England v SA, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 5th day August 20, 2012

Kirsten does it again

After Test and World Cup success with India, Gary Kirsten has now led his native country to No. 1

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.

"Vernon Philander was an integral part of the one of the best fast-bowling attacks the game has known. His arrival in the team coincided with Kirsten's. No coincidence then"

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sharky on August 23, 2012, 8:42 GMT

    It just that I love Mark Nicholas articles. He's got a talented eye that is spotting talent. A Great Cricket reviewer !!!! And yes, Gary Kirsten is a good coach. He learned from the best; Bob Woolmer & Hansie Cronje.

  • Dummy4 on August 22, 2012, 11:32 GMT

    What this article misses so pointedly, is the moulded effect of the bowling attack, and no mention of Alan Donald at all! AD, was responsible for Morne Morkel taking the new ball against England and for Dale Steyn-the world's best bowler for some time now-to come on first change. I'm surprised, that Nicolas, a former Hampshire County Captain, would miss commenting on this, but then again, praise is focused on the 'self effacing and reserve'- traits of English psyche - of Kirsten [who just happens to be more introvert than extrovert, for that matter] and so the 'nuts and bolts' of Alan Donald have been totally overlooked. So focused is Mark Nicholas on trying to find traits resembling 'English qualities' that he negates the disparate qualities of extrovert confidence, which is AD. Embrace difference, like the French do, always measuring others by 'English benchmarks' is stale, and akin to lauding the boring batting of Strauss/Cook/Trott , as say, versus the flamboyant KP!

  • ravikant on August 22, 2012, 8:17 GMT

    The same hype was created for Dav Whatmore after his Sri lankan success,but he was unable to turn around the fortunes of Bangladesh and now Pakistan.Australia in it's heydays 99-07 would have won regardless of their coach their team was so strong.India were doing well even before Gary Kirsten joined when they won the t20 world cup and were doing well in tests.If he is able to get the saffers the t20 world cup or champions trophy something which has eluded them then we are talking ,lets see.

  • Sailesh on August 22, 2012, 5:58 GMT

    It would be nice if Gary takes up his next assignment with West Indies Cricket and make it stronger like they used to be before so that test cricket or cricket in general will be even more competitive.

  • Mark on August 22, 2012, 5:29 GMT

    Gary deserves all the credit he gets, as do the players...SA are deserved number ones in the world. I think it is SA, then Oz and then England/India. Hope SA remain on top for a decent period \.

  • Ali on August 22, 2012, 0:28 GMT

    Gary ...... would you consider coaching the WI ?

    would they need to triple or quadruple what ECB is paying you?

    don't worry, the "cash strapped" WICB can afford it ... the salaries and bonuses of any one board member can easily cover such a salary ...

    (not that players will ever see that kind of money .. and will be penalized for wanting to play in 20/20 tournies to earn some dough )

  • Torsha on August 21, 2012, 23:39 GMT

    Gary come back to India..hehe

  • Cricinfouser on August 21, 2012, 22:27 GMT

    Whilst the article does allude to the rather obvious fact that it is the players' triumph, it nevertheless falls into the easy trap of uncritical coach worship. Some of the comments are just daft. There's little similarity between the role of a cricket and football coach, Kirsten isn't a 'special one' and the idea that he warrants more credit than the players is ridiculous. @RogerC - you've got it spot on, last year it was Flower, this year it's Kirsten, next year it will no doubt be someone else.

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2012, 19:33 GMT

    Great Article .....Surely it was Kirsten who took same Indian team didn't qualify for Quarter final stage of WC 2007 to becoming top test side & WC winning team despite having nearly same set of players as were there for WC 2011.........& people falsely give credit to Dhoni who did nothing worthwhile except 90 in WC finals...............The same Dhoni is continuing as captain but Ind is losing terribly............Kirsten has achieved 1st goal that is making SA No1 in Tests & he will achieve his 2nd goal taht is WC 2015 this time no one can stop SA from becoming World Champion 2015....A GREAT LEADER KIRSTEN......I also like the statement "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." .........

  • Bhaskar on August 21, 2012, 19:25 GMT

    Kirsten deserves more credit than the South african players, he is their talisman.

  • No featured comments at the moment.