After finishing at the bottom of the heap last season, Royal Challengers Bangalore decided that it wasn’t just their playing squad that needed a tweak. The consensus was that too few coaches were having to do too many things, so to provide Daniel Vettori, the head coach, with adequate support, the backroom staff was fortified.
In came Ashish Nehra as mentor and bowling coach, and Andrew McDonald to handle bowling talent development and analytics. As well as Gary Kirsten, the former India coach, as mentor and batting coach at the specific instance of Virat Kohli. Having earlier been associated as head coach with Delhi Daredevils in 2014 and 2015, Kirsten is back imparting his knowledge and wisdom to both the international superstars as well as young Indians determined to make the most of the chance to work with such an accomplished mind.
The soft-spoken former South African opener opened up to Wisden India on such diverse topics as franchise coaching, the challenges faced by Test cricket, and reverse-swing. Excerpts:
It’s only been a fortnight with RCB, how has the start been?
I have enjoyed it. It has been good to work with some of the best players in the world. Also, to be in the IPL again is great. I haven’t been in for a couple of years. To be a part of the coaching team that they have put together here, it is nice to work with a group of coaches rather than just be on your own. I kind of like that.
How different is it, coaching a franchise as opposed to coaching a national side?
It is very different because with a franchise team, your stakeholders are regional. You have the owner of the franchise who shows a particular interest in the success of the team. The focus and the attention is quite narrow. Whereas with an international team, the stakeholders are the entire country. It is a much bigger journey, a lot more people are involved in the success of the team. I have been involved in franchise cricket for quite a while now. I really enjoy T20 cricket, especially domestic competition, because it gets you really close to the stakeholders within that region.
Against that backdrop, what have your experiences with the major stakeholders at RCB been?
It’s early days, I have only been here for a short while. Every franchise develops and progresses into doing things slightly differently. T20 cricket is moving that way, it’s becoming quite scientific now. There is a lot of interest in understanding the value of players, and I have certainly taken a lot of learning from being involved internationally for five years and now the last three or four years being involved domestically in understanding recruitment, which I think is becoming really important. You have quite a lot of resource now available. Better the players become around the world, more resource is on tap. Now, recruitment becomes important. And T20 cricket has become a lot more scientific. So you start making decisions around your strategies, against oppositions you are playing, in a more detailed way. Analytics has become quite important in the game, so the mixture between understanding people and coaching, but at the same time decoding data that can help you make a performance in the next game has become symbiotic in many ways. I quite enjoy that.
On adding context to Test cricket
If you can create a context around every Test match being played in the world, you will maintain a level of interest in the world of instant gratification. People need to know every year who the world champion Test team is. The rankings do work but I think someone lifting the trophy every year would pique the interests of people around the world. The fact that there will be a Test match final, maybe, would pique the interests of the people around the world.
Has that brought about a change in the way you perceive coaching now?
I still think the art of coaching separates itself from just using data to make decisions. Coaching essentially is about managing people and about getting the best out of people. I don’t think any data can give you those answers. I quite like the relationship between the two. I think they work well together. But I still think coaching, specifically in T20 cricket where you are involved very much in the success of the team, is determined largely by making sure that that relationship works alongside one another rather than one takes over from the other.
Given that non-Indian players are involved in playing for multiple franchises through the year, how do you manage workloads?
It’s quite difficult. You have a squad of 25 players. The biggest challenge you have often in IPL squads is not the 15 players that have every chance of playing matches through the IPL. It’s the other players who aren’t going to get a game but are part of the squad and are here as back-up to injury. It’s tough to manage those guys. They are here for two months and not getting much game-time. I would love it if IPL suggested maybe even during the IPL phase, a kind of a second XI competition where there are matches being played for those who aren’t getting any game time during the IPL. Maybe a league or something like that – it will be quite fun. And it also creates an opportunity for franchises to keep players that aren’t playing fresh and ready for competition rather than them just being in the nets. That will be quite fun if we could do that. I don’t know if that’s possible but it will certainly create an interest. I mean, you think of the international players on the sidelines now. There are going to be 3-4 of them who aren’t going to get a game at all. For them to be able to use the two months of IPL to grow their games and to actually play matches, I think it will be a real benefit.
