It’s exactly ten years since Indian cricket began its tryst with an overseas coach. An exercise viewed sceptically as a fanciful and fashionable experiment when John Wright made his debut in Dhaka in November 2000 has today come to be accepted as the norm. If the Gary Kirsten era is anything to go by, it is unlikely that a home-grown coach will be in charge of the Indian team anytime in the near future.
It’s no coincidence that in the last ten years, Indian cricket has embraced an upwardly mobile path. Wright, the understated former New Zealand captain who created history by becoming the country’s first foreign coach, instilled the discipline and the core values so essential to be consistently successful at the highest level. His successor Greg Chappell, the much-maligned Australian legend, was at once stentorian and school-masterly and triggered off mistrust and apparent insecurity even amongst the seniors, though few can argue with the results during that period, early elimination in the 2007 World Cup notwithstanding.
It is possible that Kirsten, not necessarily the first choice after Chappell’s unpleasant exit in the aftermath of the World Cup disaster, is cashing in on the benefits accrued from the Wright-Chappell legacy, but there is no denying the influence the soft-spoken South African with a penchant for the background wields on an Indian team of massive superstars with, inevitably, attendant massive egos.
Almost accidentally, India’s administrators hit upon the perfect antidote the team needed in the immediacy of Chappell’s unpopular reign. Pampered and molly-coddled, the big boys positively resented being treated like schoolboys by the Aussie; Kirsten – quiet but firm, demanding but understanding – came as a breath of fresh air.
There is no gainsaying what course Indian cricket would have taken had Graham Ford not turned down the coaching assignment towards the middle of 2007, just a few months after Chappell put in his papers. The head-honchos were left hanging their heads in embarrassment after they named Ford the new coach, only for the South African to refuse the job citing family commitments.
Kirsten, the taciturn South African opener who was as far removed from grace at the batting crease as VVS Laxman is from crudeness, suddenly emerged the surprise choice, a man with little top-level coaching experience but backed by then-powerful voices in the Indian cricketing set-up. His first assignment was, interestingly, a Test series against the country of his birth, in March 2008, but his first tryst with the Indian team had come a couple of months earlier, in Australia as a consultant for a couple of weeks.
Kirsten linked up with the team Down Under soon after the Sydney fiasco, and was very much a part of the dressing room when, out of nowhere, India conjured a remarkable Test victory in Perth. His calmness, the ability to compartmentalise, and to suggest rather than harangue, made an instant favourable impression on the big boys, and he immediately struck up an excellent rapport with Anil Kumble as well as his deputy Mahendra Singh Dhoni, clearly only serving apprenticeship.
Since then, the Kirsten legend has only grown. Player after player – veteran, senior, greenhorn, take your pick – has, without provocation, heaped encomiums on the South African. He is credited with bringing a settled, comfortable, secure dressing-room atmosphere – a pot-shot at Chappell hard to miss -- and an understanding of the vital difference between when to step in and trade punches, and when to hold back and give the players some leeway.
Coaching at this level is seldom about backlift and foot movement. It’s not about the high front elbow or demanding that players be fit enough to run ten marathons a month.
Man-management is the key to being a successful coach, and it’s obvious, listening to the Tendulkars and the Laxmans, as well as the Rainas and the Vijays, that in that regard, Kirsten is a winner all the way.
Despite their number two ranking in the one-day charts, it’s no secret that India’s form in the limited-overs format in the last couple of years has oscillated between the ordinary and the abysmal, the occasional spurt of brilliance bringing a couple of trophies and somewhat papering the cracks. India’s extraordinarily poor run in ICC events since 2003 – their surprise victory in the inaugural World T20, therefore, shines even brighter – can’t be dismissed but paradoxically, India have grown as a Test entity in that same period, their number one status no mere accident and never mind what the carping critics might say.
Kirsten and Dhoni provide the perfect corollary to the ‘attraction of opposites’ theory. The similarities between the two men are striking – in the middle, Dhoni’s batting is neither conventional nor graceful, not unlike Kirsten in his prime, but like the Protean left-hander, the Indian captain is effective and efficient, his own man any which way you look at it.
Both in the park and in the dressing room, Dhoni is calm and composed, not given to outlandish shows of emotion and blessed with the rare equanimity to accept victory and defeat with equal felicity. As a player, Kirsten wasn’t given to expressions of joy or sorrow; as coach, he doesn’t get excited, nor does he panic when things aren’t going the team’s way. It’s impossible for the changing room not to be influenced by the behaviour of the captain-coach management team.
Kirsten’s big tests lie in the immediate future -- the arduous tour of South Africa in December, and the World Cup at home from February. Having repeatedly reiterated the desire to do well in South Africa, where India have just a solitary Test victory in four visits, his coaching skills will be under sharp scrutiny. And, God forbid, if India don’t have a good World Cup -- read ultimate success -- much of the preceding good work will be given the go-by without so much as a thank you!
The veneer of ‘I don’t need to cultivate the media’ has cracked slightly in the last few months as Kirsten too has begun to dabble in the art of convenient leaks. Perhaps, his frustrations at not getting the BCCI to buy into his line of thinking are boiling over; perhaps, he is convinced his time is coming to an end and therefore he need no longer be prim and proper.
Perhaps, as they used to say of Wright in his final days as Indian coach, Kirsten himself has become as Indian as anyone else. Whatever the reason, he is beginning to speak out, even if off the record, and that’s the least a man who has tided over the revival and rejuvenation of Indian cricket deserves.