Gary Kirsten, the current South African cricket team coach, former Indian cricket team coach and former cricket player for South Africa has got to be an inspiration for wannabe coaches and leaders across industries. It is surprising that a person that has had as much impact as he has on the fortunes of cricket teams that he has coached, is given as little credit for their success as he has been.
As a player, he was quite boring to watch although very effective. He probably scored as many runs off the edge of his bat, between the slips and the thirdman region or even off the inside edge to the fine leg region as he did in front of the wicket with genuinely timed shots. Of course, one can not take away the efficacy of his methods. He was super efficient and probably ended up with a career average of over 50 in test match cricket. He also, IIRC, scored an unbeaten 187 in a ODI against New Zealand during the 1996 World Cup in Pakistan. He was, as most left handers are, very successful against India. He scored truck loads of runs against India in India and of course, in South Africa as well.
Since his retirement, he moved to different coaching roles with first class teams in South Africa before taking up the assignment of coaching the Indian Cricket team, coming in at a tumultuous time following Greg Chappell’s reign with the team. Gary was supremely effective. Under his “coaching”, the Indian team performed exceptionally well, drawing a test series in Australia before going on to become the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world. With him looking on, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin, Gautam Gambhir and VVS Laxman were all in the zone against most bowling attacks around the world. All sport is played in the head and Gary seemed to know how to get the stuff between the ears working at a high level. His crowning glory was when the Indian team won the ICC Cricket World Cup in Mumbai on April 2nd, 2011. That was his last match as the coach of the Indian team following which he quit and headed back home to South Africa. Since that high for the Indian team, for one reason or another, the team has hit tremendous lows, losing to England and Australia on their home turf and most recently, losing to England even in India! Virender Sehwag and Gambhir are both out of form – excuses abound on the reason for the failures. The hard-headedness, a wonderful trait to have in sport, seems to have taken a back set or deserted the team completely.
On the other hand, Gary has moved on to coaching the South African cricket team. Not surprisingly, they now seem invincible. They are now the No. 1 team in the world. Their captain for 100 test matches, Graham Smith, gets a lot of credit but I think Gary should get a lion’s share of the credit. A team that was always there and thereabouts has suddenly become almost unbeatable. One look at their batting line up and you would think that it is almost impossible to beat that side. Even all the bowlers look to contribute in one way or another with the bat. Amazing stuff.
All this would not be possible without the mental fortitude of the man. The commentators during a recent telecast of a match between South Africa and Pakistan, were talking about the man who is training for a marathon. He is trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon or some such major event. He apparently goes running in the morning on the day of a test match even now! He is well into his 40s but for his team, it has to be quite inspirational to watch their coach go running when they are players and are expected to be fit. The coach can quite well languish around in a lawn chair and no one would question him. But that is not what makes a person what he is. The inner strength of will and the dedication to improve has to be over riding any thoughts of laziness or procrastination.
So what is it that makes Gary Kirsten the coach that he is? It is often said in cricket that a coach does his job best when he is not seen. He needs to be there when the team has a bad day – fronting up to the press and fielding the tough questions. Gary does that, of course. But that is not all, is it? He must also be fantastic at man management. The cricket teams of today, like in the past, comprise members with egos larger than life. Some are super successful, some not so much. There are always people coming in to the team that are new, wide-eyed and in awe of the superstars. The coach must make it easy for these people to come in as he must, at the same time, motivate those who have been there, done that. It can’t be an easy job. The pressure of having to deal with expectations of the cricket loving public, the politics of the administration, the coaxing of egos, the allowances to make – the motivation and the push for excellence has to all come in. I wish he writes a book some day and provides some candid insights into how he managed the Indian team. The Indian team is a conglomeration of people of various sects, languages and backgrounds. It is almost certain that half of the team would not speak English but would probably understand enough. For him to take on the challenge and turn this motley bunch into a world beating unit has got to be stuff of lore. How did he manage to get everyone in the team to be serious about achieving a common goal? From personal experience, I can say that not everyone has a goal in the first place! How then, did they agree to participate and actually deliver on their promises? Many have failed in their quest for excellence, but Gary Kirsten did not. He built the team with a long term vision of winning the World Cup and even before it started, there was an inevitability of the whole journey. Even when India tied a match against England, somehow, the supporters always knew that there was someone in the team that would stand up to be counted. Somehow, India would find a way to win. It is much the same with South Africa in Test match cricket now. Even if the team is in trouble, somehow, we know that they will find a way. Find a way to win. Find a way out of the hole. Someone will stand up and be counted – someone will put in a performance that saves the day. It doesn’t come easy. All sports teams that win have this common thread running through them. There is a self belief that they will win, no matter what. The fringe players, the players that would be on the side lines, will stand up to be counted. How, as a coach, do you build that in a team? These are lessons to be learnt from Gary. Much to learn from that man – I have to give it to him. He is one of a kind!