“Relationships, for me, are everything,” said Gary Kirsten, as his cold blue eyes and a bright “welcome-to-India” vermillion dot in between stared at me. “I am on this journey of life to create those relationships and very special connections.”
For the most part of this conversation, Kirsten had been looking out the window. A cup of milky coffee lay ignored on the table as his thoughtful gaze went past me, through the tinted panes of Rajasthan Cricket Academy’s ostentatious restaurant, skipped the empty swimming pool and finally rested on a posse of cricketers and local coaches on the training ground. They were Rajasthan’s Ranji Trophy hopefuls and they were the reason the former India coach was back in the country.
The 48-year-old had been invited by the state association to oversee a 10-day camp in Jaipur ahead of the domestic season. What purpose would such a short association serve? A month after that hot September afternoon, Rajasthan would be all out for 115 runs during their Ranji Trophy opening-round match against Saurashtra. But for this South African, means take precedence over ends.
“…I am not, to be honest with you, that interested in results,” continued one of the most successful cricket coaches of all time. “In any team, I want them (the players) to become better. But, for me, to build those solid connections with people is why I wake up in the morning. It’s less about the results.”
There was a glimpse of Kirsten’s philosophy at the RCA camp. He told the probables, all 42 of them, to wear their names on their shirts. He didn’t want to address them as “hey you”. He intended to call a Mahipal Lomror by his name, difficult as it may be for a South African to pronounce it. For, in his book, that would be the first step towards knowing Mahipal Lomror, the human being.
“The best coaches that I worked with were the ones I wanted to play for,” Kirsten said. “They genuinely cared about my performances — and cared about me as a human being. Duncan Fletcher, Eric Simons and Bob Woolmer — they weren’t in it for their own glory. I took a lot out of their coaching style, because it worked for me. Their style was first, about the growth of a player, and second, about performances. It’s more important to let a player become a better one than it is to have a great season.”
Between 2008 and 2011, the period when Kirsten was India’s coach, almost every player under his watch grew leaps and bounds. Average cricketers became good and good ones played like greats. Even the greatest, Sachin Tendulkar, saw some of his most productive years under Kirsten. While they became better individually, the cricketers matured as a unit, too. The Indian team became Team India: the team came first.
“The Indian way is more flair and instinct. It’s more individualistic, while South Africa’s is more team-oriented. Over here, in India, it’s the individual who stands out,” Kirsten recalled. “Now, the concept of team was very dear to me. [It was] a very strong South African way [of doing things], and we introduced that in the [Indian] environment. The players really enjoyed it. It became a common belief for us that the team is more important than the individual.”
Fundamentally, it wasn’t a different approach to former Australian captain Greg Chappell’s, who coached India between 2005 and 2007. But as Chappell had found to his peril, the players were not wired to think like that. Here, if you were a stand-out individual, you were potentially more important than the team. But where Chappell tried to bulldoze players, Kirsten applied a personal, empathetic touch. “Credit to the senior players, for they all embraced that. They were all big individual brands, but they embraced the concept of a team — and they drove that team-ness into the Indian outfit. Once we had got that created under Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s leadership, we were able to create a very powerful force.”
Kirsten’s face lit up whenever he mentioned Dhoni. Kirsten-Dhoni had been the very embodiment of the coach’s philosophy of trust and relationship. In many ways, though, they are two different personalities. Dhoni can be very frank, to the point of being blunt, in his public assessment of colleagues. In Bangladesh last year, after dropping Ajinkya Rahane from the playing side, he told mediapersons that the batsman had a problem rotating the strike on slow pitches. That was not Kirsten’s style. As Rohit Sharma once said, “(Kirsten) never shouts instructions or talks about your flaws when others are around. He’ll have a quiet, friendly talk in private. It’s much easier to take advice that way.”
Frequently, we tend to imagine a perfect relationship as one where those involved are always on the same page.
Kirsten and Dhoni often disagreed, but they trusted each other. “You wanna be slightly different. You don’t wanna be necessarily the same. But you’ve gotta be able to have a mature relationship to make things work,” Kirsten said.
Like yin and yang, the captain and the coach came together to form the Indian team’s nucleus. The bond they forged was so strong that Kirsten once remarked he would even “go to war with this guy”.
“I will never forget this one incident in Bangalore,” Kirsten said. “We were going to the Indian Air Force base to meet up with a couple of guys there and do a bit of training with them. And we were three South African members in the support staff. They wouldn’t allow us because we weren’t Indians. And MS Dhoni stood up and said, ‘We are not coming if you don’t allow Gary and Paddy (Upton) and Eric (Simons) to come as well.’
“That’s a value system. He is standing up for us. And that’s what we were about. As an Indian team, we stood up for each other. I knew that MS had my back, because he trusted me, because he knew that I had his back. We are very close as people. I am very close to MS. I trusted him with everything in a game of cricket. So when you got relationships like that, you can do anything.”
Twenty-four hours after a honeymoon in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Deborah Kirsten writes in her book, Chai Tea and Ginger Beer, Kirsten left her behind for an overseas tour with the South African team. “The wedding dress was still hanging in our bedroom, waiting to go to the dry cleaners and already I was being called a (cricket) widow,” she writes.
We often fail to see the family man behind a star cricketer. Kirsten, the celebrated coach and former South Africa batsman, is a devoted husband and a doting father of three. Much more than Woolmer-Kirsten or even Kirsten-Dhoni, it’s these relationships that have shaped his career.
When Deborah and his first son, Joshua, was born, Kirsten retired as a player. When the family expanded with the arrival of James, he took up the lucrative but challenging India job. After his daughter, Joanne, was born, Kirsten accepted the South Africa offer in 2011 — to be closer home. But modern international sport — and the extensive travelling it entails — renders nothing “closer home”. Deborah often found herself being a “single parent”.
To minimise the emotional impact, the couple laid down a few rules. Kirsten would say no to late-night parties and have long-distance Skype dinners with his wife on those occasions when she couldn’t accompany him on tours. “If you neglect relationships, you will end up with a dysfunctional family, and I don’t want that,” Kirsten said.
“We did everything we could. Only on one occasion did we spend more than three weeks away from each other. We used three weeks as a cut-off: then the family had to fly here to be with me or I had to go home. Anything longer than that, we thought, was disruptive to our family and started to cause problems. We stuck to that during my three years with India and two years with South Africa. And after five years of doing it, I realised that my kids were growing up and I needed more time at home,” he said.
Kirsten’s familial obligations mean he is done with coaching national teams, for the time being. “I am running an academy (in Cape Town, South Africa) and it’s important to me. I’ve got 10 coaches working for me. The long-term stuff, I don’t want to do at the moment. It will be difficult for my family to come and live in India or England or Australia. Even 10 days (for the Rajasthan camp) seem a lot,” said Kirsten. “But I would like to coach again in the IPL. It’s more manageable than coaching a national team.”
Kirsten’s relationship with the IPL could be described as a love-hate one. When he was India’s coach, it was an annual distraction. In 2014, he joined Delhi Daredevils on a three-year deal. Kirsten wouldn’t see out his contract. After two disastrous seasons that saw Delhi finish last (in 2014) and last-but-one (in 2015), Kirsten was sacked. For an all-conquering coach in Test matches and ODIs, where did it go wrong in the shortest format?
“I don’t know the answer,” he offered. “With coaching, you need a bit of luck. You need to have a good team. Certainly in the IPL, recruitment is everything. So were we able to recruit effectively in the IPL? No, we were not. But you’ve got the team. Now what can you do with this team? I actually thought we went from a four-point season under Kevin Pietersen’s leadership to an 11-point season under JP Duminy’s leadership. If I am in a business, that’s exponential growth.”
Pietersen is a gifted but a fiercely individualistic player — the very antonym of the word teamman — whereas Duminy is an understated and hardworking South African. Much like Kirsten himself. “I would’ve loved to have another year. The goal was to get this team in three years to 16 points and in the playoffs,” he said.
The IPL is also a space which — more than any other form of cricket — is at odds with Kirsten’s style of nurturing players. Patience just isn’t incentivised. The owners don’t look for a coach as much as they seek a silver bullet.
“If I believe in someone, I believe in him,” Kirsten explained. “I mean there is a human being here as well. I wanna look after him and nurture him as best as I can so that he can succeed, even if I don’t have success. I found it very difficult in the IPL to just fire people because they wouldn’t perform. Angelo Mathews had an average year for us. Would I fire him? No. I would keep him. I would want him to grow and become better. But, unfortunately, IPL is too ruthless for that.”
If it were his choice to make, Kirsten would have with an IPL team the arrangement that Arsenal have with their manager Arsene Wenger in the English Premier League. Wenger has been running the north London club for the past two decades. He has been successful in terms of silverware, though much less so than Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, both of whom have managed with multiple teams and secured a cabinet of trophies in a relatively insignificant time. “In the 20 years that Wenger’s been there, he has built a club that’s consistently been one of the greatest clubs in English football. It’s financially sound, it produces great players. It might not necessary produce trophies consistently because sport doesn’t work like that, but he has created a fantastic system. And I would advise IPL teams to go down that road. It allows for longer periods of success rather than the quick fix,” he said.
“We always make mistake of looking at the sport through the lens of a Jose Mourinho, who is like the guru of putting a whole package together and making it work in a very short space of time. If you look at the history of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, there was a period initially when things were going down quickly. But people trusted him. They said we’ll run with you because we know you can turn this thing around. I wish I was afforded that opportunity,” he said.
His approach worked with the Indian team or the Proteas, and not with the Delhi Daredevils, because in the former, he “had a great relationship with some of the people making decisions at the highest level.” “They trusted me and my ways. You need those relationships. I think they (GMR, the Delhi franchisee) saw me as a quick fix. It’s unfortunate that I wasn’t given another year. But that’s life. I am not bitter about it,” Kirsten said. “When I was asked to discontinue my contract with Delhi in December last year, Jose Mourinho was fired from Chelsea the same week. His payout was a lot more than mine,” he said, laughing.
Where there is trust, there is the possibility of a breach as well. If Indian fans know very little about Kirsten the person, blame the messenger. In his three years with the Indian team, he rarely entertained the press. There were no more than five press conferences that he attended. It was not solely because he characteristically shunned the cameras. An early, unsavoury episode with the Indian press is to blame. At the Champions Trophy 2009, an internal team management report that allegedly encouraged the Indian players to have sex before matches was leaked. In a country where public discourse on the subject is rare, all hell broke loose. “It was mischievous reporting. That wasn’t what we suggested. Unfortunately, what happens is that you lose trust. You know that they are out to get you. So what you do is that you close ranks. You say to yourself that, well, I’ll just cocoon myself with my team. You don’t say anything to anyone. Or in conversations, you just say very generic stuff. So no one wins. The media don’t win, they are not getting good information because there is no relationship created. There [was] a scoop, but a one-off scoop. You lose. You lose the bigger picture. I find that sad.”
At this point, I stopped scribbling and looked up. Kirsten wasn’t looking out of the window anymore. The gaze was on me, but his thoughts were not. All the while, it had been looking inwards, scanning its depths to reveal not just an astute cricketing mind, but a moralist, on and off the field.
India under Gary Kirsten:
Won the World Cup 2011
Won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy vs Australia in 2008-09
Won the first Test series in New Zealand in 40 years in 2009
Were the top-ranked team in Test matches between December 2009 and August 2011