Transcript: Couch Talk with Gary Kirsten

Couch Talk 118 (Play)

Guest: Gary Kirsten

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Gary!

Gary Kirsten (GK)– Thank you very much!

SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure and honour having you on. Plenty of Indian fans sent in messages for you, thanking you for the work that you did for the Indian team. So, I thought I will get it off my chest right away.

GK– Thank you!

SJ– It is quite rare for someone like you – a very accomplished player who played more than a hundred Tests to become the head coach of a national team and on top of that be as successful as you have been, with India and South Africa. First of all, what got you motivated into entering coaching so soon after retirement?

GK– It was something that I always wanted to do. For me, the privileges that I had while playing the game at the international level for 11 years and playing professionally for 17 years in South Africa (SA), where we had just returned from isolation from international sports. I was really privileged to be a part of the beginning phase of that. I felt that I had something to offer to the younger guys coming through, and the privileges that I had, I wanted to share them with the others.

SJ– When you played for SA after the isolation, the head coach of SA was Bob Woolmer who was ahead of the time as a cricket coach. What sort of impacts did his methods of coaching techniques have on you as a player, first, and later on as a coach?

GK– I give a lot of credit to Bob for his influence over him. Certainly the one thing that I learnt from him about coaching as a player, is that the tub of information that I was receiving from different coaches – what was making sense and what wasn’t making sense. It was really helpful for me when I moved into coaching to understand that. Being a player and listening to leaders and coaches and what kind of impact they were having on my life. I have learnt from that and it began to admire the laws of the game to the coaching and leadership to really make sure that any information that I was going to pass on was going to be of relevance to the player. The one thing that we do know, in the world of sport or of any industry, is that you need to treat every player and individual differently because  they come with a different set of strength and weaknesses, and you need to understand where is his game even if it is mentally and try to get the best out of him.

SJ– Lately, there have been a lot of discussions going on about the role of coaches. Shane Warne and Ian Chappell have their thoughts and others have their own ideas about what a coach must and should be. How do you define the role of a coach? How does it vary from being a head coach of national side vs a first class side, and a junior side?

GK– A coach’s role can be a significant role. I guess I don’t like it when people  downplay the role of a coach, because you can have a significant impact on the players and you can have a significant impact on people’s lives. You can have a look at Darren Lehmann and what an impact he has had on the Australian team to realise that coaches can play a really significant role. I just feel that it is not just coaching, but also about running nets sessions, telling someone how to pick a bat or how to hold a bowling ball. It is far more than that. The ability to get the best out of people, skilful man-management skills is probably one of the most important things. At the end of the day, my job is to get the best out of an individual and allow him to thrive in the space. You set up and create an environment where people freely about their goals without the fear of performance.

SJ– Whether certain things, wherever you went, be it with SA or India or with a domestic side in SA, were there certain mechanisms that you wanted to put in place that you thought would make you more successful as a coach?

GK– I think you have to understand that by going to a new environment, I took a bit of time, while in India, got the influence that I needed to have on the individuals to allow the individuals to perform at the highest level, and most importantly to set up a team for better success. When I was with the Indian team as with the SA team, there was enough talent in both teams to know that they should be the best cricket team in the world. I think there is a subtleness to understanding what needs to be done by the people to realize their goal or to go to a place where they don’t go and to drive them in a way that everyone goes in formation. A very subtle leadership process takes place there. It is a leader’s responsibility to make that work. Many teams have lots of talent, but the team under-performs as a team. That is the beauty of team sports, that is what I learn about coaching in a team sports, there is a variety of people as individuals, and it is your responsibility to move everyone in the right direction.

SJ– That is an interesting point of view that you raised about you going to coach teams with undoubtedly very good talent. SA on both sides of the ball, and India with the batsmen and to an extent with the ball. There is a question from a listener, Siva. You have been credited with getting the best out of the Indians. You took them to no.1 in the world in terms of Tests. They won the World Cup when you were the coach, and now with SA you took them to no.1 in Tests. A lot of that credit comes to you. Does Gary Kirsten deserve that sort of credit for the success considering the players who were of such high quality and talent?  That is the question from the listener.

