Goodbye Guru Gary
Tribute to a likeable man, a great coach and a tremendous hard worker !
wish you well for the rest of your post-Indian coach life.
Is there a man with a stronger shoulder in Indian cricket than Gary Kirsten? The India coach owns a right arm that put out of business the bowling machine. Armed with a baseball glove, in which cricket balls are nestled, Kirsten delivers an amazing number of throw-downs to batsmen-legends, younger stars, tailenders—a species he tried to drive towards extinction—relentlessly during training sessions at camps and on tour.
Preparation guaranteed success, Kirsten believed, and he trusted nothing more than hitting as many deliveries as possible going into a game.
Great expectations were built around the Test and ODI tour of South Africa in December 2010-January 2011. In the coach’s book, winning in South Africa was as big an objective as lifting the World Cup. To equip batsmen for the bouncy wickets, he fell back on his tried-and-tested formula.
“Three thousand each”, he estimated, should be the number of deliveries each top Indian batsman must hit while in South Africa before the first Test of the series. A very large percentage of these would originate from Kirsten’s right shoulder. After Centurion, Durban and Cape Town, India earned a hard-earned draw—the first time the side hadn’t lost a Test series in South Africa.
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During his final training session as India coach, Kirsten sent down a series of throw-downs on Friday. Kirsten is known to keep his emotions in check but if on the eve of the World Cup final he entertained fleeting thoughts of his first few days with the Indian team, they would have drifted to a training session on the eve of the Perth Test in December 2007. Due to take charge of the team after the subsequent tri-series, Kirsten was observing and mulling over what inputs to give to the batting giants.
The frosty relationship his predecessor, former India coach Greg Chappell, had with the team seniors towards the end of his tenure must have made Kirsten extra cautious. He was still to break the ice with the players. To Kirsten’s relief, Sachin Tendulkar walked up to him and requested him to deliver throw-downs. A few minutes later, Tendulkar, happy with the way his strokes were shaping up, nodded back. It was the first time Kirsten used his indestructible throwing arm against an Indian batsman. Tendulkar’s approval was a significant gain.
Kirsten’s effort wasn’t lost on Tendulkar. After winning the ICC Cricketer of the Year award in October 2010, Tendulkar said: “Gary has been instrumental in making our batters play plenty of deliveries in the practice session. During net practice, he himself bowls thousands and thousands of balls. I have enjoyed playing my game under him.”
Coach and confidant
With his work ethic, Kirsten led by example. He was the first to arrive on field and the last to leave. The younger players in the side realised there were no short-cuts to success in Kirsten’s book, while the seniors’ admiration grew each day. He’s been the hardest working coach of an Indian cricket team.
In spite of being in the thick of things— be it shedding sweat during training or coming well-prepared to team meetings—Kirsten slipped under the radar rather effortlessly. When he spoke, his tone was measured.
VVS Laxman, who enjoyed a glorious run ever since Kirsten took over, was at ease with the South African who went about his work with quiet efficiency.
“His job was high profile but he never wanted to soak in the limelight or claim credit for the team’s success. Rather, he built trust between the coaching staff and the players. I could talk to him any time,” says Laxman.
The only time Kirsten took the liberty of dropping his guard and talking “off the record” to the media was to highlight the plight of the players. In July-August 2010, during India’s series in Sri Lanka, Kirsten threw his hands up and revealed his darkest fears—of possible burn-outs among players since they were playing back-to-back matches. After that Sri Lankan tour, the Indian team had to play a home series against New Zealand and an away series in South Africa. Kirsten was only trying to impress upon the mandarins of Indian cricket that resting players was important, as he watched young fast bowler Ishant Sharma clutch a swollen ankle in pain.
Sharma is one whose confidence has remained intact, in spite of losing a bit of his sting on and off, during the Kirsten regime. Once asked why he doesn’t pick the brains of his old coaches or former players while playing first-class cricket, Sharma said that he prefers going back to Kirsten who “channelises energy” in the right way rather than listening to someone who lists everything wrong with his bowling.
Sharma’s case showed how Kirsten pushed players to develop a strength outside their core competence, one of his mantras for a successful team. When as No. 9, Sharma held the fort with 31 off 92 balls, which allowed Laxman to script a win against Australia in the Mohali Test last October, Kirsten’s words of advice rang through Sharma’s head.
“Gary told me that as I am carrying my bats to practice every day, there is no reason not to work hard on batting skills too. I thought he made a lot of sense. He’s gone out of his way to change my mindset towards batting. He was always ready to devote extra time to my batting,” says Sharma.
During the chase against Australia in the Mohali Test last year, or in similar match situations—be it at the P Sara Oval or at Durban or at Kanpur—the Indian dressing room was a sea of calm.
The senior players’ experience helped as much as the unflappable nature of the coach and his right-hand men—mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton and bowling coach Eric Simons.
“Gary brought with him a sense of balance that wasn’t affected by the outcome of a game, be it the Test team or the One-Day side. His behaviour or reaction wasn’t extreme whether we won or lost,” says Rahul Dravid.
Sourav Ganguly, who played the last few months of his career under the South African coach, believes the positive dressing room atmosphere has contributed to the team becoming world-beaters. “Gary allows players to execute their natural game without fear of failure. That has brought the best out of players as they are playing with a lot of confidence,” says Ganguly.
Laxman talks about how Kirsten never got upset if well-prepared game plans didn’t play off in a match. “I had practised hitting the off-spinner over mid-on ahead of the Test against Sri Lanka in 2009 at the Cricket Club of India. I had a plan against Muttiah Muralitharan. Yet, after making 62, I was caught at mid-on while trying to play over mid-wicket against Muralitharan. Gary told me that I had done everything right leading up to the game and had prepared well, so there was no need to be disappointed. Gary indirectly placed a lot of responsibility on players and wasn’t afraid to give them options,” says Laxman.
India won this game at the Cricket Club of India by an innings and 24 runs and took over as the No.1 team in the world, a position they have retained for 15 months. One of the “options”—as Laxman calls it—that the coach gave the team was optional practice sessions on the eve of a Test, a break from convention. It gave individual players the liberty to rest and relax or train at the nets.
“He spoke a lot one-on-one with the players and he took effort to understand a player's game and mindset better. He also allowed us to take decisions with regard to our game,” says Dravid.
Cricketing success, though, hasn’t been the be-all-and-end-all of Kirsten’s universe.
On a lighter note, players were given nicknames. Gautam Gambhir, who always found that the coach, himself a left-handed opener, understood his game well and fell back on his advice, is currently being called ‘street-fighter.’
Dravid found a friend in the coach. “One of my most cherished memories of Kirsten would be the chats we have had. I could talk to him about a lot of things, and not just cricket. We would talk about life, experiences and the larger picture. It helped in putting things in perspective. Gary has become a friend,” says Dravid.
Laxman found the former opening batsman to be an inspirational figure. “He is a very simple man and has strong family values. He gets along extremely well with everyone, be it the juniors or the seniors,” says Laxman.
Wanting to spend time with his wife and children, the World Cup was Kirsten’s last assignment in India. His successor has a tough act to follow. “The new coach will have big shoes to fill,” says Laxman.
To find a replacement for the man who fashioned India’s rise to the top will be hard. Finding a coach who can deliver endless throw-downs should be tougher.
a typical gary kirsten day.
In the nets with Gary
On one of his last training sessions with the team he has overseen for three years, India's coach was, as ever, focused, attentive to the details and a glutton for hard work
March 24, 2011
Gary Kirsten walked into the afternoon sun, shades on, sun cream smeared across his face. He dropped the fielding nets down, placed them at a particular distance and set the markers at specific points. Like a master tailor drawing precise lines on fabric to get the right cut, Kirsten laid out the distances and the angles.
He looked up. "Eric, get me the kitbag, I need the tennis racket and stuff," he shouted, looking towards the dressing room. Simons, India's bowling coach, arrived with the bag in hand and emptied its contents out.
Kirsten returned to the changing room and came out with a white sack full of balls in his left hand, the catch boards in his right and Sachin Tendulkar walking alongside him. The weight of the balls was pulling him down, but Kirsten walked unbowed - just like during all those memorable back-to-the wall innings in Test matches for South Africa where bloody-mindedness was the fuel that carried him over the mark.
Meanwhile, in the near distance the rest of the Indian squad was loosening up, getting ready for a game of soccer. Just as he was cross-checking if everything was in place for the fielding drills, the football bounced close to him. Instinctively, without turning, Kirsten raised his left leg and kicked it.
A minute later he walked towards the rope-lined perimeter drawn up to cordon off the Motera pitch, hidden under a layer of gunny sacks to keep the moisture in. Tendulkar joined him and both men walked up to the wicket. The grounds personnel let the two a good look at the track. They were joined by the curator, who spoke briefly to Tendulkar.
Kirsten stood on the other side of the pitch, left hand clasping his right behind his back, in contemplation. He slipped his hands into his pockets, paced a little. He and Tendulkar walked away and joined the football game.
Kirsten asked Ramji Srinivasan, the Indian trainer, to throw him a black training vest. For the next 20-odd minutes he loosened up, ran swiftly, tried to defend against younger feet, mostly in vain, but never gave up. He took off his cap to try and head the ball, and always maintained his mid-field position. It was a reflection of how he goes about his job at large: he knows his role, the responsibility that comes with it, and he will not abandon it for anything.
No sooner did the final whistle bring the soccer to an end than Kirsten picked the bat up to hit balls to the fielders who man India's inner circle - Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Yusuf Pathan and Piyush Chawla. He planted a rubber stump while the fielders stood at a distance of about 20 yards from him. He then hit balls along the ground as hard as he could. The fielders needed to take turns to intercept the ball cleanly and throw it back at the single stump. Neat pick-ups and direct hits earned healthy praise ("Hit it, good. Hit it, brilliant. Hit it, Perfect.") When Chawla failed to pick up the ball travelling to his right, Kirsten screamed "Aaarggh." He wanted more effort. But his tone remained encouraging throughout.
Kirsten runs a lot. It is his way of meditating. He runs on the ground, on roads, on the treadmill. He reads lots of books. Running and reading help him refine his thought process
On Thursday the fielding could once again be a crucial differentiator between India and Australia, and Kirsten did not want the Indians to feel the pinch of the absence of a fielding coach.
He then made his way to the batting nets, separate from the main ground. The first thing he observed was Virender Sehwag batting on a spinning wicket. "Why is Viru batting here?" he asked Simons. "He should be playing on the seaming pitch." Kirsten is a man of details, keeping track of everything. He is not, though, a control freak - one of the reasons the players like and respect him is, he leaves things to them.
Kirsten lay on the ground and did some stretching. Soon he would morph into a bowling machine, hurling balls down at the batsmen, non-stop. At 4.26pm Tendulkar walked in and for the next 33 minutes Kirsten only took a minute's break, to have a word with MS Dhoni. The rest of the time he kept returning like a conveyor belt to issue throwdowns to Tendulkar, another man for whom the minutiae matter a lot.
After Tendulkar left, more batsmen walked in to face Kirsten. He remained relentless. Behind him, Paddy Upton yawned. It was a striking contrast. Kirsten knew that if he let himself switch off, the intensity would drop.
VVS Laxman wondered how Kirsten was not a fast bowler, considering he manages to give the players so many throwdowns during every training session.
Kirsten runs a lot. It is his way of meditating. He runs on the ground, on roads, on the treadmill. He reads lots of books. Running and reading help him refine his thought process.
If India win against Australia, he will spend another week with the Indian team. If they lose this will have been his last training day. Either way he will not be emotional or otherwise call attention to himself. That is another thing about him that Laxman and every other Indian player acknowledges: how Kirsten works hard in the background while the team earns the plaudits.
After 180-odd minutes of training Kirsten stopped once, and sat down for a few minutes to have a bottle of water. Otherwise he was a workhorse. He was the last man to walk out of the training, head up, eyes on the ground in front of him.
Anything can be sacrificed for truth,
nothing is too valuable to sacrifice truth instead.
-- Swami Vivekananda