Kirsten running way? Not for good

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Gary Kirsten's young family was - rightly - his number one priority, but the younger Proteas couldn't grasp the situation. Picture: Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

London – Down in the basement of The Oval, Gary Kirsten played out his final act as Proteas head coach. After engaging the media one last time with his always insightful thoughts, Kirsten beat a hasty path to the exit.

To some, it would be viewed as Kirsten making a run for it, in the same way he is running away from the job after holding it down for just two years. There are many who believe Kirsten still has unfinished business with the Proteas, especially in the light of South Africa’s failure to overcome the pressure of a semi-final again here at the Champions Trophy.

Those are the same people who will always define Kirsten’s tenure in two separate segments: his indisputable achievements with the Test side in assisting with their ascent to the No1 ICC ranking, and the limited (pardon the pun) success with the one-day and Twenty20 teams.

Having spent time with this group of Proteas and watched them close-up in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and now England over the last 18 months, I view matters in a different light. And I wasn’t even on those team-building camps in Switzerland or Amsterdam, or on those glorious Test tours of Australia and England last year.

Kirsten’s Test numbers of 12 wins, five draws and two losses from 19 matches will ensure he holds the record of being South Africa’s most successful Test coach.

By contrast, his one-day figures of 29 matches, 15 victories and 12 defeats leave him trailing the likes of Bob Woolmer and Graham Ford.

To evaluate Kirsten solely on the figures would be an injustice to the man. He has said numerous times that he may be judged on the statistics in the “W” column, but that is not the reason he gets out of bed every morning.

This was evident recently in Cardiff, after the team’s progression to the semi-finals on Duckworth-Lewis after playing to a thrilling tie with the West Indies.

There were a fair number of South Africans around to celebrate the “victory”. Kirsten made a brief appearance, but in that time was mobbed by people offering with congratulatory handshakes.

He obliged, but it was clear from his expression that to him, cricket remains a fickle game, for had West Indies all-rounder Kieron Pollard blocked and not swung at the final ball before the players walked off the Swalec Stadium pitch for good, he would be lined up for the firing squad instead of being bought a round of drinks.

The former Proteas opener has a holistic approach to life and guiding young men– for that is how he treated them, as adults – and in return expected them to conduct themselves as such. During his reign, out went curfews and in came breaks between tour games; sometimes even during Test matches for non-playing squad members and members of the support staff. Out went mandatory training, too, replaced by “optional” training.

It was never going to be universally popular, especially among the hard-line old-schoolers, but when has a revolution not been met with resistance? The term “revolution” was used intentionally, for Kirsten was trying to change the entire mindset of South African cricket by taking it into a galaxy it had never dared to enter before.

He once sat me down in an Auckland hotel lobby and said a real dream of his was to have a practice that lasted just one hour from the time the players got off the bus until they got back on. Considering the sheer size of an international cricket bus, it is virtually impossible. And when I enquired about the reasoning behind it, he simply said that way too much time was wasted at training with players sitting around unproductively. He always prioritised intensity and quality over quantity.

To further understand Kirsten’s ideals, you must recognise that his young family is very important to him. James and Joshua were often seen at Proteas training sessions all around the world, while Joanna was barely a few months old when daddy was pushing her in a stroller in Hamilton.

It was this ethos he tried to spread to the players, in the hope they would realise that cricket remains merely a game, and that there are other things in life that require attention. It was not a distraction tactic, but one that was built on the sound theory that his team would remain calm under severe pressure because they knew it was not their alpha and omega.

It was generally accepted in the Test side, partly because they were older and experiencing changes of circumstances in their personal lives. The younger group in the limited-overs teams has taken longer to grasp this philosophy, with Kirsten admitting that “if we had the secret recipe to turn it around, we’d certainly package it and be selling it”.

Kirsten has left a lasting impression on South African cricket. He did so as a player, walking up the stairs of Wellington’s Basin Reserve with tears rolling down his cheeks after playing the last of his 101 Test matches.

There were no tears at The Oval this week when Kirsten left the hotseat after his final innings as Proteas coach.

Perhaps, deep down, Kirsten knows that once “the three Js” (his kids) have settled into their routines, he will return to complete his unfinished business. – Weekend Argus


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