There are many things Goa is famous for. There's the pungent cashew feni that can leave those who drink it dizzy and uplifted one evening and the person's associates holding their noses in revulsion the next day. There are beaches with exotic names like Anjuna, Benaulim and Miramar, each known for a variety of things, from sparkling blue water and white sands to the delicious local staple of fish curry and rice, to the decidedly less desirable like child pornography and human trafficking.
All these things Goa is famous for, but they're by no means unique to the sun-kissed western state. There is, however, one phenomenon that occurs only in Goa, and it's the curiously named pilot system. To the rest of the world, a pilot is someone who flies an airplane, but in Goa, it refers to the two-wheeler taxis that ferry people from one spot to another in the city.
Auto-rickshaws, the backbone of transport in most parts of India, are hard to come by, there's no train or metro service, buses look like they were last serviced when Mahatma Gandhi was still fighting the British and usurious taxi drivers assume everyone earns dollar or pound salaries. What's the solution? The pilot.
Essentially, the pilot is a no-frills solution to a perennial problem. The India team, who arrived in Goa on Thursday and had their first practice session under overcast skies at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, have had their own version of the pilot for the last two years. That man, is Gary Kirsten.
When Kirsten was appointed coach in March 2008, he was not the most obvious man for the job, having never been at the helm of an international team.
What Kirsten did bring to the team, however, was a keen understanding of how cricket worked, and more importantly, what did not work when trying to “coach” people who had a hundred Test matches under the belt. His partner in the operation that will culminate in the 2011 World Cup at home, Paddy Upton, was a man who was responsible for the conditioning of the South Africa team when they had the likes of Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes in the mix, and has since added several strings to his bow, studying the mental aspects of life in general and the game specifically.
The first thing this duo did, was to not try and mould players into what they believed cricketers should be. They realised that trying to get VVS Laxman to run like Rhodes would be as futile as coaching Laxman's on-drive into Rhodes' batting repertoire. They understood that the one thing standing in the way of Sachin Tendulkar playing the role of elder statesman was the coach demanding that he do it, and make long-winded speeches to youngsters.
In short, Kirsten and his support staff understood the India cricket team had the best possible chance of succeeding if each of its players became significantly better at what they loved doing.
The results (see box) are there for all to see. What the think-tank also did was not take on the selectors or the Board, and sure enough, once those in power realised what was being attempted, the team started getting more and more of what they wanted.
India's performance in the World Cup depends on many factors, and the players, led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, are, at the end of the day, the vehicle that will get the team to their ultimate destination. But, at least, in Kirsten, they have a pilot who knows what the road ahead holds, and best route to reach home.