GK– I don’t do it to win trophies. I do it to add value to people’s lives and so I can help a group of people move forward in terms of where they are. One has to be realistic of one’s goals. For the Bangladesh team to strive to be the best cricket team in the world is probably unrealistic, they don’t have the players to do that. If you do have the players, then why would India only rank 4 or 5 in the world with such talent? People need to ask that question. And then to take them forward and help them go forward is not an individual effort, it is a collaborated effort. Everyone buys into the way of doing things. For me, the essence of leadership is to move people forward from where they are. There is no point in doing a job in aspiration to take forward in their own individual perspective, but also from a team perspective.

SJ– You retired from international cricket in 2004 and you signed up as head coach for India in December 2007 when they were on Australia tour. Basically, you are coaching people that you played against, your contemporaries, and in SA’s case, you played under Graeme Smith as captain after which you became his national coach. What sort of set up or mechanisms should you put in place before you start the job to make sure that you carry out your job as head coach properly, and the mateship or prior relationship don’t mess with it?

GK– Do I put in these things to control it? No. not at all. I realised that I was in the same space as a leader of a Jacques Kallis and a Mark Boucher whom I played a lot of cricket with. I was now lead them, like any leader in the industry. You have to be careful how you conduct yourself, you have to be careful how you behave in front of other people, and I was very aware that if I was going to stand up and ask them to do something in an intend highly pressurised situation, my credibility was on the line as an individual. I was not seen as theri friend but as their leader. There are certain things that you have to do and behave ina  certain way as a leader to inspire people that you are working for.

SJ– When you say “certain ways”, that is what I am trying to figure out – what are the things that you have to do to operate from a leadership role, rather than a friend role?

GK– For instance, socialising is a very dangerous space. A game ends and everyone goes out to enjoy themselves. As a coach, you can’t be seen as “one of the boys”. That is for sure. You have got to move away from that space. The one on one relationship as well. I was clear to every player that I coached, even the ones that I played with, I told them that this is where I am now and my role is to get the best out of you and that it will require me to challenge you at some stage and I am not shy to do that. I never tried to be one of the boys.


There is another question from another listener, Mihir. You took up the job so soon after your retirement, does having coaches that are relatively young, recently retired players – does it make more sense because they could relate to the players in terms of the modern game pressures, so on and so forth?

GK– It helps hugely to have played the game at the highest level because you understand the pressure that each player is under. We are moving into a world of fully professional sports. For many of us, we are taking the lead from America where it is becoming fully professional. For me, there is benefit of being still physically quite fit and being able to identify the current trend in the game because I have not been out of it for a long time. i didn’t play any T20 cricket as an international player. Although I am only retired 9 years, I missed out on that. Definitely, it helps being a young guy who is fit. A lot of my work is very physical, and to be able to offer physically to the players is very important.

SJ– Cricket coaching and managing of the team has become too regimented. It is almost like the balance has shifted to the analytics. How was it under your watch as the coach of India and SA? How did you strike a balance? Was it player specific? A certain situation or role where the player had to go through a video or other types of analysis rather than just man to man talk sort of thing. How did you strike the balance?

GK– You are right, it is a sort of balance. First of all, they offer a value. We use them and every professional cricketer uses an analyst, uses the data available. At the end of the day, a lot of decisions that you make are about instincts and that is why you are in the position, that is why you have been appointed to that position because people feel that you can make such types of decisions. I certainly use the video analysts and the information that they have available to help me in my decision making. The captain coach relationship is a crucial one because the coach really is the guy who slips through all the relevant information to the team and then feeds that information to the captain to go and make use of it. That relationship becomes a really important one as joint leaders of the team. Our focus of attention was to make sure that my captain can grow on the field and be comfortable with the knowledge that our preparation will support the team for success.

SJ– Captain is ultimately responsible for the decision taken on the field, the performance of the team etc. but, you are at the prime mover in terms of putting things in place. How does that balance of power work? Were you comfortable with always being in the background and letting the captains, in your case – (M.S.) Dhoni and Graeme Smith,  be the front of everything?

GK– The modern day captains are taking on a more balanced role now. Cricket captain of an international team strives to meet demand and expectations and the roles become more balance now. The captains are accepting with open arms. They don’t want to be involved in absolutely all the decisions of a professional team day in and day out, on the road travelling, practicing and playing. What they want to do is take the team on their skill and go, make the performances with the best amount of information that they receive. So the modern captain is embracing a proper role that a coach can play and provide the information and also helping in the leadership space. So, there are no conflicts at all. There are complimentary roles. The better the relationship between the captain and the coach, the more value comes out of the leadership positions. I have had two very strong relationships with my captains, but they also expected me to take on various roles of decision making and responsibility for the outcome of the performances of the team.

SJ– Ed Smith, the former England international player, he wrote recently in an article about the role of coaches in cricket and said that it might be time that the head coaches are also given the job of selection. I want to get your thoughts on that. Is that even possible, considering the head coaches travelling so much with the team, perhaps not getting a good look at the feeder line of players coming in that would be coming in as replacements?

GK– That is a good question. My answer to that is that the coach definitely needs assistance in selection of a team. I do think that the coach should have the final say in the XI. In both my jobs that I have had at the international level, I have been given that liberty to pick my final XI. I think the selection process is where – you absolutely right in that – where there are a lot of players that you don’t get to see, and you need people on the ground watching the guys coming through as the next best. It is important that you have people doing the job for you. You don’t get to see those players. Certainly, when it comes down to me picking my final XI in a squad of 15, I want to, as the coach, have full right of responsibility because if the team doesn’t perform and the performance drops, the first person to get fired is the coach.

SJ– I want to talk about the mental aspects of the game. There are players under tremendous pressure, a lot of focus put on them, scrutiny and more. Even a slight change in their performance in the wrong direction, they are blamed for a lot of different things. How did you handle that, especially in India and in SA? Because, a coach is supposed to be a man manager as well. and you had Paddy Upton as well, who famously brought in Mike Horn to talk to the players. How did you handle the mental aspects? What were the goals that you had for yourself?

GK– What you do is try and prepare the players as well as you can mentally for the competition, prepare them as well as you can physically for the competition. A lot of it comes in the nets, they hit lots of balls, they do a lot of tangible physical training and effort and focus is put on the mental training. So, we did spend time on that. What I would do is I would pull experts in to help me with that. And, Paddy Upton became a close confidant of me and he did a fantastic job with it as the mental conditioning coach. With a cricket background and cricket knowledge he would be of incredible helpful to me working at a one on one level with the players. He also got good feedback as a coach. That role is very important. You do what you can to prepare the players mentally. But it is not foolproof. You don’t always necessarily get it right but you put in a lot of effort in the mental demand of the game, to make sure that the player is allowed to go and express himself as freely as possible in the competition because that is what is ultimately you want – to express their talents without the fear of a coach coming down of them or coming hard on them because they make an error, or a failure, a non-performance. You have to set up an environment for success. There are some challenges. With that, I feel that it is the responsibility of the coaches to try and set up that kind of an environment.

SJ– Cricket is a sport where, especially from a batsman’s point of view, it is built around failures. You score a fifty once every 4 or 5 innings if you are really good. Basically, the players have to be dealing with failures and heartbreaks. This is a question from another listener – Ajit – what were your processes in terms of dealing with failures, close losses, heartbreaks…when you are just at the wrong end of the game, when you are so close to winning, etc. ?

GK– Again, it is a good question. There is a lot of failure in cricket that you have to deal with. If you think of the best batsman in the world, he scores cricket in one in three innings, that is 30% of career making a score of fifty. That is spending a lot of times dealing with the times that he hasn’t succeeded. Each player is different and manages that space differently. The most you can do as a coach is recruit someone to do a job, and he loses a bit of form. It would be our responsibility to try and help him get back in that form because ultimately we have recruited him to the job because we think he is the best. I will do everything I can in my part o make sure I get the player back to form, by setting up an environment to help him through that process. But, it is part and parcel of the game, dealing with failure. You have all the results and the focus of the attention, or certainly mind to deal with any team that I had to work with. It is actually not to focus on the results, not to focus on whether we are winning or losing the game. In fact, when we prepared for the World Cup 2011 with the Indian team, I can’t remember one occasion where we spoke about winning the World Cup. We knew that if we do things right and set ourselves in the right way, then we would get the best chance of success. We focused on what we needed to do every single day to set ourselves for success. So, we spent less time worrying about the results and more time worrying about our processes.

