It was at a trendy bar heaving with the energy of a Friday-night crowd, on the waterfront in Wellington, that Gary Kirsten asked a strange question. “Explain this to me, just why is it important that I have a good relationship, or even any relationship, with the media?” As a reporter who had the obvious vested interest of wanting to know what a coach felt, with a keen interest in taking his opinion to the readers, I was left dumbfounded.
But search as you may, you will struggle to find a convincing answer to that question. In that one sentence Kirsten revealed more about his work ethic, his approach and what he thought of his role than any lengthy interview on coaching might. The veteran of 101 Tests had had his time in the cricketing sun, and it was now time to work in the background, leaving the players out in the middle to lap up any attention that came their way.
It’s another thing that Kirsten was scrupulously correct in his dealings with the media even as a player, to the point of putting friendships with journalists on the backburner till his playing days were done. Crucially, he understood his position in the Indian scheme of things. In a country where opinions sway with every result the only thing that mattered to the coach was his team.
Along the way there were things that would have possibly irked Kirsten — his minimal role in selection, even less say in the appointment or sacking of support staff, scheduling that left no time for conditioning, among others- but not once did he publicly say so. What’s more creditable, he did not once succumb to the temptation of having an ‘off-the-record’ chat that would pave the way for his thoughts to find an outlet in a newspaper or television channel.
That Kirsten had the technical know-how to work with an elite cricket team was largely beyond doubt. Where he succeeded, however, in comparison to others, is in building an environment of trust within the playing group, and it is here that Paddy Upton, who goes by many titles, played a crucial role. In Indian sport we find it difficult to understand the role someone like Upton might play, and certainly don’t appreciate the work he does enough. Rather, he gets looked at as the “assistant” or a “bits and pieces” guy, simply because he wears more than one hat.
“We have worked hard and the role of Gary, Paddy and even Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh have been very instrumental,” said Tendulkar soon after Sunday’s win.
In the initial phase of Kirsten’s association with the team, there was the suspicion that the players only sung his praises as he pretty much allowed them to do as they pleased. But what became clear is that there was a method to how the Kirsten-Upton duo operated.
They did not try to apply a South African model to an Indian set up, setting unrealistic standards of fitness or fielding, or forcing a rigid model on the players. The realisation that you needed to push entirely different buttons to get the best out of different individuals like Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid, or Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar, meant that the players were driving their own destinies, and had to take control of their actions and responsibility for their decisions.
Critically, Kirsten and Upton knew this was Dhoni’s team, not theirs.
And in allowing the captain to take charge, and genuinely working as a support group, they’ve earned their share in the team’s success.