Kirsten faces different challenge at home
When Gary Kirsten entered the room where he would be named South Africa's coach, he had a familiar look on his face. It wasn't the beaming smile he had had during India's World Cup victory celebrations a little over two months ago.
When Gary Kirsten entered the room where he would be named South Africa's coach, he had a familiar look on his face. It wasn't the beaming smile he had had during India's World Cup victory celebrations a little over two months ago. Kirsten wore an expression of determination; the sort of determination that once helped him make South Africa's highest Test score - 275 against England at Kingsmead a decade ago.
After his success with India - he helped them become the No. 1 Test side and ended his tenure with World Cup glory - the expectations in South Africa are tremendous. Kirsten's reputation as the hardworking back-room boy, who threw thousands of balls until his shoulder hurt, and got the best out of some of the most powerful personalities in world cricket, has earned him immense respect at home. His winning of the World Cup, a success that has painfully eluded South Africa, has turned Kirsten into a miracle man. Many hope his quiet, precise and methodical approach, which worked so well in India, will be superimposed on South Africa and will result in a golden age.
But Graeme Smith's South Africa, and now also AB de Villiers', is a very different team from MS Dhoni's India, and Kirsten's tactics will need altering. Dhoni was the only leader Kirsten had to deal with it, and Kirsten called him the best captain on the international circuit after their World Cup triumph. Dhoni and Smith are extremely different as leaders of men. Where Dhoni is suave, Smith is brash. Dhoni appears a masterful tactician; Smith is driven by gut and heart.
Fortunately for Kirsten, Smith and de Villiers are similar characters and the adjustment to different captains when moving from Tests to limited-overs will not be too great. What Kirsten can't expect is the same "Captain Cool" style of leadership that Dhoni used to guide his men. The South African structure has always followed more of a boys' school formula, where hierarchy is important and people fall in line. That has started to change, with a more inclusive team culture being built, but there hasn't been a complete turnaround.
Kirsten's involvement may help speed that up because he believes in relationship-building, which he identified as the key ingredient to his success with India. It required careful crafting, because Kirsten did not know any of the players too well, having only played against a few of them in the past. It ended with everyone, from Sachin Tendulkar to Virat Kohli, praising him during the time he spent with them and the determination he instilled.
A rapport already exists between Kirsten and many members of the South African squad, although on different levels. He was a team-mate to Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, a relationship that will now have to shift gear. He was a role model to de Villiers, another association that will have to change. Kirsten said he has to make sure he is an "inspiration leader", and was careful not mention the words "friend", "colleague" or "hero".
Kirsten has to be a care-giver, and not like he was in India. The Indian team had more experience than youth, with Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan the old boys under whom the likes of Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina grew. South Africa's pool of players is different - youth has not seamlessly transitioned into experience. There are gaps.
Besides Smith, Kallis and de Villiers, there are young minds who need a different kind of guidance. The middle order is raw; there is no long-term replacement for Mark Boucher; Wayne Parnell and Lonwabo Tsotsobe have yet to fully integrate into the national team; and even the best new-ball attack in the world, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, are yet to play 100 Tests between them.
How Kirsten handles this young side will be interesting, because he has to start by healing the wounds some of them suffered at the World Cup. There are concerns that another generation of South African cricketers has been scarred and will struggle to regain self-belief - of the kind that Kirsten gave India so abundantly.
He did that partly by instructing them not to consume too much media, especially at the latter stages of the World Cup, because some of the messages would allow doubt and indecision to creep in where Kirsten had laid solidity. That command was probably the correct one for the Indian team, who find themselves mobbed by hordes of journalists and armchair analysts on a daily basis.
The South African media is a smaller, less critical group than India's, largely offering the team support, even when they perform below expectation. They rarely challenge the players, who usually feel safe when addressing them. It only works, though, when the people South African players have to address are their own.
When confronted with foreign media, South Africa find them hostile and probing. They retaliate with an aggression that is perceived as inability to deal with pressure. There is a tour to England and a World Twenty20 next year, two events that may prove a test for South Africa's ability to deal with questions they don't want to answer.
One of those questions will be about "choking," a term that most in the team react strongly to, and a word that Kirsten himself does not like. The issue is unavoidable, though, and will be pounced on at every available opportunity, and part of Kirsten's job will be to train his players to deal with it in the mature and stoic fashion that is so natural to him.
Kirsten has assembled a support staff that includes Allan Donald, who he played 61 Tests with, and Warriors coach Russell Domingo, who has worked with many of the South African players at A team level. Both Donald and Domingo are well liked by the players and administrators. Kirsten wants to create a culture that is safe, fearless, and one that will achieve its goals. It will have to be a culture that is different to the one he built with the Indian team, but one that still knows how to win.