With Gary Kirsten at the wheel, the South African cricket team might very well have turned a corner. The coach’s never-flinching equilibrium seems to be rubbing off on the players and one can only hope that this is just the beginning, writes ANT SIMS.
Gary Kirsten has had a lot of firsts in his career, both as player and as a coach. While South Africa’s series win over England on home soil wasn’t a first in terms of achievement, it was the first time in a long time the South African team looked capable of responding positively while put under the cosh. They were the better side all-round and while the players should be showered with credit for what they achieved, Kirsten’s aura has most definitely rubbed off on the team.
Kirsten is a quiet man, freakishly calm for somebody who has achieved what he has as an individual. With 101 Test caps for his country under his belt and now the honours of having led two teams to the Test rankings summit, Kirsten rarely flinches, his equilibrium remains completely unmoved. Once in a while, when asked about his team and the heights they are soaring towards, a wry smile would creep across his face before he catches himself doing it and he goes back to being balanced.
When it comes to being up front about where the South African team is going, Kirsten makes no qualms about how he wants the team to be the best in the world. And while he credits the players for their hard work, Kirsten knows that it’s by no means the end of the road. There is no glass ceiling for this South African side. Their next big challenge in Tests come in the form of Australia with a three-match series in November. They can lose the Number One ranking if they lose the series, and the South African coach knows the road ahead is filled with some tough challenges.
“I think winning this series is part of where we wanted to go. In September last year, we put the peg in the ground that we want to become the best cricket team in the world in all formats,” Kirsten said. “To have reached that goal, we have achieved something we wanted. The players deserve a lot of credit for the work they put it. It’s not the end of the road by any means, though. We have a big series in Australia next and we need to stay at the top now. That’s another part of the process—what we do to keep the intensity and consistency up.”
Since taking over as coach, Kirsten has ensured the team focuses on themselves. While there is always talk about targeting certain players on a team in order to exploit their weaknesses, Kirsten fosters an environment where the team focuses on their own game. That’s not to say there aren’t plans for certain key players in every team, though. Test cricket’s tapestry is of such a volatile nature that you always have to be three or four steps ahead. When plan one doesn’t work, you have to revert to plan two or three and you have to keep on trying to find a plan which brings success.
“We always focus on what we do, we need to our skills up and get ourselves sorted out mentally. We spend a lot of time focussing on that and when we execute like we know we can, we will be a difficult side to beat. That’s what really excites me,” Kirsten said. “We say to teams that this is what we do and they have to come up with a way to exploit us. But we believe in our skills and execution. We do have plans against certain players and find areas of weakness and target them.”
It was something South Africa struggled with in the final Test at Lord’s. Young Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow had a perceived weakness against the short ball, and they peppered him short deliveries early on in his innings. It didn’t work, and Bairstow went on to score a magnificent 95 before eventually succumbing to the pressure. Such is the nature of Test cricket and for Kirsten, it’s all about getting momentum in whatever situation the team finds themselves.
“Personally I feel Test cricket is about building momentum and absorbing pressure and transferring onto the opposition. The ebbs and flows of Test cricket is really magnificent and has been great in the series against England,” the South African coach said.
The team did exactly that at The Oval. After being put on the back foot somewhat on day one, they came back strongly and in a big way, not only dismissing England, but also putting the opposition to task with a mammoth first innings total where they only lost two wickets. If there was any pressure on them on day one, they’d passed it right on.
“I think that win at The Oval could have potentially been very dangerous because it came about relatively easy in the end, and the danger existed that we got into the mind set that we can win all the Tests like that,” Kirsten admitted. “It was a very special performance and one that doesn’t come around too often. Credit must go to the guys that they didn’t get lost in the Oval win, we knew that we would be put under pressure and that we’d need to respond to it.”
There is an air of ruthlessness about the current South African side. It wasn’t there when Australia toured there last year, nor was it present when Sri Lanka came knocking. But now there is a sense that the team can be fierce, and with a few years left on the clock for some of the more experienced players the team has the potential to become one of the great sides of the current generation. The first comparison that springs to mind is the Invincible Australians, but Kirsten insists that they’re not thinking that far ahead.
“It would be irresponsible of me to go into our next meeting and say to the team we should become The Invincibles. I would never do that to this team, but I will tell them that the next task at hand is Australia and make sure that we know what we need to do to beat them and tell the guys to go for it. If it happens to end up in a year’s time that we are continuously winning series and we haven’t lost a game in a long time, then we’ll deal with it when we get there,” Kirsten said.
Since that one fateful day in 1999 South Africa have had a reputation of being chokers. Whenever they lose, no matter from where the loss came, the c-word would come out, whether it was warranted or not. Despite a new generation of players rising through the ranks, South Africa have struggled to take advantage of dominant positions and they’ve struggled to keep their momentum going. But things are changing now and the Proteas of old are seemingly shedding their scarred skin and emerging from the ashes as a team which thrives under pressure, something that has Kirsten excited.
“The one thing about this team that really excites me is the way we respond to pressure. We talk about the 10% tweak we’ve wanted to happen, and it’s definitely starting to come through. We saw it when we got put under massive pressure at Lord’s and towards the end where we could have lost the game, but the guys pulled through. It’s encouraging with this team because we have had some scarring in the shorter format of the game,” he said.
Kirsten has had a wealth of success in the few years which he has coached—he is The Special One of cricket. His manner of dealing with players and teams and the way he helps individuals to thrive is a breath of fresh air. Another one of Kirsten’s strengths is his ability to bring people together. He puts his success down to allowing the players to take control of the environment they are in and helping them realize they have a responsibility to nurture a positive space so their teammates can thrive.
“The players are driving the environment,” he said. “We have so many different cultures in our team and the way we’ve harnessed our diversity has been one of our strengths. When players know they are fully backed by the guy next to him, they tend to go out and play with more freedom. It’s easy to say and talk about it, but to make it happen every day is way more difficult,” the coach admitted.
It’s an impressive thought, utopian almost. A team environment free of negative energy where the diversity of the players intertwines and a bubble of positivity encapsulates them. Yet, somehow, Kirsten and his support staff have managed to create the perfect balance.
“If somebody is having a bad day and they’re not smiling, we’ve really focussed on helping players to not bring that negative energy into the environment we have created because they know they have the responsibility to nurture the good energy. The players have been really good at it…. There hasn’t been a cross word said in the dressing room on this tour and we’ve been on the road for six weeks already,” Kirsten revealed.
An important part of the team, especially when issues arise, is Paddy Upton, who worked as a fitness trainer with the South African team, with Kirsten during his tenure as India and even IPL team Pune Warriors. “Of course there are issues,” Kirsten said, “like you do with any organization, but we deal with them when they crop up as soon as they can. Paddy plays an important role in creating awareness of space and does a lot of one-on-one work. I often need his counsel on things and I often need him to step in on things.”
When talking to Kirsten or any of the current South African players one gets the feeling they are destined for greatness. It might just be the afterglow of their achievement against England, or it might be something more. It might be a new dawn in South African cricket, only time will tell and the ODI and T20 series is perfect starting block to see just how much things have changed. DM
Photo of Gary Kirsten by Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko