Inspired by Woolmer, 'thick-skinned' Kirsten ready for Pakistan challenge

No stranger to the expectations of fans in South Asia, Kirsten has already got to work to identify the obstacles ahead

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Gary Kirsten at a press conference in Pune, May 4, 2018

Gary Kirsten has three ICC tournaments during his two-year stint as Pakistan coach  •  Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Pakistan's new white-ball coach Gary Kirsten may not have joined the team in person yet but he appears to be preparing for the magnitude of the challenge already. Speaking to talkSPORT, Kirsten said there was little doubt about the talent in the Pakistan squad, but also hinted at problems he had already picked up on.
"Everyone always talks about watching some of these players play on any given day and getting mesmerised by their abilities," he said, talking to former England fast bowler Steve Harmison and broadcaster Neil Manthorp. "But the short time I've had in connection remotely with the team, one can pick up very quickly what the potential blockages are. And I guess it's my role as a coach, to assist in unlocking the natural ability that they have."
Kirsten, who takes over at a time of both on- and off-field flux in Pakistan cricket, said it was natural to expect negativity, suggesting the knock-on effects of poor on-field results seep into all aspects of the game.
Following a poor ODI World Cup, Pakistan lost 3-0 in Tests to Australia and 4-1 in T20Is in New Zealand. Then against a weakened visiting New Zealand team, Pakistan only managed a 2-2 draw before scraping past Ireland 2-1 this week.
During that time, Babar Azam was sacked as captain and replaced by Shaheen Shah Afridi, only for Afridi to be replaced by Babar a few weeks later. Off the field, Mickey Arthur was removed as team director with Mohammad Hafeez performing the role in Australia and New Zealand, while there have been three different PCB chairmen in the last year.
"I've been around the coaching circuit enough to know that pretty much any team environment that's not winning, you will get factions. The fact is, it could be highlighted even more in certain cultures and environments. The one thing about being a coach of over 20 years now is that you get a little bit more thick-skinned. And that's the one thing I did learn from Bob [Woolmer], by the way.
"He had a really thick skin by the end of his coaching career. Because you're just trying to do as best a job you can, accepting the fact that when the team's not doing well, there's always going to be a whole bunch of criticism."
"My kids are a little bit older now, which makes it slightly easier to travel, and to work with an international team of the likes of Pakistan was very appealing to me."
Kirsten's time with India should, in theory at least, prepare him for the administrative challenges of working with a cricket board in South Asia, and the wisdom of accepting there will be inevitable limitations on his powers. "I think my learnings over my three years with India was that there are some battles that you just absolutely not going to win. And then you just focus on the ones that you can win, and hopefully that's enough for the team to do really well.
"It's really important that you build relationships upwards. You need to work well with the people upstairs and within the confines of the board, and hopefully build a decent relationship so that they buy into your thinking as well."

Kirsten on Babar: 'Not fair to depend on one player'

The most obvious example of this comes with the contentious debate around the captain Babar and his best use in the shortest format. Kirsten pointed to his recent innings against Ireland - a matchwinning 42-ball 75 - saying one of his goals was to find Babar the space to play with that kind of freedom more frequently.
"It [dependence on Babar] is not fair on any player," Kirsten said. "He shouldn't feel like he has to be contributing all the time to a team. I've been in touch with Babar. He's done remarkably well and carries a lot of the weight of the team on his shoulders. What we will try to do as a coaching staff is to lift that a little bit and to realise he's just one of a whole group of players and that he can free himself up to play with his natural talent.
"Hopefully we see a lot more of that [the Ireland innings] kind of knock from him. I think if we can unlock that freedom, and understand that there's a big group of guys that can make match-winning contributions, especially in T20 cricket, that'll take a lot of pressure off him."
Since Kirsten was appointed coach alongside Jason Gillespie - who will serve as the coach of the Test side - Pakistan have played a three-match T20I series against Ireland, which they won 2-1. Kirsten was not physically with the side during the series due to prior IPL commitments but will link up with the team in England when the two teams play four T20Is ahead of the T20 World Cup.
"I got a phone call while I was at the IPL and, they asked whether I was interested. I'm always interested in an international job. It's always just a massive privilege to be coaching in that space. I haven't done an international job since coaching South Africa towards the end of 2013. My kids are a little bit older now, which makes it slightly easier to travel, and to work with an international team of the likes of Pakistan was very appealing to me."

State of Test cricket 'worries me deeply'

During Kirsten's two-year contract, Pakistan will participate in three white-ball ICC events: the upcoming T20 World Cup, the 2025 Champions Trophy in Pakistan, and the 2026 T20 World Cup in India and Sri Lanka. And though he has admittedly set his sights on winning one of the three events, Kirsten said he was not in favour of ICC tournaments coming thick and fast.
"Sometimes I do get concerned about the lack of context in many games. But does it mean we need to have an ICC event every year? No I think it could be dangerous to have a World Cup every year or other year because it's always fun waiting for those events to come around.
"And we've got to be really careful we don't lose Test cricket. Having Test-playing nations like South Africa playing four Tests a year worries me deeply - to think Test cricket is not so important anymore."

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000