GARY KIRSTEN let out the faintest of chuckles, followed by the hint of a whisper. He might have even gotten away with it but for the various recording devices strategically placed under his chin.
“I did think it would go to that,” Kirsten muttered under his breath. It was like the South African was a tad surprised that the inevitable question had taken this long to surface.
The query of course concerned MS Dhoni and his future as captain in the shorter formats. The answer was one that Kirsten seemed to have rehearsed not just prior to his press conference on Tuesday but for a few years since calling it a day as India’s head coach.
“That’s a question I get asked the most every time I come to India. My answer hasn’t changed in three years,” he said, the smile only growing wider.
“If anyone doubts his ability, I think they would be making a grave mistake. You replace MS Dhoni at your peril,” he continued, making it sound like nothing short of a warning. Kirsten is after all both the best and the worst person to quiz about how long Dhoni has left at the helm of affairs. In addition to his own pedigree as player and coach, he also shared strong and symbiotic bond with Dhoni during his time with the Indian team. A bond that helped both individuals grow in their respective roles. But Kirsten is also someone who’s always come down hard upon anyone doubting Dhoni’s credentials to continue leading the side. Dhoni’s after all someone about whom the former South African opener once said: “I would go to war with this guy by my side.”
So it was understandable that Kirsten was asked the question. Though as always he didn’t mince any words while throwing his support behind his former partner-in-crime.
“The experience that I have had is that all great leaders have great performances until the end of their careers. Till the end. So if you’re willing to let MS Dhoni go, and you know that he might have potentially a great World Cup performance left in him, then you take the risk of that,” he said.
Kirsten was facing the media at the Police Gymkhana in Mumbai, calmly working his way through a conference that would go on for half-hour.
Though he was asked about other matters — from the future of Test cricket to India’s decision to opt for DRS against England — the questions kept swaying back towards the Dhoni issue. But Kirsten, who once held all opposition attacks at bay with his dogged resilience at the top of the order for the Proteas, was always ready with a response.
It was now time for him to asked about Dhoni’s batting position in the ODI team. During the recently concluded home series against New Zealand, the 35-year-old had pushed himself up the order to bat at No.4 in the last three games as opposed to a spot below that he’s generally preferred.
It was a topic that was in vogue even back during Kirsten’s stint at coach, and he couldn’t help himself from getting a little sarcastic when asked about it.
“Gee, that discussion is still going on? I’ve been talking about it for 8 years,” he said followed by a laugh.
“I think MS was brilliant at that. He didn’t mind where he batted. I always liked him to come in when we needed about 100 runs to win. Because there is nobody better in the world to win a game from that position,” he asserts. “He would often like to get up a little earlier so he could get more time at the wicket and help himself to 100. But in my opinion, MS Dhoni can bat pretty much anywhere in the batting order.”
Kumble’s success no surprise
While Dhoni has remained a constant in the Indian team’s leadership, the position of coach has often been a variable ever since Kirsten left the squad. The new coach Anil Kumble however, was first Test captain that Kirsten had to deal with.
“He (Kumble) has been a great player with great results, so he’ll get natural respect from the players. And his immediate success is not a surprise. I’ve no doubt that he has all the credentials in him, and with Virat (Kohli) as the leadership in that team, and MS in the white ball format to take the team forward and have great success,” he adds.
Then we were back to Dhoni. It wasn’t about his captaincy anymore though. Now, Kirsten was being asked whether his former aide had reached a stage in his career where he might have to consider pulling down the curtains.
“There comes a time for a great player when he has to consider for himself whether he should still be in the team or not, or if it’s time to move on. But I think we’ll leave that decision to him,” he said.
That established, the next obvious question was whether Dhoni could just continue as a player and let Kohli, who leads India in Tests, take over all three formats. Kirsten smiled, looked at the questioner and then said, “Are you giving me your opinion or are you asking me a question? I think you’re giving me your opinion. You’re not going to get an answer out of me.”
With Kirsten dead-batting all their Dhoni-related queries, one media personnel felt it was time to put him on the spot, this time regarding his failed stint as an Indian Premier League (IPL) coach. Kirsten had been handed a three-year contract to mentor the Delhi Daredevils franchise. Only, the team managed a four-point finish in the 2014 season and 11 a year later. Kirsten was subsequently sacked. But on a day he did what every quality opener would take pride in by not flashing at any wide delivery—figuratively speaking of course — it was Kirsten who would have the last laugh.
“I think the one thing I took solace from that was that when I got fired, it was same week Jose Mourinho got fired from Chelsea. It was one thing I learnt from coaching was that you’d get fired eventually because up till then I hadn’t been fired,” he said.