x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The jewels in Indian cricket's crown

Gary Kirsten and his coaching staff are preparing the world's No 1 Test team to beat his native South Africa.

Gary Kirsten, left, is content being behind the scenes.
Gary Kirsten, left, is content being behind the scenes.

Sporting wisdom and expertise know no boundaries in the modern world.

Just as players cross frontiers to ply their trade, so too do coaches and managers. Often, someone anonymous in his homeland makes the front pages of newspapers after inspiring another nation to success. When it comes against the country of their birth, the headlines are just that much bigger.

Bruno Metsu, who had something of a nomadic career in French football, became a global name after coaching the Senegalese to a 1-0 upset over Les Bleus in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup.

Before he helped a skilled England bowling quartet to reverse-swing Australia to defeat in the Ashes series of 2005, Troy Cooley was little known outside his native Tasmania.

Each man built on that success. Metsu went on to win the Asian Champions League with Al Ain, while Cooley went back to Australia to work with another group of gifted bowlers.

This sporting conflict of interest will be part of the background when India take on South Africa next month in a contest between the two best sides in the world.

Gary Kirsten, who has now coached the Indians for nearly three years, played for the Proteas for more than a decade, scoring 21 Test hundreds and 13 in the one-day arena. Until Graeme Smith came along, he was the most accomplished opening batsman the country had had since Barry Richards.

As coach, Kirsten's style has been as understated as his batting once was. Just as he once laid the foundations for the flashier stroke players in the middle order, he now prepares the team and then retreats into the background. The contrast with India's previous foreign coach could not be more stark.

Greg Chappell was a legend of the game, who also loved his interactions with the media.

After India's first win on South African soil, at Johannesburg in 2006, he invited a group of journalists to the hotel for a chat.

He held forth for an hour and a half, and the full transcript came to nearly 10,000 words. There were some daily newspapers that ran it in two parts.

Chappell had many detractors for his abrasive style of functioning, but he also did some excellent work behind the scenes with a younger generation of players.

What he did not do was stay away from the strobe lights. The ill-advised plan to bat Sachin Tendulkar in the middle order probably put paid to India's World Cup hopes in 2007, while the lengthy clash of wills with Sourav Ganguly at the start of his tenure ensured that players seldom felt secure.

Kirsten gives the impression that he loathes speaking into the microphone.

Whenever the team is successful, as they have often been on his watch, he has been more than happy to stay in the dressing room and celebrate.

When they have had bad days, he has fronted up to the media and defended the players as fiercely as a lioness would her cubs.

On the one occasion when he lashed out, after India's exit from the World Twenty20 in England in 2009, his anger was directed at the foolish scheduling of the Indian Premier League which had left most of his group of players fatigued and listless.

His support staff have played a part too. Eric Simons, who played briefly for South Africa in the mid-1990s, is a recent addition to the ranks and has been helping the likes of Ishant Sharma and Shanthakumaran Sreesanth rediscover their rhythm.

His knowledge of what lengths to bowl on South African pitches will be invaluable as India seek to do at least as well as they did in 2006/07, when a poor couple of days in Cape Town cost them the series.

Paddy Upton is the mental-conditioning coach whose task is also to help keep the team in good spirits. Virender Sehwag has allied consistency to his destructiveness over the past year and he credits Upton for his relaxed state of mind.

During the Chappell years, Sehwag talked to both Rudi Webster - who once helped Viv Richards, the great West Indian batsman - and Sandy Gordon, but it is with Upton, who played first-class cricket for Western Province in South Africa, that he has felt most comfortable.

After his recent double-century against Australia in Bangalore, Tendulkar thanked Kirsten for "the thousands of balls he's thrown to me". For the older players, it is not so much time in the nets that they need, but more an arm around the shoulder and the feeling that they remain an integral part of the side. Gautam Gambhir, the man whose career has blossomed most during Kirsten's tenure, said it best when he spoke of the insecurity that was his constant companion earlier.

"Gary told me how much quality I brought to the side," he said in an interview with Cricinfo last year. "When you get to know this from a person who has played 100 Tests and who is the coach, then you tell yourself, 'Look, you are equally important.' That has made me comfortable. Earlier no one ever told me what importance I brought to the side."

Having guided the team to the top of the tree, Kirsten now heads to the Cape of Good Hope to mastermind a campaign against those he once played alongside, like Smith and Jacques Kallis.

You would not rule out the chances of him doing a Metsu.