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Coaching India is a challenge and a privilege - Gary Kirsten
by Partab Ramchand
Mar 23, 2008
He played 101 Tests and 185 ODIs for South Africa through the 90s and into the new millennium. Now as luck would have it Gary Kirsten is India’s coach and his first assignment is to see that the team under him gets the better of a visiting squad from South Africa.

Not that it is going to pose any problem for Kirsten who has always been a consummate professional. When he walked off the field at the end of his last Test he was in tears and this was a revelation to many for after all wasn’t Kirsten supposed to be the great stone face. For over a decade he was the rudder of the sleek ship that was South African batting. Expressionless as ever Kirsten carried on batting for hours and hours. His obdurate left-handed batsmanship might not have been the connoisseur’s delight but who could doubt its immense value to the South African batting order?

But he has put all that behind him and has made it clear that his heart is with India. ``I have moved on and have a job to do and as we know with cricket coaches around the world your job is on the line from day one. I want the Indian team to put in a convincing performance against the South Africans’’ he said in all earnestness and one can believe that behind the scenes Kirsten will do all he can to help Anil Kumble and his men achieve their objective.

Whenever a new person takes over at the helm in any field the mood is generally one of guarded optimism, that results will hopefully be better under his tenure. This is exactly the feeling as the 40-year-old Kirsten takes over. He was with the team in Australia in an advisory capacity but only recently has he formally taken up arguably the most demanding job in world cricket given the exalted status the game enjoys in this country. Expectations among cricket fans are sky high and sometimes unreasonable. Kirsten is aware of this. ``I think it's a challenge, but then it's also a privilege. The pressure comes with the territory but one needs to accept those pressures,’’ he said recently.

Kirsten obviously thought a lot before taking up the post. But now that he has stepped into the hot seat he is obviously excited about the new challenge. "I thought very carefully about the offer because of few logistical reasons, but not over the post itself. I have previously turned down offers for coaching, but I could not say no to this one,’’ he said in an interview some time ago.

In Bangalore during the final Test match against Pakistan late last year Kirsten inter-acted with the players and the administrators and made it clear that since the team was doing well at the moment he saw no reason to initiate any sort of metamorphosis in matters of planning or strategy. He was also careful in observing that any discussions with the team members would be behind closed doors. So hopefully there will be no more leaked e-mails!

Expressing confidence that India would have a successful two-year tenure under his stewardship Kirsten said that having played the game at the highest level he can impart some expertise to the team’s planning and performance levels. ``There are many experienced players in the team and together we can hope for a couple of successful years,’’ he said in an interview to a television channel. Given his vast experience and impressive record it is important that the BCCI gives Kirsten a free hand in cricketing matters.

Kirsten feels that overseeing a smooth change of guard in the Test team represents the biggest challenge of his tenure and he hopes to make the process easier by involving senior players in the planning of their retirements. At the moment India have five ageing players in the Test team with only Sachin Tendulkar from that group still playing one-day cricket. Anil Kumble is 37, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid are both 35 while Tendulkar turns 35 next month. VVS Laxman is the youngest of the quintet at 33. Kirsten will be aiming for a smooth transition in about 18 months time when he hopes to have two new players in the Test side who have come through on a succession planning basis. This is something that will have to be managed very carefully, obviously with Kirsten being involved, as with a number of other people including the players themselves.

However, Kirsten has made it clear that youngsters will not be rushed into Test cricket despite a batch of exciting talent coming through the one-day arena. "At the Test level, one must always be careful, because it is a tough and uncompromising environment and you need your experience, maybe more so than one-day cricket," says Kirsten. Few can argue against this belief particularly as it comes from a vastly experienced cricketer with the right credentials.

When he was given the job a few months ago Kirsten made it clear that he wanted the Indian cricketers to play less as individuals and more together as a team. ``There are fantastic players in the group and I am looking forward to working with them,’’ he is quoted to have said. Spending some time with the team in Australia too helped and Kirsten found the Indians to be a very competitive unit and very determined. As he put it in a recent interview "what I like about Indian cricket as a whole, and certainly with the younger players, is that they are ready to accept the battle. Unlike in the past, they are not backing off anymore. I think that's very healthy for the game. It is a good looking team with very bright prospects for the future."

Certainly the right kind of encouraging statements that one should make particularly at the start and Kirsten has certainly made the right moves initially. Even though these are early days one cannot see Kirsten acquire the arrogance or the megalomaniac behaviour of Greg Chappell the man he is succeeding. Chappell too was for change but he was abrasive in his bid to alter the make up of the team and this made players feel insecure. Kirsten has given indications that he will be more subtle in his handling. The players on their part will do well in giving Kirsten a patient hearing on the kind of tactical planning he has in store for them. In an amiable atmosphere great things can be achieved.

More Views by Partab Ramchand
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