SJ– Talking about that Indian team, when you became the head coach, there were names who were absolute legends of the game – starting with (Sachin) Tendulkar, (Rahul) Dravid, (Anil) Kumble, (V.V.S.) Laxman etc. And then you had (Virender) Sehwag, (Gautam) Gambhir and Zaheer Khan etc. How did you deal with that, with all these huge names and middle sized names and then the newcomers in the side? How do you deal with these players and egos and talent?

GK– I think it is one of the responsibilities of the coach. I was fully aware of what a brand they are in their own country. At the end of the day, each one of those guys had incredible success with the team when I was there. They started to play for each other. It was my responsibility to get their focus of attention not on themselves and more on the team. They really made an effort to perform for the team where they would reach their own individual goals as well. we spent a lot of times focusing on what we can do rather than what an individual can do for himself. It is amazing that when you can do that, that superstar becomes just another player. Our entire focus and attention was what we can achieve as a team, we wanted to become the best team in the world and there were certain ways we were going to do that and every player had to buy into that. So, high profile Indian cricketers still benefit from the privilege of their brand, but within the unit and within the team they were just like another cricket.

SJ– One thing that I want to get your thoughts on – the state of India’s bowling, especially fast bowlers. You were with the team for nearly 3.5 years. In that period, so many names had appeared for India, yet none of them have gone on to any sort of greater heights of accomplishment. Yes, Ishant Sharma has played 60 Tests, but he sometimes struggles with the basics of bowling. Where do you this problem stemming from? How can India go about rectifying it?

GK– It is a deeper issue. I don’t necessarily have all the answers. I think it is a deep issue that probably needs to be addressed at the lower levels of the game, and they need to have some programs that gets people aspiring to wanting to become a great fast bowler for the country. Role modelling is important. It always fascinates me that Pakistan continues to produce great fast bowlers and it always fascinates me why India don’t have that. Maybe they don’t have the type of role models that Pakistan have. They have many, they want to be a Wasim Akram or an Imran Khan or a Waqar Younis.

SJ– So, during your tenure as India coach…You win pretty much based on how good your fast bowlers are – doesn’t matter the format – especially in Test cricket. Better the fast bowlers, better your chances of winning a Test. What kind of management job did you have to do to coax the best out of whatever bowling talent that you had?

GK– We had someone who was integrally part of the team when I was there – in Zaheer Khan. He was at one point ranked no.2 Test bowler under that period. We did get the best out of him. He just enjoyed the space. He took the responsibility of being the leader. I think he is a very skilful bowler. For a period of time he was at his absolute best. He is incredibly skilled for a guy who bowls at just around about not more than 135 kph. But in terms of skill, probably the best in the world. Ishant Sharma had incredible success. The series against Australia in 2008, which for me is a remarkable achievement for a fast bowler, to be the man of the series. We had sporadic success for our fast bowlers, but we also chopped and changed a little bit and try different guys. We are always looking or guys who can swing it a little bit more. On certain conditions like in South Africa, we wanted guys with a bit more bounce. So, we did chop and change a little bit.

SJ– It is uncanny, because since you left the Indian job, the Indian team hasn’t done well especially abroad. After you left the job to South Africa, they lost a series to Pakistan, Australia and won 1-0 against India. It is uncanny, that Gary Kirsten had such huge influence. Am I reading this correctly? You were major influence in how they performed, maybe not tangibly, but there is correlation to that.

GK– I certainly don’t have to take all the credit for all that stuff. I was really privileged to be with those guys. The important thing for me is, what I am trying to do is to focus my attention on adding as much value to each individual every day that I get up and go to work. I never took one day for granted at work. It is the individual player who was making the difference, I think is incredibly debatable. I didn’t go out on the field and make a play. Every individual that I have come across, that I have become a coach of, the player needs someone to play for. Someone that inspires his people, and I wanted them to play for me. I wanted them to know that I have put so much time and energy and invested so much of myself into their games where they felt they were playing for me.  It was important for me that I worked really hard with these players.

SJ– There is the other way of looking at it – Gary Kirsten knows the exact moment when to move away from the job. That is one way of looking at it. you see, two-three years, I am done here. And then perhaps every team goes through the cycle. That is perhaps one way of looking at it. but that is probably unfair to you.

GK– I think as well that there are no guarantees to success. As I said earlier, you have to be realistic about what you can achieve as a team. I try to focus my attention not on the results, but on just doing the job as good as I can and then you do need a bit of luck. Absolutely no doubt about that.

SJ– Just a couple of questions. One is form listener Siddharth. This is regarding your jobs with India and South Africa. Which one came with a lot more pressure and expectation? Because, going home with the kind of talent they had….?

GK– I think the South African one had lot more expectation and pressure because it was my own country. I arrived there on the back of being involved in a World Cup wining team wtih India. and, the first thing I said in my interview – don’t expect me to have miracles because that is not what coaching is about. I found the role of the South African job had a lot more expectation than the Indian job. And also, being a South African, I was a  lot more involved 24×7 occupation with the South African team. With the Indian team, once they weren’t playing  I was committed to come home and stay with my family.

SJ– When you left for SA job, you cited family reasons for leaving the job. Fair enough. But then how you have taken up the job of the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL. What was your attraction to the job besides the fact that you will be away from the family only for 7-8 weeks in a year?

GK– Absolutely, that was one of the attraction. I am glad you brought that up because a lot of people haven’t understood that. In 2012, I had 250 days away from home. So, it is just slightly harder coaching an international team as opposed to coaching an IPL team. I always felt that I wanted to go back to India. i had incredibly fun time coaching cricket in that country. IPL for me was always a vehicle that was attractive to me because it looked to be a pretty intense tournament for 8 weeks. The rest of the year, I was committed to be with my family. IPL is an incredible product to be a part of – I am really excited to be a part of the IPL. That has become a significant world event and incredible success for cricket product in SA. I am very excited to be a part of it.

SJ– I can’t even tell you how many people sent me in this question, and so for all of them, I have to ask you this – would you be open to coming back to India as the coach of the national team any time in the future?

GK– I wouldn’t necessarily say no. I had incredible fun with the Indian team. If a certain set of circumstances arrives at home, and my kids are a bit more grown up and they are a bit more self sufficient, that might be an option. But, that is a lot for now.

SJ– Tell them to hurry up and grow up fast.

GK– *laughs*

SJ– Finally, I want to ask you about your academy which you set up at Cape Town which you set up after you retired from international cricket. Tell me the things that you wanted to achieve with it. And, how is that going?

GK– Before I started with the Indian team, I ran a cricket academy. I was working with guys that were in their finishing school years, targeting 17-19 year olds which is a critical age in their path to higher levels of achievements, to play in a higher group of the game. That is a very vulnerable stage for any young cricketer. I wanted to create an opportunity and offer my intellectual capital in that space. I wanted to help the young players understand international competition a little bit better, open the doors to people from around the world. i had five or six guys from the UK coming to do some work with me. I really enjoyed it, that one on one work for me is the purest form of coaching. I really enjoy that. We started up again this year and are looking forward to expanding it. We will also be travelling to various destinations in the world to set up clinics and seminars and things like that. That is something that I am passionate about. Coach coaches as well, and to give them the understanding about the types of things that they should be trying and doing, and allow the guys the best coaching that can be.

SJ– Excellent!

Alright! Thanks a lot, Gary! Thanks a lot for being on the show. It was an absolute honour. And, thank you so much for everything that you have done for cricket, especially Indian cricket.

GK– Thank you very much! Bye bye!


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman