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'This team was desperate to achieve greatness'

After the final act of his career as India's coach, Gary Kirsten looks back on his three years with the side - building relationships, getting the players to believe, and combining with the man he calls the best captain in the world

Gary Kirsten is carried around the ground, India v Sri Lanka, final, World Cup 2011, Mumbai, April 2, 2011

"The years with India have been the best of my cricketing career"  •  AFP

Your first World Cup win - when you finished your days as a player, did you dream that this day was possible?
No. For no other reason than I did not think I would be a coach. Secondly, I did not think I would be coaching the Indian team.
But it was awesome. One of the great experiences of my life. It was a real dream in the sense of all the energy and the effort I put into the work, and it all came through. It was a long road from laying the building blocks to this happening. So it is a wonderful feeling.
Coming from South Africa - and you were a high-profile player yourself - how easy or difficult was it to get into the team and feel it was your own, beyond your professional commitments?
It took time. The important thing is to build relationships, to build trust. When I came in I did not really understand Indian cricket. I played against Indian sides and I had some ideas but I needed to understand the individuals. That took time. I was fortunate that I had the respect of some of the senior players because I played cricket against them. So there was an interaction then. But me and Paddy [Upton] realised very soon that we needed to spend time to understand the Indian way as cricketers and as people.
Probably the most significant thing that has happened in my three years with the team has been the relationships that we built. And that takes time. And through those relationships we were able to built trust within the environment and once you have trust then what happens is people take on responsibility. People need to trust that if they made errors the environment would not come hard at them. They would know we believed in each individual and we supported them. It was not to make people comfortable; it was to give people structure. It was to tell people they were moving towards something other than their individual glory.
There were a few distractions, including the fact that you were coming into the World Cup on the back of a long season. Was that a big challenge?
I don't think it was a challenge at all. The players were so ready for this World Cup. I got a real sense from them that we can win the World Cup.
We started talking the language that we wanted to introduce in the World Cup over a year ago. Everything that we did leading up into the World Cup was around us finding ourselves in that situation in the World Cup. We spoke a lot about managing expectations, about handling the pressure moments, and a lot about how we needed to set up our gameplans and our strategies around what we wanted to achieve in those moments.
We reflected on every single match that we played - the stuff we did really well, the stuff we did not do well, what was the learning out of that, and spoke that language day in day out. "This how we handle this situation, we did not play that smart in this situation, we had a very good five-over spell where we played smart, and come the semi-finals of the World Cup it will be a situation that we have negotiated like we did today in this game."
Can you give an example of where you worked out a situation in the past and improved on it in the World Cup?
The things that stood out for me were the unforced errors we made in our fielding. I kept count. The maximum unforced errors was 12 runs in one of the matches. By the last three games we were not giving away more than five runs in unforced errors. That was huge in the context of what we were trying to achieve. And that is just a small example.
We had done a lot of work on our fielding, but we backed off the training going into the knockout matches. The guys had done all the work. The foundation was set early. The players took on the responsibility and their energy and their intensity and their attitude just rose to another level in the knockout stages.
Sachin Tendulkar praised the efforts put in during the pre-tournament camp, where you demonstrated to fielders how to get the right body positions, things about anticipation…
We focused a lot during that camp on our ground fielding. I have always maintained that Indian catching in one-day cricket and Test cricket is outstanding. It was the ground fielding that was issue, so we spent a lot of time focusing on the basics.
It was about taking the right attitude into the game. Yuvraj [Singh] was key. He creates a lot of energy. He was outstanding this tournament. He definitely came in with a bit more energy.
Did you give him the responsibility or did he take it on himself to turn a new page?
Yuvi had a turnaround, I would say, about six months ago when he got left out of the side in Sri Lanka. From that moment he did a lot of work with Paddy. He made some personal decisions about what he was going to do in preparation for the World Cup. One of them was his fielding, one of them was his fitness. If there is any player that I am really pleased for it is Yuvi, because he has been through a tough six months and to end up being the player of the World Cup - that is as good a turnaround as any I have seen in world sport. He just personified the desire and the pride that these individuals have in playing for the country.