You spoke of how the approach of teams to T20 cricket is getting more scientific. Yet, the general perception continues to be that the format is all about instant gratification…
It is entertainment, it is instant gratification, and it is becoming more and more relevant because that’s where sport is going in the world. You take all other sport and you take the millennial generation, and they want instant entertainment. I think T20 cricket has lined itself up with the needs of the modern generation of people. You only have to look at the dwindling crowds in other formats to understand that people are demanding another form of cricketing entertainment and I think that’s where T20 cricket has filled that gap really well. With the increased interest in T20 cricket comes a greater demand on performance because owners are spending huge amounts of money to own franchises, they demand performance. With that comes the importance of a franchise doing well. Make no mistake, this event (the IPL) is not what it was ten years ago when cricketers came in and had some fun for two months. Every franchise takes performance very seriously. Players would be fools not to take these two months seriously because their value can drop significantly in the space of half an IPL. And at the same time, if they do really well, they can set themselves up for a number of years financially because there is a lot of money involved in the competition. All stakeholders in T20 cricket are taking it a little bit more seriously. You keep putting 50,000 people into a stadium, you have got a successful product.
On the growing relevance of T20 cricket
I have got young kids at the moment, they are kind of less interested in Test cricket and more interested in T20 cricket. In my own household, we watch less Test match cricket and more T20 cricket. As a family, we sit and watch the end of a T20 game because we all enjoy it, including my wife and kids, they all enjoy watching T20 cricket because there is a result around the corner.
When T20 was first conceptualised, it was supposed to be a vehicle to get people to watch other formats. Do you think it has succeeded in that regard, or has it actually weaned fans away from 50-over and days matches?
That’s a difficult question. In South Africa, the crowds are dwindling in 50-over cricket and Test cricket. I don’t know what it’s like in India. In England, in Australia, people still go watch Test cricket. That will probably need to be answered per region. It will be interesting to see the statistics around, whether T20 cricket has become more relevant in terms of interest for the game compared to other formats. I am a Test cricketer. I grew up playing Test cricket and understanding it, learning it and enjoying it. I have got young kids at the moment, they are kind of less interested in Test cricket and more interested in T20 cricket. In my own household, we watch less Test match cricket and more T20 cricket. As a family, we sit and watch the end of a T20 game because we all enjoy it, including my wife and kids, they all enjoy watching T20 cricket because there is a result around the corner. IPL works really well in South Africa because matches start around 5 o’clock in the evening and finish at quarter to 8, after which everyone goes to bed. The timing is great. So maybe there lies the answer.
What about the kids at the franchises, are they still invested in Test cricket?
Some are, I think the really talented kids feel that they could aspire to play in Test cricket and so maintain a level of interest. In South Africa, we have a really strong school system, so there is still a big interest in the longer version of the game with the more talented kids. But in terms of scale and volume, the interest is really in T20 cricket, in my opinion.
So what can then be done to keep Test cricket relevant?
Everyone’s going to have a view on that. And I think there’s been a lot spoken about it. I don’t know how possible it is, but iconic series are still really interesting to watch. But I think there are too many Test matches that are of little relevance to anyone. If you can create a context around every Test match being played in the world, you will maintain a level of interest in the world of instant gratification. People need to know every year who the world champion Test team is. The rankings do work but I think someone lifting the trophy every year would pique the interests of people around the world. The fact that there will be a Test match final, maybe, would pique the interests of the people around the world. It is possible to have a 10-Test match league around all the 10 Test-playing nations around the world? Do we have a bonus points system? Would it be possible? I think it could be. But you know, the ICC have bigger issues in terms of revenue generation. You need to keep the game relevant around the world. It would be naïve for me to say that that could work. I don’t know if it could work. What I do know is certainly among my community of people, it’s how they are watching the game at the moment, and there’s much less emphasis on people watching Test match cricket amongst my community of friends and people that I know. They have greater interest in T20 cricket.
