Kirsten out of his comfort zone
Gary Kirsten's shoulder has played a major role in India's rise as a team during the almost three years that he has spent with them. He is supremely fit for a man his age, for someone who last played international cricket six-and-a-half years ago, fitter probably than some of his wards. No one has kept a count on the number of balls he throws down to the Indian batsmen in the nets, but here is an estimation guide: in every nets session he gives each batsman about 40 throwdowns. And there is at least one nets session before every international match to go with the training camps and pre-tour preparations where he goes absolutely berserk working at the batsmen's techniques. Just count the number of games India play, and the number of batsmen they have, and do the math.
And these are not half-hearted throwdowns from the middle of the pitch. These come at full pace, from across the whole 22 yards. And he is no bowling machine. He adjusts according to batsmen's weaknesses, the conditions and the opposition bowlers' strengths. He scuffs up the balls to swing them at times, and sometimes he uses soft balls and serves them with a tennis racquet to either get prodigious swing or the disconcerting bounce. After almost every shot he gives the batsmen feedback on their position, their bat swing, their feet movement. He puts an arm around Gautam Gambhir's shoulder and talks, he keeps joking with Virender Sehwag, and he has long earnest discussions with Sachin Tendulkar, who incidentally is the biggest fan of Kirsten's throwdowns and always keeps asking for more.
When somebody plays a good shot, he shouts "shot" followed by the batsman's full name; when somebody doesn't he comes up close and tries to understand why he might not be playing good shots.
On one of the most important tours his team is on, one that he says could be the "defining moment", he has been pulled out of his comfort zone. His comfort zone has been to stay away from the limelight, to let his team express itself, and in the process give him expression. His comfort zone has been to try and put the team in a happy place, to allow it to make optimum use of the talent he knows it has. Suddenly, though, with his being a South African, everybody is talking of the effect Kirsten's knowledge of the local conditions and the psyche of the South African players might have on the outcome of the series.
There was also a small matter of having convinced the BCCI to do something unprecedented, to make them pull out many of the star players from a home ODI series, a big commercial draw, and send them to South Africa early so they could get acclimatised with the conditions, so they could get into a happy place. Down here in South Africa he has had the team train at his academy for about a week. For a change Kirsten is drawing all the attention.
Out of his comfort zone, Kirsten has shortened the lengths of his throwdowns, and is also running in a bit so that the balls are coming quicker at the batsmen. And he is getting them to bounce head high on the practice pitches at the Supersport Park in Centurion, where two days of drizzle and cold weather finally gave way to a sunny Monday afternoon and a three-hour-long workout for the team. There is a lot of precision involved: the difference between the lengths of deliveries that Suresh Raina should sway away from and the ones he should duck under is less than a foot. And Kirsten keeps hitting those lengths. Raina sways out of the line of most, staying outside their line, and ducks under a few. Suddenly a full one arrives without warning, and Raina's weight is not back and he drives handsomely. "Shot Suresh Raina."
When Tendulkar gets to face Kirsten, he requests for more even when his time is over and he is supposed to switch to the other net. Kirsten will be happy he has been shouting out full names often today. Especially Sehwag's. He has an eye over at the adjoining nets too where Tendulkar - bowling with pads and the full batting gear save the helmet on - has caused a racket by bowling Gambhir around his legs. He joins in the laugh for a few seconds, and then gets back to his throwdowns.
Kirsten is happy that the team is happy, looking prepared for their biggest challenge since their ascent to No. 1 started. And the team is happy with him. "Apart from having good players in the side, he was the one thing - you can say the best thing that happened to Indian cricket," MS Dhoni says. He also adds that having Kirsten is a huge advantage coming to South Africa. "It is not only about the conditions, he also knows about the mindset of the players that are part of their side. Of course it is a good asset."
Over the next two days, Kirsten will do his utmost to prepare the team in the best possible way, for the conditions he knows and the opposition whose mindset he knows. But come 10 am on Thursday, when Dhoni walks out for the toss, he will disappear into the background again. His comfort zone.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo