Ahmedabad:Gary Kirsten, India's coach, looks back at his two and a half years with the team: from building one-on-one relationships to putting himself in a player's shoes before offering advice.
How does it feel to be the coach of the World's No. 1 Test side?
It has been a great experience to be part of this team. We set our sights way back, maybe two-and-a-half years ago, where we felt that we had the team that could consistently be the best in Test cricket. It is through the hard work and the efforts put in by the players that we have been able to maintain that position. There is a strong belief in this team about our ability to win games of cricket.
Is that a big change, this belief the players have got now?
Great Test teams develop over a long time and there are players in this team who have been great performers for India for many years. What I have been excited by is how they have embraced the concept of playing for a bigger cause other than their own personal glory. This has been reflected in the effort they have put into upgrading their skills outside of their core activity in the team. Ishant Sharma's knock in Mohali against Australia is a case in point. The individuals in this team want to make a contribution that can bring Team India further success.
What has been the biggest satisfaction for you as a coach?
It is lovely to be part of an environment where the rewards are coming because of the hard work the players are putting in. We made a decision as a team that this was one area we will not compromise. We spend a lot of time making sure we are well prepared for games. The senior players have led the way in this regard and have been a tremendous example to young players in their work ethic. Our preparation for games has improved substantially and the players are really enjoying their practicing time rather than going through the motions.
I have also been excited especially about how badly the younger players want to play Test cricket. There is a real desire to become a successful Test cricketer for India and that can only be a good thing for Indian cricket in the future.
It has been about 30 months you have been in charge. When you started,did you reckon you
would move from No. 4 in the Test rankings to the top spot?
From the outset I always believed that the team had the ability to be the best team in the world. The key was to how to get there. The mission really began in September of 2008 when Australia toured India in a four-match Test series. We had an 18-day preparation slot due to the postponement of the Champions Trophy and it gave us the opportunity to spend some quality time together and decide what we wanted to achieve going forward and how we were going to get there. After winning that series it gave us some real momentum and we set our sights on becoming No. 1.
When exactly did India make the big leap?
The important thing for me is our consistency. In the last two years of Test cricket, we have lost just two games. The players in this team have shown the desire and ability to churn out big performances day in, day out. Every player wants to do something if it is his day. Everyone wants to feel part of the success. The way the seam bowlers have taken on the responsibility to be an integral part of the bowling unit has also been fantastic.
What have you learnt from your experience with the Indians?
As much as I have tried to influence the players to do things that I feel are best for them, I've learnt as much from them. I have learnt how differently the Indians play cricket to the South Africans, Australians and the English. They have got very different ideas and very different thinking. I have enjoyed bringing the Indian style and a South African influence and connecting the two. On the one side you have got the real flair and expressiveness and the in-the-moment type of playing of the game and on the other you have a South African influence, which is more structured and a little bit more planned. Combining the two of them has helped produce a strong team.
Would you say understanding the local culture has allowed you to communicate with the team better?
When Paddy [Upton] and I started this job it was important for us to build trust. The players needed to trust us and to know what our intentions were - that we genuinely wanted to help them in whatever way possible to become improved cricketers. The players also needed to know that I would not be standing on the parapets telling everyone that the reason for our success was because of me. The game is about the players. They have done the work, they have put in the hard work and they deserve the accolades that come with that. Once we built that trust and a harmonious and positive working environment was created, we were then able to build the platform and foundations for achieving long-term success. Naturally, there have been many challenges and obstacles along the way, but I truly believe that each setback has been a real growth and learning opportunity for everyone.
How much time did it take for both sides to build that trust?
It took a long time to connect with every player in a way that the player felt could add value to his career. Every player is so very different, and to understand them in a way where you can be a real help to them takes time. It took me about nine months to a year. Once that is set up, then one's influence can be significant and one can achieve a lot in a short space of time.
Did you surprise yourself that you could do that, considering that as a player you were probably seen to be your own man?
I have always been very understanding of the different and unique ways of playing the game. Someone like Virender Sehwag plays the game completely different to the way I played. I felt I really needed to learn about how he wanted to play the game and what his mental processes were. It was important for me to have a positive influence over him and to encourage him to maintain his natural ability to take bowlers on at the top of the innings. At the same time I wanted to encourage him to play in a way that could give him as much consistency as possible, because in this way even when he is scoring 30 or 40 runs we are off to a good start.
Incidentally Sehwag has a question for you. He wants to know how you keep your cool regardless of the situation during a match.
Is Viru asking me that?
It might look calm on the outside but looks can be deceiving. I'm of the opinion that the players need to see in their captain and their coach a calmness, regardless of the performances in the game. They need to feel that we are backing them through every situation and that when things are not going well we still back them. The players know that both MS [Dhoni] and myself expect full effort and commitment during practice and play. If a player makes an error on the field or we lose the game, that's fine as long as we have given everything to try and enforce a positive result.
Every coach has his mantra. What's your abiding, unshakeable one?
In my short coaching career I have tried to use my reference points as a player as much as possible. Whenever I need to say something to the players I put myself in the room as if I was talking to myself and think of what I would want to hear from the coach. I feel this has helped me tremendously. I've always maintained that if one is going to say something, don't say it if it is not going to add value. So I have tried to stand by that. I believe that one needs to give the players more credit for their own thinking and the way that they can do it rather than me shoving information down their throats.
It is important that they know I'm there and that I will work as hard as possible on helping them prepare for games. I believe that sometimes coaches talk too much just to "tick the box" rather than backing a players own thinking and letting him be. After all it is the player who needs to be clear in his head in the pressure situation during game time - he can't call to the coach to think for him.
Perhaps that explains why you believe in optional nets, even on the eve of a Test match?
I like the concept of optional practice because it gives each player the opportunity to decide what would be the best thing for him to do to get ready for a big game. We don't do it all the time but rather when we feel some players would benefit more from rest than another practice.
I think in cricket we are locked in perceptions. If we don't have a warm-up game on a tour then that means you are not prepared for the Test match. If a player doesn't bowl the day before the Test he is not ready. Those are age-old perceptions, but in the world of modern professional sport we have gone much further down the road to understanding how we are going to get the best out of someone when he crosses the ropes. A warm-up game might be appropriate in some countries and not appropriate in other countries. Equally a warm-up game might suit some players and not others. Personally, I never enjoyed a warm-up game as I was worried that if I got a hundred in the game, I had used up a big score for the tour. I preferred to save it for a Test match. I believe it is a balancing act and as coaches we need to understand what is most appropriate for the team to make sure they are ready to perform.
My coaching style is not too blanket style. Sometimes we stagger the net sessions, where we have six or seven guys coming earlier and other guys coming in later. So we make sure there is enough mental rest while making sure you are repeating your skills enough in training and doing it at the right time.
There are two good examples I can give: as I pointed out earlier, in October 2008, for the home series against Australia, we had 18 days of preparation. In the recent series against them, we had a five-day preparation. I would say both were equally effective.
That could also be because you have put in place a structure the players find easy to slip into?
It is more the environment rather than the structure. It is how you set up the environment so that the players are comfortable but responsible. They also know that if they are taking shortcuts in their preparation, I will be close by to give them a nudge to get going and get the work done. As I have mentioned already, we have improved significantly in the way we prepare, and the players have been accountable to each other for their efforts
How do you define your role: as a man-manger, a facilitator or a head coach?
The word "coach" is probably the wrong word. I believe cricket coaching in its purest form is taking a 12-year-old and working on his technique and his gameplans. The head coach of an international cricket team is more like a soccer manager, where one is overseeing many different areas. The head coach needs to make sure that the ship runs smoothly and that the values and standards set out by the team are been adhered to on a daily basis. If we as a team are living our values daily, then the captain can take his troops onto the field and be comfortable knowing he has 11 players fully committed and prepared for battle.
The players have high praise for you and say that you are the most hardworking of the lot. Is it
an extension of your personality as a player, or did you consciously work out that if you have to make a change you need to put in the effort?
For me it is important that we practise purposefully and deliberately. Every session that we do I am trying to make sure it is deliberate in what we are trying to achieve. As an example let's take Sachin [Tendulkar]. I probably threw between 1500 and 2000 balls to him in the net before the first Test in Mohali recently, against Australia. He was trying to achieve a feel to get him ready for series. Every player prepares differently but they need to know that I am there for them. I don't care how tired I am, I will be there and I will work with them.
I really have enjoyed these one-on-one connections with the players. That, for me, is my most fulfilling work: I love being in that space, one-on-one, in a net, with an individual, just monitoring his game. My coaching philosophy or style is him asking the questions about his game rather than me telling him about his game.
Let's talk about Tendulkar. With his experience, is he the easiest person to coach or the most difficult?
I think he is a professor in his batting. He has got incredible knowledge about his own batting and basically uses me as a sounding board. After 21 years of playing the game he still wants to learn about his batting and still feels he needs someone to bounce ideas off. It has been a real privilege to have had that opportunity. I absolutely love it.
Again, less is more. You don't need to say too much. But every now and again we have had lengthy conversations about his batting, and other times we have had very little. It does vary according to how he is feeling about his batting. One great example for young batsmen around the world I use is: Tendulkar studies the whole book for the exam. He does not leave anything to chance. He will never finish a net session till he has made sure he has done everything that he feels is required to get him ready for the next match. Sometimes it is 300 balls, other times it is 1500 balls, in the week leading up to the match. He has to leave the net feeling comfortable.
Have you learnt anything from him?
His approach to batting has been fascinating. He has got very specific ideas about his technique. I often take notes on the conversations we have about his batting as I believe there is so much learning, especially for younger players. One also needs to be mindful - it is his game, his technique and his way of playing. It is important to distinguish that it is not for everyone.
What about Gautam Gambhir?
I have enjoyed working with Gautam as well. I think we have had similar mental processes. He is quite an intense guy and very serious about his batting. He likes to be in a scrap, likes it when the pressure is on. He likes to ask me a lot of questions about how I approached things because I was in the same position [opener] as him when I played. So I try and provide him with a lot of inputs about things I felt might be able to help his game.
You played 100 Tests yourself. You coach a team that has two different sets of players: one has played more Tests than you and the other is the inexperienced one. How do you handle these two groups?
I believe that some players need more inputs, more nurturing than others. Again, each individual is very different. Even some of your senior players like to know that they are doing a good job and are adding value to the team. It is my responsibility to assess that. The important thing is, no matter how I manage them, each individual needs to know that they can trust me, that the things I am saying to them are for their benefit. They are going to be here a lot longer than I am. I just hope I can have a positive influence on each one of them in a different way over the short space of time I am with the team.
You like to keep a low-key profile. Is that important?
As important as the media is to the game I don't feel I have got a lot to say publicly. Whether the team performs well or not, we as a support staff need to know we have tried everything to give the players the best chance of success. Obviously the team's success brings a lot of satisfaction for the work done by all of us. As an example, nothing excites me more than Ishant Sharma going to win a game for India with the bat because I know how much time he puts in the nets.
There is possibly a perception that you like to give a player the space to grow and understand himself. But at times the message doesn't get across. Do you agree?
I certainly won't comment on any individual but my coaching philosophy might not work for everyone. So I have to manipulate my thinking to make it work best for certain individuals. Sometimes there are players who don't fire under you. That is going to happen, you do everything you think of to make the environment work for him, but things don't happen.
Moving on to your relationship with Dhoni. He is possibly the most important player in the side. He seems like someone who leads by instinct. What kind or relationship do you share with him?
Yes, he does lead by his gut feel. He has got very instinctive ideas on the game. He has been absolutely critical to the success of this team. He is a calming influence. He does not get overly emotional through success and failure. He expects individuals on the field to be able to perform and that is team management's responsibility to make sure that we have prepared them in such a way that they are ready to perform. We have a strong trust relationship. We have not had a cross word in three years because we have a lot of respect for each other. We do have difference of opinions and we discuss them If we are undecided on something, we will ask some of the players their thoughts and come to a decision. He is an incredible captain in terms of the way he has the feel for the game. I have not seen many in the world have the flair for the game like he does. One thing you would have noticed in his two years as captain of the Test side specifically is that how the seamers have grown to play a massive role in this team. They have got as many wickets as the spinners have got on flat wickets because he uses the seamers cleverly at various times in the game. He brings them into the game all the time. They are never spending two sessions out in the field just fielding after bowling fiver overs early on.
Does his spontaneity scare you at times?
He does things sometimes that I might do it differently, but I certainly trust him with his decision-making. I have always believed that when it comes to strategy there are many ways to skin a cat. And that is where MS is very good - he will often think left field, think creatively about something, to achieve results. I am very mindful of the fact that it is not my way that is necessarily the right way. There might be another way that could be the right one, too.
What is the biggest challenge for this team?
Managing the expectations - that is the biggest challenge. I do not think anyone fully appreciates the pressure each of these individuals is under. It is immense, immense. Cricket is such a huge game over here and these individuals are feeling the mental strain as they are playing a lot of cricket. Managing the physical and mental demands is probably the biggest challenge.
What about the ageing middle order?
It is difficult to say because there is no indication of any of them retiring. And I always ask them. They are certainly not in any rush. Look, if Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar or VVS Laxman decides to retire it is a major blow. Just like when Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting decide to retire it is a major blow for their respective teams. But as long as the retirements of these players are staggered, rather than everyone leaving all at ,once it will be a little easier for the team to integrate and groom the younger players. Next year will be challenging because there are 14 Test matches. It will be a physically demanding year, especially for the senior players.
So you would want to know in advance from the senior players about their plans?
I do check with them. There are enough young players out there but it will take them a few years to get the type of experience required to build a successful Test career. There might be a rebuilding phase in India in two years' time, but every team has to go through that, especially when great players retire.
Is India in safe hands as far as the next generation is concerned?
Yes, there are some really good players. You will have Sehwag, Gambhir, Dhoni, Raina, along with the likes of Ishant, Vijay, Pujara and others. Yes, you might miss out on a Laxman batting in a crucial situation to win you a game, but someone like Suresh Raina has done it plenty of times in one-dayers so there is no reason why he can't transfer it to a Test match.
What about the bowlers? When you came in, the fast-bowling stocks were much better. But the second line of bowlers now seems to be struggling for form and from injuries.
It is difficult to say. Fast bowling is the most physically demanding task on a cricket field. Even the most finely tuned fast bowlers are getting injured because of the amount of game time. You can't expect a Zaheer Khan or an Ishant Sharma to be there game in and game out. We need to have a supply of four to five fast bowlers who can come in anytime. There is the potential to have that, but it is not there yet. There are a couple of youngsters we can get quite excited about but they have a long way to go. At the moment I believe the three seamers who we can get the most out of are Zaheer, Ishant and Sreesanth. Ashish Nehra and Praveen Kumar have shown they have the necessary skills to be successful in the one-day game.
It is a bit of a concern because there are constant niggles, constant injury concerns. The South African series is a big one and it is more than likely we are going to use three seamers, so it is going to be really important that we have three really fit fast bowlers who will make an impact in the Test matches.
Are you well equipped as far as injury management is concerned?
We need to make sure that we have the right expertise in the environment to manage injures and we have worked hard towards that. But it is also the responsibility of the players and we always tell the guys to manage their bodies, manage themselves in a way that gives them the best chance of success. When these players leave the Indian environment we can't go their home territory and hold their hands to go through the physical processes. If they do it themselves it is going to show up in their performances.
Would it not be beneficial to the second line of players to have somebody like Eric Simons, the bowling coach, visitng the NCA during his free time?
More than that what we probably need to find in the future is a physical conditioning co-ordinator between the NCA and the team, someone that is a link. So when guys are out of the set-up they are constantly monitored.
The bowling coach is very much needed with the national team and really does not have the time to do any work at the NCA.
Who do you think would be the right person for such a job?
To find the right person would need to be discussed with Anil Kumble and NCA.
Based on my conversation with certain fringe players who are sitting out on the bench, it seems they don't get a clear message about where they have gone wrong. They seem uncertain about what they need to do to get things right.
Sometimes it is really difficult getting the balance of the team right and players miss out because of that. I have tried to communicate as much as possible with players that are not playing, but often a player feels he should be playing. I understand that and I know players get frustrated. I've always believed that players should look for ways of making it difficult for selectors to leave them out of the side no matter how limited their chances have been.
Do you perhaps feel one area you might not be so strong in is paying enough attention to the bowlers?
It is not my core skill. I have got strong ideas in terms of strategy as far as the bowlers are concerned. But when it comes to nurturing and working on technical skills it is for the bowling coach. The bowlers have responded really well to Eric Simons. He has a simple but effective approach. He is very structured and believes in, and I feel it is due to his South African ways, in repetition, repetition, repetition. Do the skill well in the nets because if you are can't do it in the nets you won't be able to do it in the middle. He works with each bowler to execute something. He repeats it every practice session net, every net, every net, let's do this, let's do this, let's do this.
In the last one-day game against Australia in Kochi, and you take out the final five overs when Cameron White came hard at us at death, it was probably our best bowling on a flat wicket. To have them 205 for 3 in 45 overs was incredible bowling. We counted only six deliveries were badly executed.
We are working on specific skills. Even in the nets we encourage the bowlers not to bowl one ball down the leg side, not even the first ball. But that takes time and hopefully we should be ready by the time the World Cup comes.
Moving back to the team's goals - how do you maintain the top spot in Tests?
We have done it for a year now. The consistency to be able to continue to do that is important to us. The guys take pride in every Test match they play now. We have lost two Tests this year but we have won a whole lot. I have been thrilled with the performances, especially sometimes despite the shortage of resources. I mean that Test match we won in Sri Lanka was as good as it gets: without Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan in the attack, to be able to get 20 wickets was incredible.
Would you say South Africa is the biggest test?
Yes, South Africa in South Africa. To win in South Africa would be defining moment for us. But I believe we don't need to justify to anyone as the performances over the last two years speak for themselves: 23 Tests, 2 losses, 12 wins. When you look at the performances of the five top-ranked Test teams over the two years you know why India are at the top.
We got to continue performing. We have to go and win in South Africa, we are fully aware of that. But if this team does win in South Africa then you can start talking about the greatest Test team India have ever produced.
Are you confident about winning there?
It is going to be tough. South Africa are very tough to beat at home, as India are to beat in India. The wickets really suit the pace bowlers. I certainly don't think that any opposition can use short-pitched bowling as an out-and-out strategy to undo our batting line-up. There is too much experience in this team now. Also, the Indian fast bowlers are good themselves on helpful wickets - Sreesanth, Ishant and Zak are a good bowling attack.
We have a lot of work still to do on the specifics of technique prior to the Test series. The players will need time to adjust their techniques to get comfortable with the conditions. The BCCI has approved the early departure of some our players to South Africa to have sufficient time to prepare properly for a very important series.
What can Indian learn from Australia, since they were the top-ranked team for a long time?
You can always learn from the opposition, otherwise you will be arrogant. But this Indian team have got their own brand, their own style. One critical thing has been the desire to perform as a team, not as a bunch of individuals. In the successful Australian teams there was this pride for playing for the baggy green - a real desire to continue to perform as a team. Winning, then, becomes a habit. This particular Indian team now is starting to find that they are quite enjoying the habit of winning. There is a real pride to perform with each of these individuals, to tough it out in tough situations. There are key players who play that role in the team, who are key to the success.
Finally, if you could tell us what your best moments so far in Tests with India have been?
Winning that Test series against Australia in 2008 was a big moment. It was great to be part of beginning the process where the Australians were not on top of world cricket. To visibly see the guys realise that they could beat [the Australians] consistently was really good. We went through a really good patch of one-day cricket back then. Leading into the Australian ODI series at home last year, we had a win ratio of 75-80%. That was over 30 games. It was disappointing losing that home series. If we had won it we would have become the No. 1 ODI team. It was something we wanted to achieve. We had it there in our grasp, so it was disappointing. Winning the Asia Cup was exciting, more so because it was an important milestone mentally for the players.