Virender Sehwag and Gary Kirsten are poles apart. Kirsten was a dour, left-handed, opening batsman during his playing days. He once made 275 runs in an innings batting for more than 14 hours, the second longest Test innings ever. Sehwag, an aggressive right-handed opener made a triple century in 2008 in just eight hours of batting, one of the fastest triple hundreds ever! And yet the Nawab of Najafgarh believes that Kirsten, who is now the coach of the Indian cricket team, has revived his batting and career.
“Kirsten has made Sehwag comfortable by asking him to look at proper shot selection rather than telling him what shots to avoid playing,” says Indian batting great Sunil Gavaskar. Sehwag says that Kirsten is the best coach he has ever worked with.
The third foreigner, after New Zealand’s John Wright and Australian Greg Chappell to take on one of the toughest sporting jobs in India, Kirsten has a mission: To guide the Indian team to win the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup 2011 on home territory. After having inspired the team to become the number one Test playing nation in the world — losing only two of the twenty-five test matches played under his guidance — Kirsten is now faced with the tough challenge of maintaining the team’s position in Test rankings, on the hard bouncy tracks of his home country — South Africa. That’s a tough ask because India have won only one out of the 12 Test matches they have played in South Africa.
But he’s taken the initiative and done something that no other coach had ever done. He actually took a bunch of players well ahead of the tour to South Africa: Sehwag, M.S. Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina, Umesh Yadav, Jaidev Unadkat and Cheteshwar Pujara. He knows it is these players whose form will decide the fate of the Test series for India. If they are prepared then India will achieve the improbable. The approach is typical Kirsten: Methodical, analytical and yet interesting enough to convince the prima donnas of Indian cricket to agree to his plan.
Gary Kirsten is a reticent person. Media-shy to a fault, he once left a journalist dumbfounded by asking him: “Explain this to me, just why is it important that I have a good relationship, or even any relationship, with the media?”
It is never easy being the coach of a national cricket side, especially in the sub-continent. Coaching the Indian team has its perks in terms of paychecks and fame but it also carries the baggage of responsibility. The emotional Indian fan will always give kudos to a good performance by individuals but when it comes to blame, it is directed toward the captain and coach.
Kirsten was invited to coach India in December 2007 by a panel that had Sunil Gavaskar who used to interact with the Protean as part of an ICC panel. “Kirsten’s thoughts on various cricketing aspects were clear and precise. He came across as a good thinker, which impressed me,” recalls Gavaskar. “We were looking for a coach; I asked him if he was interested and he agreed to meet us,” says the Little Master. At that time, Kirsten was inexperienced and had no medals to show unlike aspirants like Dav Whatmore who had coached Sri Lanka to a World Cup victory. What the panel knew was that Kristen would gel with the team as he had played against most of the seniors — and, more important, Kirsten was a ‘modern’ cricketer; a product of the ’90s who understood the psyche of today’s cricketers, unlike others who had played in the ’70s or ’80s — a distant past. It is important to note Kirsten’s cricket pedigree. His half-brother is Peter Kirsten, the prolific, wristy run-getter. Kirsten himself amassed runs for South Africa – 7,289 in test matches and 6,798 in One Day internationals.
When he took charge, the Indian team was recovering from a difficult phase — not having qualified for the super league of the ICC World Cup in the Caribbean and the retirement of Greg Chappell as coach. Ravi Shastri took on the onus of coaching the team on their tour to Bangladesh, a one-off assignment, and Chandrakant (Chandu) Borde oversaw the team’s fortunes in England. The ICC Twenty 20 World Cup-winning effort had Lalchand Rajput as coach; he continued during the tough Australian tour, where India’s fortunes shone under the leadership of Kumble.
Kirsten took over after Rajput and began to guide India’s fortunes — under Kumble — with notable wins against Sri Lanka and Australia. Kumble retired from international cricket after Australia’s tour of India in 2008. The charismatic Mahendra Singh Dhoni took over as Indian captain. Little did cricket pundits realise that the change would catapult India to the numero uno position in Test cricket.
(This story appears in the 31 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)