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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
May 10, 2013
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.
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 correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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