The Kirsten conundrum

Cricket South Africa have decided to delay naming the Proteas’ new head coach for a couple of months. Gary Kirsten has told the world that he needs a couple of months to “refresh and regroup” after three intensive and highly successful years as coach of Team India. It’s not exactly subtle, is it?

And yet it is a very long way from being a “done deal”.
In some corners of the country speculation that Kirsten will take over as national coach has already given way to a belief that it is just a matter of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.

If the CSA are to get their man its leaders are going to have to be able to see into the future, take a leap of faith of spectacular proportions and lead the way in world cricket.

Kirsten’s desire to be with his young family is well known and frequently mentioned. His wife, Deborah, uses the word “dysfunctional” to describe the effect that full-time cricket can have on the families of its practitioners. And the Kirstens are not alone in that belief. During the World Cup England’s head coach, Andy Flower, publicly questioned whether the job was “worth all the heartache”, saying that the lost years while his three children grew up without him could “never be regained”.

But there is more to Kirsten’s firm but polite refusal to renew his contract with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (and one can only imagine what terms they were offering by the end of his contract). During the course of his avid reading of sports books and biographies from outside cricket it became increasingly obvious to him that cricket coaching—particularly internationally—had failed to evolve for two decades and badly needed to.

Learning from others
Kirsten often speaks of Sir Alex Ferguson as the most successful sports coach of the modern era (although there are a number of American Football, baseball and basketball coaches who could challenge that title).

During the course of Kirsten’s “research” some years ago into the Manchester United manager’s methods, he came to understand that he did not take charge of every practice session. In fact, he did not even attend every practice session. He did not even travel to every fixture.

If Ferguson believes that time spent with a struggling individual, or the reserve team or even talent spotting on a tip-off, will be beneficial he will do that—safe in the knowledge that he has an excellent team of assistant managers and back-up staff to take over the reins seamlessly.

Not only does Ferguson benefit by acting on his actual priority list rather than his perceived one, the players benefit too, from hearing a different voice on the training ground and, perhaps, a different perspective. (Albeit very briefly in the case of “iron fist” Ferguson!)

English soccer has had a century to evolve and define the role of its managers and coaches. International cricket has had barely a quarter of that time since Australia appointed Bobby Simpson to take charge of its ailing, post-Packer national team in the mid-1980s.

A strict disciplinarian and obsessive work horse, Simpson changed the players’ attitudes and transformed their fortunes. But by the time his decade in charge came to an end, he had left such an indelible mark on two generations of Australian cricketers that as much harm had been done as good. Young cricketers were becoming disciples and their peers believed the “Simpson way” was the “only way”. Which it wasn’t.

During Kirsten’s playing career it was virtually unheard of for a national player to spend time with or seek advice from his club or provincial coach. It would have been disloyal to the national coach to the point of treason. That attitude, at least, has changed substantially.

In many ways Andy Flower is on the right course with England. He has a back-up team numbering, at times, as many as 20 people and including such luminaries as batting legend Graham Gooch. Every one of them is empowered to work with the national players and to push the limits in their field of expertise. But they all report back to Flower and speak through him to avoid cross-messaging and miscommunication.

Where he has not got it right, of course, is spending just five of the last 180 days at home. Surely that cannot be right or healthy for anyone. Perhaps he was not ready to take a step back. Or maybe the England and Wales Cricket Board believed in the “convention” that the head coach should always be available.

Kirsten, however, is likely to offer a blueprint for the job never seen before. It may include different coaches for the three formats of the game or, perhaps, a rotation policy for a team of coaches.

Maybe it will simply be a team of highly qualified and skilled assistants. He probably doesn’t know the answer himself at the moment. But he knows, for certain, that he didn’t walk away from the job with India to do the same again with South Africa.

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