By June, the countries that would have played Test cricket will climb to 12. Does Test cricket need more teams as things stand?
I think the point you are making is a good one. From a Test match perspective, the standards need to be at a good level, I agree with you. In the other formats, you can be really creative. You want to grow the game in such a way that Associate countries can see aspiration. Young players in Associate countries look at cricket as a vehicle to make a living, as a vehicle to playing the game professionally. It is very important that, you grow the game. If there is aspiration in cricket – you go to a country like Holland, it only has 10,000 cricketers. But if you create aspiration within Dutch cricket that there is an opportunity to make a living, you can increase the numbers. The only way you do that is that by some way, you must be playing international cricket against the best teams in the world on a regular basis. You have a really significant T20 league. That creates aspiration. The only way you can grow the game is people can look at it and say this is an opportunity to make a living out of cricket.
Again on Test cricket, how do you strike the balance between maintaining standards, and getting guys up to the next level?
Simple. Promotion-relegation. I don’t speak finance, the ICC have to speak finance. I just throw ideas, that’s the beautiful thing. There is no accountability to the ideas! That’s the way to do it, in my opinion. If you are going to have a world league Test championship, you could maybe have a two-tier system as well. But again, I am just throwing these ideas. I don’t know the logistics behind it.
On managing the back-up players in IPL
The biggest challenge you have often in IPL squads is not the 15 players that have every chance of playing matches through the IPL. It’s the other players who aren’t going to get a game but are part of the squad and are here as back-up to injury. It’s tough to manage those guys. They are here for two months and not getting much game-time. I would love it if IPL suggested maybe even during the IPL phase, a kind of a second XI competition where there are matches being played for those who aren’t getting any game time during the IPL. Maybe a league or something like that – it will be quite fun.
Just back to franchise cricket. Between the hustle and bustle of playing and travelling, is there time to work with especially the young local talent?
Yeah, it is quite difficult because it is a big squad. You don’t get to work with everyone and your general focus of attention is always on the guys who are going to be playing. But you are just trying to create snippets of time where you can get to guys. I have tried to do that, just try to touch base with the guys as much as I can. And generally, it will be about understanding what they want to do with their game. It might be just developing a new stroke, it might be understanding how to put 20-30 balls together in an innings to be able to strike at a certain rate, what strengths and weaknesses they have. I always say to players, come here and make sure even if you are not playing, that you go away a better cricketer. Our responsibility as coaches is to be there for them. But they have got to make the play. They have got to be motivated to want to do it. Some players are really good, other players aren’t. Some players actually really want to learn and grow. Take someone like Moeen Ali; he has come here and I have only known him for a few days. But I tell you, I can see what his goal is. Whether he plays or doesn’t play, he wants to come here and make sure he goes away from here a better cricketer. I love that attitude, to want to do well.
And finally, on to ball-tampering. There are suggestions that it ought to be legalised. Is there a place for ball-tampering at all?
Is there a place for ball-tampering? Not at all, there is no place for ball-tampering at all. I don’t know what is the right way of dealing with it. The one thing I will tell you is, reverse-swing is very entertaining to watch in the game. The question is, how do you introduce it in a way that is legal and not illegal. That’s as simple. Reverse-swing is great to watch, as a cricketer. To watch a fast bowler with ball in hand and he gets the ball to reverse and he becomes a real factor towards the end of the Test match and it becomes really entertaining to watch. I enjoy watching fast bowlers reverse-swinging the ball – didn’t enjoy facing it as a player, though! What can the ICC do to make sure that legally, every team has the opportunity to reverse-swing the ball? It’s got to be the same for everyone. All I know is that I am a cricket lover and I enjoy watching the ball reverse-swing.