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Kirsten walks away a happy man

Gary Kirsten may not have had the longest of tenures but he took South Africa to the top and, of particular pride to him, helped several rookies take their first steps in international cricket

Firdose Moonda

May 10, 2013

Comments: 8 | Text size: A | A

South Africa coach Gary Kirsten smiles at practice, Brisbane, November 7, 2012
Gary Kirsten has helped South Africa become the rightful owners of the label "best in the world" © Associated Press
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Gary Kirsten sent a message to every South African player he currently coaches when he decided not to renew his contract. He wanted to let them know, personally, he would no longer be around.

It was a typical Kirsten way of doing things - intimate, caring and sensitive. Every one of them responded. Never one to disclose too much, Kirsten would only say the replies were "incredible." Most of the men who sent them would likely use the same word to describe Kirsten and the influence he had during his time in charge, which they will likely agree was too short. Just two years. That's all the time Kirsten was able to give to South Africa. He changed them substantially in the first of those.

Kirsten's anniversary on August 1, 2012 was followed 19 days later by what will be remembered as his biggest achievement. South Africa beat England at Lord's to claim the Test mace. It confirmed that taken the step from nearly men and champions by accident - which Graeme Smith said they felt like after their first short stint at No.1 in 2009 - to rightful owners of the label "best in the world." They proved they could win in various conditions, against a range of opponents and in trying circumstances: all the ingredients required at the beginning of the road to greatness.

But did they actually ascend those heights during Kirsten's time? Or did they simply get the best foundation possible to one day be counted among legends? The evidence, and Kirsten himself, would suggest the latter.

In numbers terms, Kirsten's 12 wins, five draws and two losses from the 19 Tests he was in charge for make him the most successful coach in the longest format the country has ever had. It's a small sample size though, especially when compared to Mickey Arthur's tenure of 45 Tests, Bob Woolmer's of 44 and Graham Ford's of 33, so it may be going too far to say the team would have continued as strongly.

The evidence that they were a cut above the rest came in the things the figures couldn't prove - the maturity, the nuances and the caring Kirsten brought, especially in the Test side. He convinced them life was not about cricket and cricket alone. He asked them to think outside of the sport and in so doing, fostered them getting better at the sport as a whole.

Last year showcased that spectacularly. South Africa's 2012 was travel heavy as they competed in New Zealand, England and Australia. They won all three Test series they played and emerged out of them far more human than ever before. Kirsten said it felt as though they had become a "family."

He led the way when he decided to run a marathon as an extra-curricular activity in Auckland. He encouraged the rest to use the time between Test matches to explore areas like the Waikato Caves and Lake Taupo.

Before the series against England, he took them on gruelling obstacle-course of a trip to Switzerland where explorer Mike Horn oversaw their trips up mountain passes. The squad agreed that it was the most strenuous physical activity they had to do but that it showed them what was possible if pushed to the extreme.

That excursion helped them deal with the horrific eye-injury that ended Mark Boucher's career and contributed significantly to their success in beating England. Sprinkled with trips to the Olympic Games and dress-up parties, they also dominated to emerge a deserving No.1 side.

Confirmation of that came when they travelled to Australia three months later and defended their title even though they took a week's break on the Gold Coast. Kirsten proved a winning team is not one that spends all its time in the nets but one that has players who can be held accountable for their actions and can take responsibility for when they want to do things.

It helped that he introduced these concepts at a time when several senior members of the squad were going through major life changes. Graeme Smith was recently married and had just become a father, Jacques Kallis accepted the end may not be far away and allowed his personality to come through more and AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla were learning how to deal with leadership.

Kirsten provided them with some of the tools to embrace these events without panicking. "One of my primary activities was to facilitate in growing people," he said. "We created a culture that allowed players to thrive."

Of particular importance to him was the way rookies stepped up and played important parts in South Africa's success. From Vernon Philander to Faf du Plessis, the new caps all looked ready to play international cricket not only because they had done well domestically but because they felt welcomed by the national side.

Tributes

  • Chris Nenzani
  • I would like to thank him for his tremendous contribution to the well-being of the Proteas over the past two years. It is obvious to all of us the standard of excellence that he has brought to our national team and it will be wonderful if he can complete his tenure by bringing home the ICC Champions Trophy next month.
  • Mohammed Moosajee
  • Although the decision is painful and disappointing, it reflects the authenticity of the man. Gary, you have brought a sense of calmness and consistency that focuses specifically on growing others. Your vision has always been for the team culture to be independent of any one person. We hope you will not be lost to the Proteas and South African cricket.
  • Mark Boucher, former South Africa wicketkeeper and batsman
  • Protea crickets loss today with Garys decision,but a life lesson in itself..always put family first! take a bow Gaz! Thanks for all ur work!
  • Explorer Mike Horn
  • Personal growth stops if you stay in the same surroundings. @Gary_Kirsten you have taken experience but left behind a chapter of history!

Kirsten listed as one of his highlights "the comments that a lot of the young players have made about how comfortable they feel in the environment and how they feel straight away they can make significant performances."

It was that which told him he had achieved the aims he wanted in his two years. "I am not in coaching for performance even though I am measured by that. I want to help people be the best they can be. While I am measured by whether the team do well or not, to me that is not as relevant as the influence I can have over individuals in the team."

That's why Kirsten's one-day and T20 record does not affect the way he views his time with the team. They were in transition in both formats with a new captain in de Villiers and uncertainty, especially in the batting department. They failed to find consistency in the fifty-over game and crashed out of the 2012 World Twenty20 without making the semi-finals.

After that tournament, the first signs came that Kirsten was feeling the strain. He relinquished the role as T20 coach, and handed it over to his assistant Russell Domingo, who is also his likely successor. In the travel that followed, to Australia, he made a whistle-stop tour back home to South Africa, even though he had to cross many time zones to spend just two nights with his children.

What was suspected at the very beginning when Kirsten took the job was confirmed - he was reluctant to travel and reluctant to spend significant chunks of time away from home. With three young children, one of whom was born during his first series in charge, that was to be expected.

In the end, Kirsten picked them over his other charges and it is a decision many will respect. "I won't miss the time away from my family but I will miss is the environment and the players," he said. "We really are moving positively in the right direction in all issues that exist within our cricket. I leave a happy man." But he will be happier if South Africa can build on the start he gave them.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Rebel_Who_Follows_All_The_Rules on (May 17, 2013, 21:39 GMT)

Personally, I believe his greatest achievement is winning the World Cup with India. Winning the World Cup is arguably the biggest prize in world cricket and every cricketer dreams of one day lifting that famous trophy. He did a fantastic job in helping India not only win the world cup, but in doing so become the only team to win a World Cup at home.

Posted by   on (May 12, 2013, 14:40 GMT)

Maybe Quinton de Kock will get picked now.

Posted by   on (May 12, 2013, 8:18 GMT)

He is a good man. Nothing fuss about the way he did his job and led others. Always a Gentleman.Kudos....

Posted by Robster1 on (May 12, 2013, 1:15 GMT)

Would it be any real surprise to see him take the Cobras job ?

Posted by ravi_hari on (May 11, 2013, 9:57 GMT)

The No.1 coach bids adieu. Kirsten will be remembered as the coach who has given successive No. 1 rankings to teams he has coached. Starting with India and followed by SA. The mos important quality of a coach is to understand the language of the team members whom he is coaching and talk in their lingo. It is not necessary that Kirsten spoke in Hindi to most Indians players. But he understood the Indian culture and and communicated in a manner which gels with the culture. He was very quick to identify the heroes and the zeroes and started grooming them accordingly. The way he has balanced between youth and experience and brought the best out of each one is commendable. I think he should setup a coaching centre to coach future coaches. I think there is a lot to learn from Gary. As a player he was gutsy and as a coach he was articulate. What ever he does after August, Gary will be remembered as the best coach. I hope Aussies engage him for a year and climb back to the top.

Posted by rsnCricketCrazy on (May 11, 2013, 2:26 GMT)

Excellent article. Kudos to Gary...I respect his decision to be with his family.

Posted by LAKingsFan on (May 10, 2013, 21:16 GMT)

Great coach. Sad to see him leaving. Hope he comes back to India.

Posted by ac_Indian on (May 10, 2013, 19:06 GMT)

Congratulations to Gary on such a successful tenure as the coach. I wish he now considers coming back to India :). Good luck man.

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