Sport

Have a ball but don't go out, says Kirsten

Neil Manthorp

When it comes to crunch time, Gary Kirsten believes a relaxed, mentally fit squad will have the edge over opponents, writes Neil Manthorp

Gary Kirsten (right), taken out here by Matthew Hayden, believes he would have been a better ­cricketer if his mind had been as ready as his body was. (Getty Images)

There was a time when Glenn McGrath used to dismiss Gary Kirsten like the next bite of an apple: eight times in Test matches and another seven in one-day internationals.

"There was a look in his eye that told me he was expecting it," said McGrath recently, years after both players had retired. "It wasn't fear – just a look that told me he didn't have an answer, that we'd been here before and he knew how it was going to turn out."

The current Proteas coach may have suffered at McGrath's hands, but he was not alone. West Indian legend Brian Lara fell to him 15 times in Test cricket alone and England captain Michael Atherton was dismissed on 19 occasions. "I started to think to myself it shouldn't be this easy," said McGrath when recounting those Ashes battles.

Kirsten believes, certainly in his case, that McGrath, great bowler that he was, benefited from the batsman's staleness. Instead of batting longer in the nets the next day, Kirsten felt he would have been better off skipping nets altogether once in a while.

"Short of asking McGrath to come and bowl at us in the nets, there wasn't much we could do to prepare for the next time we faced him in a match. So we would go through largely the same training and practise routines, day after day, until it was match day again. And there he was at the top of his run-up. No wonder there was a sense of déjà vu."

In his final calendar year of Test cricket, well after he had spoken out as a senior player and done what he believed was necessary to stay mentally fresh, Kirsten scored five centuries and averaged a remarkable 74. It was just one of many pieces of "evidence" that persuaded him to have another look at the preparation methods and have the courage of his conviction if and when he ever became a coach.

When Paddy Upton was appointed the national team's first ever fitness trainer in the late 1990s, he had first-hand experience of the Groundhog Day approach many of the players had to traditional physical work.

Element of competition
But when he "invented" training circuits using local props and landmarks and introduced an element of competition to the training, everything changed: "It had nothing to do with muscles and ligaments and ­everything to do with the mind," Upton said.

It was the reason he went back to "school". The head interested him far more than the body and he foresaw a time when top sports teams would converge in strength, endurance and skill levels to such a degree that there would be little more than a few percentage points between them all.

He predicted a time 15 years ago when international cricket contests would routinely be decided by just a few degrees and he thought that would be found in the brain, not the brawn.

But a five-day holiday? Really? Is that really the best Kirsten and Upton could come up with after all these years of imagining and now implementing the "new way"? Go fishing, golfing, shopping and swimming at the beach?

Yes, that is the plan for the free period before the second Test against Australia starting in Adelaide on November 22. But there is one pastime that does not appear on the list: partying. The unrestricted free-time approach would not work with every squad. Indeed, it would have the potential to backfire with the majority of sports teams. But there is a rare lack of Herschelle Gibbs-type characters in this group and an unusually high number of mature, content and trustworthy ones.

Leadership vacuum
"The sport they play is a mental one, so the importance of a fresh mind is just the same as a fresh body. In some cases, far more important," said Upton, before heading to the Great Barrier Reef.

Traditional business leaders (let alone anybody who has ever endured the lingering effects of jet lag) find it hard to comprehend how Kirsten, on the other hand, could choose to fly all the way back to Cape Town for three days. His commitment to be with his young family as much as possible is well known, but this appears an extreme move to most observers. But there are three things to consider.

First, he is hardly creating a leadership vacuum by departing. There is a team manager, performance director (Upton), assistant coach and bowling coach.

Second, nobody in the entire group works harder or more selflessly than Kirsten when preparations are in full swing. He is the first to arrive at every net session and the last to leave. No player, ever, will be denied one-on-one time with him.

Third, if Kirsten is encouraging the players to discover what works best for them in terms of mental and emotional refuelling, would it not be hypocritical of him not to do what he knows works best for him?

Maybe it's all a load of New Age baloney. Perhaps the best way to long-lasting success is relentless discipline and the constant pursuit of physical and technical excellence. But it may be wise to judge after an appropriate length of time. Mini-holidays, after all, were taken in New Zealand and England during those Test series and they were both won.

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