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Ken Borland

Kirsten’s unique double peak

Posted on August 24, 2012 by Ken

There are many cases of highly-successful players then becoming triumphant coaches, but not many can claim to have reached the pinnacle of their sport mentoring two such vastly different teams as Gary Kirsten has.

As a player, Kirsten was one of the most effective opening batsmen of the 1990s and early 2000s, as 7289 Test runs at 45.27 and 6798 ODI runs at 40.95 attest.

But he really became a legend of the game when he took over as the coach of a seriously-talented but under-performing Indian team.

Despite having no top-level coaching experience before that daunting assignment, Kirsten managed to get a group of celebrity cricketers, under the biggest burden of expectation in the game, playing consistently as a winning unit.

Under Kirsten, India won the World Cup on home soil and reached the number one Test ranking.

Now South Africa have also scaled the Test peak and top the rankings after their 2-0 series victory in England.

Apart from the talent and the expectation (admittedly at a much lower level of intensity), South Africa are a very different team to India.

Even Jacques Kallis, arguably the greatest all-rounder to grace the game, does not have the same cult status of a Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag or Rahul Dravid.

The team ethos is drummed into South Africans from a young age and with it comes a conservative approach, a fear of failure and a great work ethic when it comes to things like fitness and nets.

Being an individual is almost frowned upon; the whole team must be treated the same.

But Kirsten has begun dismantling these long-held beliefs. Eyebrows were raised when South Africa spent time in the Alps with explorer Mike Horn rather than arrive earlier in England for more match practice.

And those same eyebrows were in orbit when Kirsten said practice the day before the crucial Lord’s Test was optional.

It’s not that the 44-year-old does not believe in preparation. He swears by it.

It’s just that Kirsten realised a long time ago – during his lengthy playing career – that everyone is different and requires different preparation. At the elite level, most of this preparation is mental anyway.

“We will focus on our preparation and the work that we do. We always respect the opposition and we understand we are playing against quality teams. We will never underestimate any side, we will never go into any Test match complacent and arrive thinking the job is done.

“We will do the preparation necessary to look at the opposition and what they have got in their team and how we can exploit certain areas,” Kirsten assured the media in London before the battle for the number one ranking reached its climax.

South Africa have been number one before, of course, briefly in 2009 after winning in Australia, but, according to captain Graeme Smith, they now have the maturity to try and hang on to the top spot for longer.

“Having touched it before, I think we have learned some lessons. I can’t predict what will happen, but we are pretty humble. I don’t think there will be any flashiness from our guys.

“There will be lots of hard work and with the type of people we have around our group, if we do lose this it won’t be because of our attitudes,” Smith said.

Words like “humble”, “no flashiness”, “hard work” and “attitude” have been used many times to describe Kirsten and the coach has made it clear that he wants to change the players as people as much as cricketers.

Kirsten believes it is vital for his players to have perspective – that real life extends far beyond the cricket field (this, of course, can make it easier to handle those inaptly named “life-or-death” moments in the game).

But he also insists that players have to take personal responsibility within the team unit.

Although the technical knowledge of Kirsten has been refined on the biggest stage, it is the man-management skills of the Capetonian that set him apart.

The failures and the disappointments are dealt with quickly and then forgotten; the blame game is never played; and the talk in the changeroom is always of the positive and what the team has already achieved.

The mental freshness of the squad is also one of the key factors Kirsten won’t compromise.

Allan Donald, the bowling coach, was allowed to leave the New Zealand tour earlier this year to spend time with the family, while avid surfer Paddy Upton, the mental conditioning coach with India but now the performance director with South Africa, was allowed some leave from the England tour in order to chase the waves in the remote oceans around Indonesia.

The same principle was in play when the players were told nets were optional.

In the thrilling final stages of the Test at Lord’s, when England made it clear that they were not going to relinquish the number one ranking without a huge fight, it was the mental state of the South African team that mattered most.

With Matt Prior throwing down the gauntlet in marvellous fashion, South Africa showed no signs of the “choking” ailment that has dogged them in the past.

Far from ignoring the unwanted tag, Kirsten dealt with it head-on during the time in Switzerland with Horn, one of the most inspirational people on the planet.

By being put in real life-threatening situations on the glaciers of the Alps, South Africa’s cricketers learnt a huge amount about their own abilities to handle pressure.

Mentally, the Lord’s thriller was like a stroll in the park compared to some of the adventures Horn has introduced to them.


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