The 2011 ODI World Cup triumph would rank among the top three moments for Indian cricket fans across the globe. Yuvraj Singh's heroics in the tournament are well remembered. But there was another man, working in the background. He instilled confidence and discipline in the team to win consistently across formats and countries.
Yes, we are talking about Gary Kirsten.
A batter extraordinaire for South Africa between 1993 and 2004, he has been an uber-successful international and franchise-level coach since then. Kirsten, who has 16000-plus international runs and 286 appearances for the Proteas, made his name as a super-coach during his three-year stint in charge of Team India.
Between 2008-2011, he formed a formidable partnership with MS Dhoni and heralded India into one of its most successful periods in cricket. The 2011 ODI World Cup win will always be the magnum opus of Kirsten's term. However, he also took Team India to the no.1 ranking in Tests between November 2009 and August 2011.
What made Gary Kirsten a super-coach?
There were tons of superstars in the Indian team of 2008-2011. From aging stalwarts - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman - to young superstars such as MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina. This group of players did not need coaching in a literal sense. Gary Kirsten recognized that well.
As he suggested in an interview in 2020, coaching was about man-management, strategy, building a team culture, among others. He took over the Indian team amidst the tumultuous times. India exited the 2007 ODI World Cup in the group stages and were recovering from the Greg Chappell era. Kirsten brought forth his man-management skills and processes to build a team culture and cohesiveness that seemed to be missing before.
Gary Kirsten was more of a team manager, focused on getting the group together and motivating them towards a common goal. He was not a coach looking to iron out technical issues. And that made him one of the best coaches that India have ever had. Teams at the highest international level do not need a coach who can 'teach' them elements of the sport. They need someone who can provide them with the environment and tools to succeed, bringing out the best in them.
The players who played under Kirsten love him to bits even today, as we often see through the plethora of tweets and posts from them.
Differences in methods from his predecessor, Greg Chappell
There are two schools of thought on how Greg Chappell’s stint as the Indian coach went. Team India's numbers under the Australian were quite good, barring the early 2007 ODI World Cup exit. But the team was not on the same page as him with his methods. As Harbhajan Singh once famously quoted, Chappell's tenure was similar to the relationship between a "headmaster” and pupils.
Gary Kirsten was the antithesis of Greg Chappell in a sense. While Chappell was quick to point out what was going wrong with the team or an individual, Kirsten was focused on accentuating the strengths and positives to a fault. While which method is better can be a healthy debate for a later day, what matters more is how the team takes to them.
The Indian team reacted well to Gary Kirsten’s modus operandi. They did not just enjoy their time playing the sport they love but were expressing themselves better on the field.
Team India – Seizing the key moments
Greg Chappell’s tenure saw the rise of Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, and Suresh Raina. India also created an ODI record of most consecutive matches won (17) while chasing. But there was not a single defining moment, the 2007 World Cup group stage knockout being the lowest point.
But the Dhoni-Kirsten era saw players seizing the moment several times. Harbhajan Singh’s penultimate ball six to beat arch-rivals Pakistan in the Asia Cup. VVS Laxman winning the Mohali Test versus Australia with the tailender and a sore back. A Test series win in New Zealand. Gautam Gambhir batting an entire day out to draw a Test in Napier. A drawn Test series in South Africa. And the chef-d'oeuvre - the 2011 ODI World Cup win.
Although there was not much turnover in the Test squad, the ODI team saw a bit of a makeover, with the infamous dropping of the senior players post the 2007 World Cup. The Gary Kirsten era saw the debuts of Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Shikhar Dhawan, and of course, Virat Kohli. They were given long runs and had clearly defined roles. These are players who were mainstays of Indian cricket in the 2010s and beyond.
The biggest win of the Gary Kirsten era is not necessarily the 2011 World Cup triumph, it is infusing the Indian team with a sense of confidence and self-belief. A feature of Indian cricket ever since. Kirsten’s legacy lives on.
Kirsten’s record as international coach in Test cricket
While comparisons with Jose Mourinho for winning trophies everywhere may be slightly untrue, Gary Kirsten did take both international teams he coached to the no.1 rankings in Tests.
He was the coach when India were the no.1-ranked Test side for 21 months between November 2009 and August 2011.
He then took South Africa to the no.1 spot in August 2012. Coincidentally, the Proteas also held on to the rankings for 21 months. South Africa did not lose a single away match under his tutelege.
Kirsten’s success as a coach has translated into co-founding and launching an online cricket coach education and certification program - CoachEd. The future of coaching is in safe hands.
The only way we can wrap this up is by thanking Gary Kirsten. Thanking him for giving us, the Indian cricket fans, a moment that we shall savor for the rest of our lives.