"The day before the final we knew were going to win. We actually even spoke into it. That we were going to win this thing. There was never any doubt"
Bringing Arctic explorer Mike Horn in - whose idea was it?
Mike had come to Kolkata last year [South Africa Test]. Paddy knew him and made contact with him. The guys were really impressed with that first session. So we got him again during the pre-tournament stage. And again he went down remarkably well with the players, really connected with them, gave a couple of chat sessions, got involved in the practices. Paddy and I decided that we had to have him back for the knockout matches. And we did not tell the players. He came for the semis and gave three very really inspirational talks leading into the final.
He just shares his personal experiences about his life and his adventures, sitting with the team informally and telling his stories. We wanted to use it as a time for the players to relax, take their minds off their own issues and their own stresses and listen to someone who had been up there and done it at the highest level. He has done some real extreme things where he puts his life on the line. He was the X-factor. He was that little bit of extra kick we needed.
The group stages of the tournament - did you regard it as a group of death, as it was described in the press?
We never gave it any thought. The one thing what really worked for us in the tournament was, we got ourselves into tough situations virtually every game. Even the games against Ireland and Netherlands were tough. But I believe that really helped us.
So what happens is, we get to Australia and there was this real positive feeling. We were battle-hardened. We had no easy build-up. Even against West Indies, we did really well to pull it back and win the game. And throughout I felt the players really believed that they could turn any situation around. For me the key moment was the Australia game, where we chased down 260, which was a tough ask. From that moment I got a real sense that within our unit now we actually believe that we can win this World Cup, because we can confront any situation.
When Dhoni got out against Australia, was there a sinking feeling?
Again, from the strategy point of view we had made to the decision to get [Suresh] Raina into the team. It was a masterstroke because he added so much value to the fielding. Then he was a frontline No. 7 batsman and proved crucial in the quarter-final and semi-final. He made big contributions in both games. We were absolutely non-negotiable on seven batsmen. And he did a remarkable job.
Is it wrong to say that India were a little bit unsettled in not finding their best team?
We encouraged players not to read newspapers or watch television. Because you can get confused with millions of opinions, and we were really clear about what we wanted to do. We had some interesting selection meetings. It was one of the tournaments where we were not sure about which route to go, especially with the bowling attack: Should we go three or two seamers? Which seamers should it be? We really based it on the team we were playing against and the conditions we felt we were confronted with.
Were you in a spot with the R Ashwin situation, where he had two good matches and then you decided to bench him in the final two matches?
Again, we were making decisions based on the opponents and the wickets. We felt that the subcontinental teams were much better players of spins and it was a risk picking only two seamers.
Did you ask the batsmen to, say, cut out particular shots - as there were a few guys playing their first World Cup?
Absolutely not. These guys are in this team because they can play with great flair and great ability within the boundaries of what we wanted to achieve as a team.
How we set up games was spoken about on a daily basis. The guys needed to fit into that programme. If we felt that one decent partnership was required, then there was a responsibility that the player took on to make sure that if he was in the partnership, he would make it count.
I actually felt we had a great batting World Cup because whenever we got into trouble we got ourselves out of it. We always use the 30-over mark as our foundation for what we can do in terms of getting a big score, and we felt that if we were over 150 runs and not more than three wickets down, we could really accelerate after the 30-over mark. Virtually every game we got ourselves into a strong position at the 30-over mark, specially the ones we were batting first in.
There were a couple of malfunctions with regards to the batting Powerplay, weren't there?
That was the beauty about it: that you could have a malfunction and still go on to make 296 [against South Africa]. Even though there were times we did not fire at the latter stages of the 50 overs, what we had done until then was remarkable. That really was our strength. There were periods of time when we lost wickets, but because we had set it up so well, we were still getting good scores.
In the end the bowlers had a big impact on the result against Australia and then Pakistan.
I wouldn't say just the bowlers won us those matches. Everyone wins you games. Certainly it was a remarkable performance against Pakistan, where they bowled exceptionally well as an unit. It was brilliant, really, for me to see both Munaf [Patel] and Ashish [Nehra] take on the responsibility. Ashish finishing with 2 for 33 from his 10 overs, in today's cricket, on a flat wicket, after all the criticism, was amazing.
We always believed in our players, always supported them, which made the selections difficult. We were looking at what they had done for us over a period of time and knew that we could back them and believe in every one of them.
Were you surprised by the ease with which the team went on after the Australia game?
I think we always believed that if we played to 80% of our potential we were going to be a very difficult side to win against. Because we had pretty much everything. We had good spinners, we had a great top seven, and our seam attack was led by Zaheer Khan, who had a brilliant World Cup. We were doing enough stuff with our seam bowlers as well to make sure that we could restrict teams. We weren't surprised.
Can you tell us about a surprising moment, where you stood up and said, "That's not what I had planned, but it came out well"?
I would say that our fielding against Australia was really surprising. We said to the guys in the team meeting afterwards that that was the best fielding performance I had seen in the three years I had been with them. The ground fielding blew me away. I had never seen us field like that, and we took it through all three games after that.
Man for man, the 2003 side was perhaps better. But the sum of this side has been consistently better than at any other time in the history of Indian cricket. Do you think there's anything different with this team?
It is always dangerous to make assumptions on paper. The greatest asset of this team - who I believe are under the best captain in the world at the moment, MS Dhoni - is that they are a sum of parts. There are great individual players, but they are playing for a bigger cause.
We often made the point in our team meetings that we wanted to spread the responsibility of this tournament. We wanted everyone, no matter how small your contribution is, to be significant. A great fielding performance in the 50 overs. A brilliant catch. Thirty-five runs that really took the game away from the opposition. Three overs of great bowling that turned it around. Those were the key moments for us. We wanted everyone to feel that they were making contribution even though the statistics might say they weren't making a big contribution. That was crucial for us.
The one thing that stands out in all three knockout games is that there was a spread of contributions and a spread of responsibility. It wasn't one superstar. Everyone did their bit. That was very exciting for me. That typified what we tried to do with this team.
Tell us more about Dhoni. Is he always calm or does he ever lose it? In the dressing room even? Does he always keep his emotions under control or is it only on the field?
He always does. As I said, I think he is the best captain in world cricket today.
What makes him the best captain?
He leads by example. He always gives the team a 100% of his effort and his energy. He never loses his temper. He is a great strategist. He has got fantastic ideas on the field. And he canvasses opinions and then he makes his own assessments.
I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him. I think he takes that responsibility full-on on the field. He expects the coach to take the responsibility to prepare the team for him, and he leaves that to me 100%. We really combine well in terms of our dual responsibilities as leaders of the team.
How do you train a team to peak?
You don't. You can't. We didn't specifically go out there and say, "We are going to play average this game." You just go out and play. What changes is your mental processes. What we did really well is that we knew we could play at 60% against a lot of teams and win and get ourselves out of trouble. We knew that. And then we knew that when we played those knockouts we would have to step it up and go in full gear. It was subconscious; it wasn't planned.
Was there any point in the England game that you took it easy and then it suddenly got tough?
Again, we probably learnt a lot out of that game. We learnt that we can't take anything for granted, even if we get a great score. And I think the one positive that came out from that England game is how we came back. For me that has been one great characteristic of the Test team and the one-day team. To come back from difficult situations. This team never gives up anymore.
"We wanted everyone to feel that they were making contribution even though the statistics might say they weren't making a big contribution. That was crucial. It wasn't just one superstar. Everyone did their bit"
We just believe that we can do anything. It stems from Harbhajan Singh scoring hundreds. It stems from Ishant Sharma batting with [VVS] Laxman to save a game. It stems from Gautam Gambhir batting out a day against South Africa in really tough conditions at Newlands. And then all the one-day efforts from difficult situations. Yusuf Pathan getting a brilliant hundred against New Zealand [last December] when we were in trouble. You could probably name six or seven games in this World cup when we got ourselves into trouble and got out of it.
