Gary Kirsten had no prior experience of coaching, nor did he have a personal rapport with any of the Indian players against whom he had played, when he was appointed the head coach of the Indian team towards the end of 2007. The one-time South African opener came on board not long after the end of the tempestuous Greg Chappell era, and overcame initial apprehension and scepticism from the players to mould the Indian team into a world-beating unit.
Kirsten’s first assignment was in March 2008, during a three-Test series against South Africa. Within the next 21 months, India had climbed to the top spot in Test cricket – in December 2009. It was a position they occupied for more than a year and a half, until conceding it to England in August 2011 after losing the away Test series.
It was during Kirsten’s tenure too that India became the first country to win the 50-over World Cup on home soil, with their epochal triumph over Sri Lanka in the Wankhede final on April 2, 2011. That was Kirsten’s last day in charge of the side. Despite exhortations from the players and entreaties to his wife, Kirsten strode away into the sunset, leaving behind a legacy that subsequent coaches have been hard pressed to emulate.
To him though, as much as the successes and the trophies, it was his three years with the Indian team that remains special. “I have often said that the three-year experience is what is the memory for me,” Kirsten tells Wisden India, a half-smile playing on his lips as he takes in the semi-scepticism. “Not becoming the No. 1 or not winning the World Cup — not only that. The three-year journey was what was a real privilege for me.”
Kirsten is back in India, back in the Indian Premier League, this time as the mentor and batting coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore, where he has reunited with several old wards, not least Virat Kohli and Ashish Nehra. “The building of the relationships,” he goes on, slightly nostalgic. “The fact that these friendships – I mean, Ashish is here working at RCB (as mentor and bowling coach), we picked up our connection like that (flicks middle finger and thumb). I think the three-year journey that I had with the Indian team are the lasting memories, specially on the back of a tumultuous time in Indian cricket.
“I think to be able to come in and to create something with the group of players was very special, over three years. Actually, it went really quickly, the time. Unfortunately now, with my set of circumstances back home, to embark on a full-time international job is not possible, unless they split the coaching roles and make it more palatable for a young family – I have got a young family now. It is just not possible. If you want to make a success of being a father, three kids, just can’t do it 3000 miles away from home; it’s impossible.”
Kirsten offers his trademark crinkly smile when you seek to understand if he had struck up relationships with Indian players when he played against them, long before linking up with them again as the head coach. “No, not really,” he says. “Just played the game as an opponent.”
The smile mushrooms into deep-throated laughter as the topic shifts to his coaching pedigree at the time of his appointment. Did the lack of formal coaching experience help in any way, you ask him. “Yes, and no,” he manages once the laughter subsides. “The only thing that I drew on was 17 years of playing the game and being coached. I always said to myself, ‘Make sure that when you become a coach, the things that you didn’t enjoy about coaching, don’t impart that on the players’. I actually came with a blank sheet of paper.
“I just said the only thing I will tell these players is what I wanted to hear. That was very helpful. I drew on my experiences as a player and obviously read the cricketers, learnt about other players. I really enjoyed John Wright’s book (Indian Summers), it was really helpful in terms of understanding working with the Indian players. I then just learnt along the way. Made lots of mistakes. Got very frustrated at times. But I have more good memories than bad.”
The first time Kirsten entered the Indian dressing-room was in January 2008, when he travelled to Perth for the third Test of a four-match series in the capacity of a consultant. India were 0-2 down after losing in Melbourne and in the fractious ‘Monkeygate’ Test at the SCG, but bounced back at the most Australian of venues to become the first Asian team to win a Test at the WACA. “Listen, I inherited an experienced team, a really good team,” Kirsten points out. “It is just that the team needed a tweak. We needed to understand what made them tick and that was the three-year journey. ’Ok, what are we doing every day that is setting ourselves up to be the best cricket team in the world’?
“When I arrived, the everyday things didn’t look like the best team in the world. When I left, the everyday things meant that that was the best cricket team in the world. Simple as that. The things that we tried to tweak was how we practice, how we look at the bigger purpose, how we take care of each other, how we handle ourselves under pressure. The everyday things. The talent was there.”
It was when Kirsten was the coach that Kohli cut his teeth as an India cricketer, during the One-Day International series in Sri Lanka in August 2008. Kohli’s Test debut wasn’t until June 2011, by which time Duncan Fletcher had taken over as the coach, but Kirsten had had more than two and a half years in which to absorb the phenomenon that Kohli would come to be.
“It is great to be working with Virat together again because he started when I was the coach,” Kirsten reminds you. “We had a lot of conversations early in his career about how he needs to set up his game. We knew he was going to be a great player, it was just a question of when he was going to get there. How he needed to play to be able to achieve the consistency in his game. A lot of those conversations have in many ways given him some of the thinking around how he needs to build his game. That has been fun. To come back and start working with him again, to see how he is going, we are just kind of building that relationship again. I am really enjoying it.
“Any guy with half a cricket eye would have known that he was going to be a great player,” he continues. “His hunger for runs, his ball-striking ability – we are talking 2008; he hit the ball to all parts of the ground, he had natural power. He had all the makings of a great player in terms of ball-striking ability and talent. And then, the determination to go with it. The hunger to be great. It was all there. That’s one of the easier recruitments you could make, that was not going to be difficult to work out. I wouldn’t be only one who would have seen that, I think everyone would have seen that.”
Kohli’s meteoric climb up the charts, as Kirsten himself points out, is well documented. It is what lies ahead that excites the South African. “We know what he is now and what he looks like. It has been an amazing natural progression. Importantly for him now, as he moves into this next phase – he has gone from the prodigious talent to the high performer. The challenge now is to maintain that for a long period of time, to grow his leadership base, and he is doing that because I think it is an ongoing process. He seems to be in a space where he is really willing to take on the learning that needs to be taken, like we all need to in whatever phase we are in our lives. Take the learning on board to get even better.”
Cheteshwar Pujara’s India debut came two years after Kohli’s and, unsurprisingly, in the longest format, in the last six months of Kirsten’s tenure. Kirsten is emphatic that even at that early stage, he was confident that this duo had what it took to step into the giant shoes of the preceding generation of superstars — Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman. “Yeah, yeah. There was never any doubt,” he says with intensity. “Pujara got an 80-odd on debut, batting at No. 3 (in the second innings), we shifted him from No. 6 (when India were chasing 207 for victory against Australia in the second Test at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in October 2010).
“We had a conversation with Dravid because he was battling with form. We asked Pujara, and he said he would love to bat at No. 3. The moment you get a young guy who doesn’t show any fear and then goes out and makes a performance in the highest of pressure against one of the better teams in the world, that’s all you need to see and you know that he is going to become a great cricketer. I enjoyed working with him, he was good.”