them back. Kallis the striker, not Kallis the foil, was reborn. And with bat in hand? Kirsten must simply have said, "Show off, matey. You might as well. You're that good and it doesn't last forever, this crease life. Loosen up a bit and have some fun, Jacques."
Think of the party tonight. He will have some fun there. Nearly as much fun as his captain. Imagine it, 94 Tests in charge - more than any man ever - and now this. Wow, we might not see either of them for a day or two yet.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK