“I don’t know the answer to it.” On a scorching September afternoon in Jaipur in 2016, in the middle of a frank, freewheeling chat with this newspaper, the usually articulate Gary Kirsten found himself at a loss when asked to explain why his coaching methods, which had produced three Test maces for two teams and one world title in One-day Internationals, weren’t—politely put—as successful in T20s.
It’s really one of the great mysteries of T20 cricket that one of the most successful coaches in the sport seems a fish out of water when it comes to the shortest format. Even while conquering the world with India (2008-2011) and South Africa (2011-2013), his record in T20s was markedly inferior (see box). In 2014, Kirsten entered the world of franchise T20 cricket when he joined the IPL as head coach of Delhi Daredevils.
Two years and 28 matches later, he would be fired from the job after racking up 20 losses as against seven wins. He is back in the IPL as head coach after a gap of four years, helming Royal Challengers Bangalore.
But so far, RCB have done precious little to suggest Kirsten will set the record straight this season. They have lost six games on the bounce and are languishing at the bottom of the table. Starting Saturday against Kings XI Punjab in Mohali, Kirsten’s charges will need to win all their remaining matches to make it to the knockouts.
To be fair to the South African, in Delhi and Bangalore, he took charge of two severely underperforming teams. Delhi had finished bottom of the table the season before Kirsten became coach. RCB have ended last and 6th in the last two years. A coach, it can be said, is only as good as his team.
In the aforementioned interview, Kirsten had admitted there were many variables that went into the making of a successful (or unsuccessful) T20 coach.
“I think with coaching, you need a bit of luck as well,” he would say. “You need to have a good team. I mean you’ve got to be realistic about your expectations. Certainly, in the IPL, recruitment is everything. So, were we (in Delhi) able to recruit effectively in the IPL? The answer to that is no, we were not.”
On the evidence of the last two years, it can be stated that RCB too haven’t recruited effectively. They have let go of impact players like KL Rahul and Chris Gayle, but their replacements have been underwhelming. Therefore RCB, who once had four of the scariest T20 gun batsmen in their dugout, are now down to only two: Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. Their bowling was always an afterthought, except for Yuzvendra Chahal, and it still remains that way.
Still, the one thing Kirsten perhaps needs at this point is patience from fans and the owners. But that’s also something that runs thin in modern club sport. It must be pointed out that Delhi did show signs of a revival in the second season.
“(Once) you’ve got the team…what can you do with this team? In fact, I actually thought we went from a four-point season under Kevin Pietersen’s leadership (2014) to an 11-point season under JP Duminy’s leadership (2015). If I am in a business, that’s exponential growth,” Kirsten said.
The franchise owners, ironically businessmen themselves, didn’t see it that way. They gave him the boot. “I would’ve loved to have another year. Because the way I looked at it was that we got 11 points, now maybe we’ll get to 16 points the next time. And that was the goal: to get this team in three years to 16 points and in the playoffs.”
More Wenger than Mourinho
During the course of that conversation, it emerged that Kirsten favoured an Arsenal-Arsene Wenger kind of arrangement where the coach got a long rope from the owners despite not winning too many trophies in the latter half of his career (Wenger was still Arsenal coach when this interview took place).
“One would argue if Arsene Wenger is a good coach or not. In the 20 years that he’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. Create a good system. Whatever best systems that have been around in the IPL have had a bit of stability—Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians. It allows for longer periods of success rather than the quick fix.
“Wenger is a classic example. We always make mistake of looking the sport through the lens of a Jose Mourinho, who is like the guru of kind of putting in 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,” Kirsten said.
The trigger-happy approach of the IPL was also something that Kirsten just couldn’t come to terms with during his days with Delhi. There were players who weren’t performing well, like Angelo Mathews, but he wouldn’t fire them.
“I found it very difficult in the IPL space to just fire people because they wouldn’t perform. Angelo Mathews has an average year for us. Would I fire him? No I wouldn’t. I would keep him. I would want him to grow and become better. But unfortunately, IPL is too ruthless for that.”
At RCB, too, he has persisted with players who struggled to make their mark. A case in point, Shimron Hetmyer. From the get-go this season, the talented West Indian youngster seemed like a deer caught in the headlights, but RCB reposed faith in him match after match. Though it can also be said that, owing to their questionable recruiting at successive auctions, it’s not as if RCB had a Gayle waiting on the bench to replace Hetmyer.
“It a tough environment, maybe not suited to the way I would want to coach. But I still think you can do it. I would still do it the same way. If I could get time with the team, coz you can’t do it in two years. Impossible.”
But didn’t he himself manage success in short periods with international teams — three years with India and two years with South Africa? “International cricket is a bit different. Those players that are there in international teams are established players. When I went to Delhi in my first year, it was a brand new team. We had signed a fully new team. You can’t build a team in two years. I mean come on.
He added: “But you look back at all those tremendous coaching experiences. Why did it work with me in India, because I had a great relationship with some of the people that were making decisions at the highest level. They trusted me and my ways and stuck with me. You need those relationships.”
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