What is Gary Kirsten’s biggest legacy and what will it mean to replace him, asks Dileep Premachandran
IN GURU GREG, the documentary that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation made on Greg Chappell’s experiences as India’s cricket coach, there is a revealing snippet from the days after the team was eliminated in the first round of the 2007 World Cup.
“We came here with a flawed group and got the results that we deserved,” said Chappell. “They [the Indian board] might just decide they don’t want to talk about it. They might be quite happy to sack the lot of us and move on…it’s very difficult to keep putting wallpaper over the cracks. The cracks have got big and the structure needs to be dealt with.”
Today, eight of that ‘flawed group’ have World Cup medals. Contrast Chappell’s words with what Gary Kirsten said at the end of a hugely successful three-year stint in charge. “The greatest learning I can take out of this time is understanding how to get the best out of people,” he told ESPNCricinfo. “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.”
Almost the same core group of players, but two very different coaching philosophies. Vastly different results. Kirsten was an exceptional dogged batsman in his day, but few would make a case for him in an All-Time XI. Chappell would be a contender.
Temperamentally, they are Butch and Sundance. For Chappell, each interview or press conference was an event. One of the game’s great thinkers, he loved nothing more than to chat at length on various topics. Though his detractors will never admit it, Chappell did a lot of good work behind the scenes, especially with the younger generation of players. But he was a moth to the publicity flame. Whether it was the Sourav Ganguly saga or the insistence on Sachin Tendulkar batting down the order in one-day internationals, Chappell often used his media contacts to put his views out there.
Kirsten avoided the microphones as much as he could. When the team won, a regular event on his watch, he was content to stay behind the scenes and pat them on the bat. When they had a bad day, he fronted up at press conferences, giving clipped answers and refusing to indulge in any public criticism of his players.
For all the encouragement that he gave the likes of Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan and Sreesanth, Chappell’s reign was notable for the insecurity that plagued many of the team’s seniors. Ganguly was in and out of the team, VVS Laxman was shunted from the one-day side, and Virender Sehwag dropped after a poor tour of South Africa. Even Tendulkar, going through the worstpatch of his career, spoke publicly after the World Cup debacle of how hurt he was that his commitment had been doubted.
Under Kirsten, each man has enjoyed a renaissance. Rahul Dravid, captain under Chappell and most similar to Kirsten in terms of his dogged batting style, was on the verge of being dropped when he revived his career with a Mohali hundred against England. Tendulkar made more than 1,500 Test runs in 2010, while Laxman’s magical unbeaten 73 in Mohali and 96 in Durban showcased his penchant for the matchwinning effort – dodgy knees, back spasms and all.
Sehwag scored at least a half-century in 11 consecutive Test matches, a sequence matched by Gautam Gambhir, his opening partner, earlier in Kirsten’s tenure. Most of the Sehwag hundreds were big and match-changing, though it could be argued that his most vital innings in the Kirsten era was the blazing 68-ball 83 that gave India the impetus to chase down 387 against England in Chennai.
Another South African member of Kirsten’s support staff also played a key role. Paddy Upton’s main task was to talk to the players and put them at ease whatever their concerns — a mental conditioning coach who doubled up as Man Friday. When Chappell was coach, he made Sehwag talk to Rudi Webster and Sandy Gordon, both renowned for working out problems of the mind. Somehow though, he didn’t fully buy into what was said. With Upton, it was different. For the older players, with younger talent knocking on the door, mental conditioning was more about an arm around the shoulder, and a feeling that they were wanted.
Under Kirsten, each man has enjoyed a renaissance. Sehwag and Gambhir have emerged as the game’s leading openers
FOR THE lesser lights, Kirsten was a huge influence. Under him, Gambhir and Sehwag became one of the game’s leading opening combinations, with an average second only to Bobby Simpson and Bill Lawry among pairs with more than 2,000 runs in the postwar era. Gambhir’s main problem before was chronic insecurity, the feeling that he wasn’t as good enough as the big names in the side.
“Gary told me how much quality I brought to the side,” he said in an interview last year. “‘You are the one who can anchor the innings, and at the same time you can attack.’ When you get to know this from a person who has played 100 Tests and who is the coach, then you tell yourself, ‘Look, you are equally important.’ That has made me comfortable. Earlier no one ever told me what importance I brought to the side. I always used to feel, what I am doing in this side anyone else can do. Now I realise I have my own role.”
For Laxman, plagued by fitness issues for the past few years, the effect has been similar. According to Gambhir, Kirsten’s biggest legacy will be a happy and united camp. “You need to have that good atmosphere, and that’s what has been happening over the last oneand- a-half years,” he said. “That’s why the team has been doing well, because the atmosphere in the dressing room and around us has been fantastic. Everyone has his own importance.”
Replacing this man who shunned the spotlight could be even more difficult than unearthing the next superstar.