This team has got a remarkable ability to come back from the dead. For me that speaks about the team, it speaks about what we want to achieve as a team. This team was desperate to achieve greatness.
Can you tell us about what the players came up to you and said to thank you?
It's not necessary to delve into comments. It was just an absolutely amazing week. Because every game we played could have been my last game with the team, and it was just amazing how it unfolded. As the tournament progressed in those knockout stages, I just felt a sense of destiny there. I felt we were going to do this thing. To the point that, the day before the final we knew were going to win. We actually even spoke into it. That we were going to win this thing. It's how we prepare to deal with the success, because we are going to win. Mike spoke about it: we are going to win this thing tomorrow. There was never any doubt at that stage. When it happened, nothing excited me more than how the captain closed out the game the way he did, and the batitng effort he put in. I knew he was going to score runs in the final. He shifted himself.
Moving himself up the order - was it not a huge decision for Dhoni to take personally. If it went wrong, he would have been hammered by the media?
Why? That's weird. The media at one stage said he should bat up the order. Then they say he should bat down the order. That's the thing, you see. When you are not influenced by that, you just make clear decisions. You back the process.
You are the third foreign coach India has had. There has been respect for the previous ones, but perhaps there hasn't been such genuine affection. The players have spoken about you at every press conference for almost two years, thanking you every time.
I am humbled by that. It has been a remarkable journey, an emotional journey. When I came into this job, I very quickly realised that what I needed to do is give my 100% as a person. I did not want the spotlight. I never liked it. The only reason why I am giving interviews now is, I feel a sense of responsibility to do so at the end of my time.
I believe the game is about the players, the people that walk the field and make the plays. I believe that these players have shown an enormous amount of courage, with the weight of expectation on them, as young people. It is remarkable. The way they have managed that is an absolute credit to India. They are the pride and joy of India, and deserve every little accolade they get, because the pressure is unbearable. And no one understands that.
The greatest learning I can take out of this time is understanding how to get the best out of people. And that the definition of coaching is probably a little bit incorrect - or how everyone sees coaching. I found that I learned a lot more about myself in this job, and who I was as a person, and how I could lead people better. I began to understand that you can offer a huge amount of value as a coach by focusing on things that coaches are meant to focus on, which is how to hold a cricket bat and how to watch a bowling action. That you can have more influence, at this level, by saying the right things to people, and building relationships with people, by building trust and supporting and believing in people.
What is the one thing you are going to miss about coaching India?
It's a good question. I am going to miss a lot. Thinking back, I remember saying to Paddy and Eric [Simons], "This is our last day when we had that practice. Tomorrow is the match. That's it."
What I am going to miss is the camaraderie, the togetherness. I am going to miss the individuals. I am going to miss the feeling of the energy that I put into the process. I will miss that feeling. I think I loved living out of my comfort zone. For me that was a little bit uncomfortable in that space. I am going to miss that a little bit. But I need the break. I need some time off. I need a holiday. I need time.
Do you enjoy throwing balls?
I love it. I love it. There were many times I had to go for massages and take anti-inflammatories, but that was my commitment to the team. If they saw me physically challenging myself for them, then they responded to what they needed to do. I am not a coach who stands at the back of the nets and tells people what to do. I would get bored very quickly doing that. I have to be working. I have to be doing something in the nets. I can't just stand like that.
At what time do you stop saying "We"? How difficult is it to disengage?
I am quite good that way. When I retired I moved on very quickly. These have been probably the greatest three years of my cricketing life.
Bigger than your playing days?
There are obviously some highlights from my playing days, but this comes right up there. I am going to miss it. I wouldn't want to end it any other way. I just feel this is the way to end.
Did you really believe you were going to become the No. 1 Test team and the World Cup winners?
I did believe that. And the players knew I believed that. I talk to the team every day. If they see I don't believe, they are not going to believe.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo