Bangalore: Even before the beer stopped flowing in the dressing-room at the WACA in Perth, a Twitter post caught the eye. "Privilege to be part of such a happy team, of really good guys, who also happen to be great cricketers!" The photo that accompanied the tweet had its author, Paddy Upton, holding onto the ICC mace that's awarded to the No. 1 ranked Test team, with Gary Kirsten flashing his biannual big grin. South Africa's staggering 309-run win, after being 75 for 6 on the opening day of the Test, confirmed their place at the top of the table, and re-iterated the beauty and simplicity of the Kirsten-Upton method.
To credit coaches overly for a win that eleven players fought hard to achieve is silly, but it's equally churlish to ignore the back-room men during the good times, only to put them at the front of the queue before the executioner when the results are lacking. The very fact that Kirsten and Upton took an Indian team that was completely different from the South Africans not merely to the No. 1 spot, but also to World Cup glory, suggests that credit is due. South Africa have been good enough not to lose a series away from home in six years, since Sri Lanka beat them 2-0 in August 2006, so the cricketing skills were very much in place when Kirsten and Upton took charge.
A cornerstone of the Kirsten-Upton duo's coaching methodology, as observed when they were part of the Indian set up, was that happy people are successful people, and this applied to cricket as well. Given the sheer technical, physical and skill challenges that the bat and ball game threw up at the highest level, and the already proven calibre of the practitioners, the one thing support staff needed to do was help create the right kind of environment.
In the case of Indian cricket, this involved two things. Firstly, the players had largely been used to coaches as instructors, as authority figures who handed down instructions that needed to be followed. In some cases this worked, and in others, a stage was reached where the players simply nodded their heads when the coach was speaking and then did as they jolly well pleased. Kirsten and Upton spent the first few months of their tenure breaking this notion down, and listened more than they spoke, observed rather than scrutinised.
The second major shift that came about was the empowerment of players. Practice sessions were largely optional, and each person was encouraged to think about what he hoped to achieve and how he would go about doing so. While on the outside this looked like simply letting the players do as they pleased, in reality it was not an exercise that gave players power, a word often vested with negative consequences, but ensured that they took responsibility. Shorn of excuses, each player had to simply get on with the job, and if the odd person did not think this was the best way to get things done, the subtle peer pressure that the group exerted ensured that he quickly fell in line.
In plain terms, Kirsten and Upton put players back in touch with the game, making the point of the exercise enjoyment with a view to excelling, and the results just fell in line. There was a simplicity to those times that's been markedly absent in Kolkata in the last week.
While a geriatric curator holds centrestage, the Indian team has been dragged into a prolonged and unnecessary exercise on pitch analysis. To say Mahendra Singh Dhoni is obsessing over pitches that turn from day one is duplicitous to the extreme, for it is not his fault that this is all he seems to be asked about these days at press conferences. When asked a straight question, he gives a straight answer, and to use that as a stick to beat him with is unfair.
The more relevant question, really, is why the game has become such a complicated one in recent times. Duncan Fletcher came to India with the reputation of being a master strategist and a wizard of working with the techniques of young batsmen. On the field, Dhoni is clearly in charge, so it’s unclear what role Fletcher has played with reference to strategy, and the manner in which the batting of some young batsmen has fallen away will lead to questions about whether his input to individuals is making a significant difference.
Fletcher has been widely credited with the shenanigans that preceded the Tests, the move to deny England practice against spin, have them play on flat pitches. All that was very well, but do you remember hearing of anything like this in the two years when India did not lose a Test series home or away and became No. 1? In the era of supercoaches, there can be a tendency to spin elaborate theories that do little more than justify one's own ideas and pet projects.
But, at the end of the day, there's perhaps more merit in keeping it simple: build a happy home and allow success to come to you, rather than chasing it. At the moment, it certainly seems to be following a certain South African pair rather more than can be put down to mere luck.