South Africa is heading into the Champions Trophy as underdog and Gary Kirsten is staying realistic about his last stint as coach. So far there is no talk of bringing back trophies, but he does hope for a mental shift in the players. By ANT SIMS.
Gary Kirsten will be in charge of his final international assignment with the Proteas in just a few days, when South Africa starts its Champions Trophy campaign against India in Cardiff.
Kirsten opted to not renew his coaching contract and spend time with his young family instead, but the 45-year-old has one last chance to show how much of an impact he has had in his tenure.
With South Africa’s dubious record in knock-out tournaments coming under the microscope yet again, Kirsten has opted to play it cool. There are no guarantees and no expectations, and even though the coach insists he doesn’t do the job for trophies, he knows that’s how he’s measured.
“I couldn’t tell you we are going to win the event, but we will give it our best shot,” Kirsten said. “I don’t do this job to win trophies, even though I know I am measured by that. I love the work. I am trying to make the team the best they can be. If that ends in us making more progress than we have in previous knockout tournaments, I will be happy.”
Kirsten’s approach has been hands-on, and the tournament is another test of his impact from a human perspective, too. When working at the top level with top players, the technical work head coaches do is limited, and while they do advise and make little tweaks to technique, most of the work goes on in the one-on-one sessions and, of course, the strategy.
“As a coach, you are a leader, and that means you have a significant impact on people’s lives, no matter how long you are with them. So the more care you take in those relationships, the more difference you can [make for] individuals,” said Kirsten.
“The most important work that you do as a coach is around game strategy. It is also about working with individuals, looking at their game and saying, ‘What can you do with your game to be successful against the best batsmen or the best bowlers in the world in different situations?’”
The team has been impeccable in the Test arena under Kirsten’s guidance, but with a wealth of youth entering into the fray in the shorter formats of the game, they have struggled for consistency in both one-day cricket and T20. The Proteas will be without Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith for the tournament, and Kirsten is only hoping that the team that’s been put together can go out and compete.
“We’re going to use the processes that we’ve used throughout the two years, which have brought us some good success in the Test arena. We are going to build on that as much as possible. There is no success package on the market that we can use to win. You need a bit of luck and [for] things to go your way. I am confident that we can compete.”
South Africa has two warm-up matches before the tournament gets started, one against the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Friday and one against Pakistan at The Oval in London on 3 June. The squad assembled in Amsterdam on Monday and will spend time with explorer Mike Horn again. Horn took the Test team exploring before their three-match series against England last year. The squad for the Champions Trophy is vastly different to the one that played in the Test series, but Kirsten hopes the time together will help the team shift their focus to working together as a group.
“We will spend the majority of the time doing skills work. It will be important for guys who have played in the IPL to bring match intensity. We will rely on them heavily for that. We will also use the time to get out of the hype of the tournament in the UK,” he said. “The significance of the Switzerland journey was the way we were able to pull together as a team. We’re looking forward to being together again.”
Kirsten also believes in the importance of players having somebody to look up to, especially in a high-pressure environment such as international cricket.
“If you look at quotes from some of the greats in any sport, you will usually always find a quote about a father figure or a mentor. A guy who was a massive influence in their career. It’s great as a coach if you can be that guy.”
“As tough as cricketers might look on the exterior out there, the pressure situations of international competitions are great and to have someone to guide you through that space is critical. if you don’t have that person you are going to start making errors in your decision-making.”
Kirsten has always applied the ethos that leading is not about power, but rather about influence. Influencing a mindset, an environment and, ultimately, people’s lives. When Kirsten parts ways with his flourishing side, that’s what he’d be hoping for – having made an impact in people’s lives and, perhaps, a mental shift to get over the line in tight situations. DM
Photo: South Africa’s then coach Gary Kirsten looks up during a training session before Thursday’s first cricket test match against England at the Oval cricket ground in London July 18, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown
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