A loyal partner in India's ascent

Gary Kirsten's efficacy in coalescing disparate facets of Indian cricket without triggering chaos or controversy will be his everlasting legacy, writes Arun Venugopal.

He finds ‘one-on-one connections' fulfilling. It was perhaps why, on the night of April 2, 33,000 delirious fans at the Wankhede Stadium commingled into one unalloyed entity and celebrated Gary Kirsten whose reign culminated in a World Cup victory for India. As Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli chaired him around the ground with apparent gratitude, the fulgurating lights were on Kirsten for the first time in three years. The experience would have been strange, certainly an antithesis of the man himself, but the affable Cape Towner embraced it with a broad smile.

And embrace, Kirsten did, the Indian psyche better than most of his predecessors. His stint was a marriage of South Africa's structured, punctilious approach with the charm and flair of India. Not the one for frivolity, Kirsten was a loyal partner in India's ascent to hitherto uncharted summits. The job of coaching the Indian team is difficult at the best of times. Kirsten came in when an atmosphere of uncertainty, lack of trust, and tension reigned supreme.

He didn't have the halo of a ‘Guru' — something that proved to be Greg Chappell's waterloo — but instead declared at the outset his intention to create harmony and trust within the team. Kirsten loved being in the backroom; he let his charges hog the attention. Most importantly, he sought to understand the unique styles of each player and abstained from imposing generic, restricting diktats. In tandem with captain M. S. Dhoni, Kirsten ensured stability and fleshed out well-defined roles for every member of the team.

Kirsten, whose tenure began in March 2008, played a pivotal part in charting India's route to the No. 1 spot in Test cricket. According to him, India's series win at home against Australia in 2008 kick-started the process. The 43-year-old South African established a systematic work ethic for players to follow and remained at the heart of every practice session. In fact, his throw-downs had a huge following with Sachin Tendulkar leading the fan club. The little genius would never have enough of Gary's throw-downs which were an important aspect of his pre-series preparation.

The former South African opener also endeavoured to create an ideal group environment that would support the structure he conceived. As a result, training was no longer a chore and the resultant mirth rubbed on to performances on the field. Kirsten's attitude to senior members of the side was inclusive in nature. He understood that the fear of an eventual tap-on-the-shoulder was a psychological ghoul and was clear that such players should be allowed to go out on their own terms. Such backing helped the likes of V. V. S. Laxman whose form reached a crescendo under Kirsten.

Gary formed a formidable combine with bowling coach Eric Simmons and Paddy Upton who handled the mental conditioning of players. Repetition of tasks and consistency of purpose were buzzwords that had to be complied with and Kirsten pulled all stops to make them happen. Despite an evidently professional modus operandi, he also facilitated individual attention to players, especially youngsters, making sure that they could always fall back on him. It is, therefore, no wonder that players such as Yuvraj Singh, who went through a wretched phase, swear by Kirsten. The enigmatic southpaw calls Gary a ‘father figure' even as Tendulkar considers it a ‘pleasure to rub shoulders with him'. For Dhoni, he is the ‘best thing that happened to Indian cricket'.

A gritty batsman in his playing days, Kirsten has managed to create an ambience of positivity in the most adverse of circumstances. Gary's efficacy in coalescing disparate facets of Indian cricket without triggering chaos or controversy will be his everlasting legacy. Kirsten now chooses to go out as spending time with a young family is top priority. His country would definitely love to have him as the coach. If he does pick up that gauntlet, be rest assured that ‘choking' matters will be addressed head-on. Kirsten, of course, would still remain under the radar.