Twelve years ago, Gary Kirsten, the former South African opening batter, coached India to an ODI World Cup title, its first in 28 years. As another edition of the storied tournament gets underway in India—“And I’m looking forward to underdogs doing well,” he says—Kirsten, who’s now a coach and a leadership maven, isn’t so sure the format will stay relevant in the next 8-10 years. With funds pouring into T20s, as also the eyeballs, ODIs might just be losing the race for survival to the youngest and the shortest international format of the game.
Speaking to Forbes India in the first episode of Sports UnLtd, the fortnightly business of sports podcast, Kirsten also predicts the preponderance of domestic franchise leagues over the international calendar. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q. The last time the ODI World Cup was held in India, you were the coach of the national team that won the title. What’s your most abiding memory of the 2011 edition?
I think the lasting memory was just the enjoyment and the celebration of the Indian players. There was a lot of pressure on those guys to win—just to see the smiles on their faces that they were able to achieve something very special in their home country was something that will last with me for a long time.
Q. Any particular moment that is etched in your mind as a turning point?
The quarterfinal against Australia was a big game because we got ourselves into a bit of trouble and then we were able to get out of it and then go on and win the game. But the thing that probably stood out for me the most about the World Cup was that I didn’t really think we played the perfect game throughout the tournament, which was testament to the team that we could scrape through and win games even when we weren’t playing at our best. We did just enough with bat and ball to win the important games.
We never spoke about winning the World Cup throughout the tournament. I think we felt that there was enough external noise and talk around it. So our daily language was around just crossing the finish line. It was our mantra through the World Cup.
Q. As it was back in 2011, so it is now, the Indian cricket team is a bunch of high-profile individuals. How does one manage the dynamics of multiple stars in a team and get the best out of them?
In any environment, you’re going to have superstars, you’re going to have higher performers than others. For me, and maybe this comes from my South African background, it was really important to make sure that those high performers weren’t using the badge of Indian cricket for their personal gain, that there was a bigger purpose and a shared vision. And [Mahendra Singh] Dhoni was amazing in that, because he is that person who is more interested in what the team can achieve than his individual performance. He led by example, and my role was just to be the supporting act to make sure that we were operating as a team and not as a bunch of individuals.
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Q. You also got Paddy Upton as the mental conditioning coach at a time the concept of mental conditioning was quite alien. What were your thoughts about that?
The decision was based on my career as a player. I wished that I had someone that I could turn to when I was feeling vulnerable and things weren’t going well. The title is a bit confusing, I mean we weren’t sure what the title should be, so we ended up calling it a mental conditioning coach. But it was less a mental conditioning coach and more like a personal well-being officer or a personal development officer who was there for the players. As it turned out, Paddy was great for me because I was quite new to coaching and he gave me some really honest feedback about my work on a regular basis. Outside of that, he was just available to the players to have vulnerable conversations. In the world of high-performing athletes who operate in high-pressure environments, it is important to have someone to talk to.
That pressure situation has only intensified with modern cricketers, as you must have seen with your coaching stints since—be it the Netherlands T20 team during the last World Cup, IPL outfit Gujarat Titans, or your academy in South Africa.
Everyone feels the pressure of performance. Because you’re operating at the highest level of performance. You’re not doing what the majority of people do, so the pressure to perform is immense. And this pressure is invisible.
The physical toil is tangible, it’s the easy stuff to deal with, you can use science to manage that. What is not easy to measure and understand is where everyone is in their own personal well-being—how they are handling the pressure, the weight of expectations, what have you. Everyone handles it differently, and my advice would be to always have someone that you can talk to when you’re not feeling on top of the game.
Q. Is this also an outcome of too much cricket?
No. We’re in the world of entertainment. So I don’t think we can really expect things to change dramatically. There’s always going to be a demand on guys playing and on schedules. Professional athletes in general need to accept the fact that you’re in the entertainment industry and there’s a demand on your time. So, I don’t think that is the issue. It's more around monitoring each individual’s well-being. Every guy responds very differently to the cut-throat environment of high-performance sport, and to have someone checking in with them on a regular basis is vital for any professional team.
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Q. Do young cricketers these days approach the game differently versus when you were playing, given that cricket has become a lot more commercial and the avenues to earn are much more?
The game has changed significantly and the word that comes out for me is opportunity. There’s massive opportunity now for young players to aspire to becoming a professional cricketer and not necessarily just the 15 that are centrally contracted to India. The big change for me is that domestic league tournaments, like the IPL, have now brought in an increased opportunity to young players to showcase their skills. Not everyone’s going to play for India, and that’s okay. You can still make a good living playing professional cricket. And I think that’s brilliant for the game.
Q. To that extent, do you think it’s more like a corporate business, where one can be in cricket and not play for a country, but play for a club or a franchise and make a living?
Yes, I do think we’re in the midst of a cricket revolution and there’s been a significant shift in the importance of international cricket versus domestic cricket. It looks like there’s going to be a turnaround of priorities as we see in professional football, where playing for your club takes up 70-80 percent of your career and playing for your country 10-15 percent of your career.
Is it good or bad? I’m not sure. It’s just different, and sometimes change is difficult to accept. I’ve played 100 Test matches for my country but I don’t think there will be another South African player to play 100 Test matches. Because South Africa now plays four Test matches a year compared to the 90s and early 2000s, when we were playing 10 a year. Which is quite sad in many ways.
Has the game changed for the better? I think it has. What the domestic leagues have created is very exciting. It’s great entertainment. My kids don’t watch any Test cricket, they’re only interested in the T20 format. Yet, at school, they play 50-over cricket, which is probably the most important format in the pathway system because it does give you enough time to teach you how to play over an extended period of time.
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Q. Is there a way to bring in innovations to make Test cricket more attractive? There have been conversations about playing it over four days instead of five…
No. I think Test cricket, as it is, is a wonderful format. But one needs to place a priority on it. You can’t have just two countries in the world taking Test cricket seriously. They just keep playing against each other. You need to have more players to play against. We need to look at Test cricket as an international community, not just as my country or our country. It’s quite simple—South Africa can’t afford to play Test cricket, they have to have a T20 tournament because that’s where the money is. So if South Africa are now only going to play four Tests a year, even though they are one of the most significant Test-playing nations in the world, that’s a concern for Test cricket.
So the international community has to work out a way that your 10 Test-playing nations are playing Test cricket regularly. But the only way they can do that is by making sure there's enough income in the game.
Q. Do we need a strategy change in the way the sport is being scaled up across the world? Because we now have only a handful of Test-playing nations, and that doesn’t spread the game wide enough.
The spread of the game is incredibly wide. And I think we are scaling up the game, but not at the Test level. Because that’s not a monetisable enough commodity for an associate nation to be able to drive enough revenue out of the game. But, certainly at T20 level, the game has grown massively. You just have to look at countries like the Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe who field very competitive T20 teams. There’s a fantastic growth in the game in the format that’s probably the most monetisable in a country where there’s not much income in the game.
Q. Perhaps a relevant question to ask here would be whether the ODI format will survive? Would an ODI World Cup make business sense 10 years from now?
That’s a good question, because, I think, the ODI format’s under threat. The bilateral series of 50-over matches have become sterile. There’s not much excitement behind them anymore. I still think the 50-over World Cup is an iconic event, but my sense is that bilateral series are going to become more and more extinct, which is a concern. But maybe that’s the way the game has moved, and we just need to accept that.