Gone like Gary Kirsten, but the game goes on

At the epicentre of every practice session the Proteas have had in the past four years was a man with almost no public profile. Throwing thousands of balls in the nets, talking, discussing, hitting slip catches and high ones … and then running the fitness sessions and warm-downs afterwards.

Rob Walter was there in Amsterdam last week and at the Swalec Stadium in Cardiff, again, doing what he has done so successfully during the Proteas' rise to Test champions. This time they are attempting to win the International Cricket Council Champions Trophy. Like head coach Gary Kirsten, he is on his last tour of duty before beginning a new career as head coach of the Titans.

The "backroom" composition of international cricket teams is not decided by the captain and coach, but by finance committees and budgetary constraints. The days of "manager and coach only" have long gone. Physiotherapists and even psychologists are now de rigueur, as are fitness trainers. Everyone has to have a "label", so Walter was given "strength and conditioning coach". As good as he is, there is much more to him. Any player will confirm this, especially Hashim Amla, who has taken to thanking him on Twitter.

The appointment of Paddy Upton as head coach of the underdog Indian Premier League franchise, the Rajasthan Royals, raised a few eyebrows in coaching circles, and Walter's recent appointment as successor to Matthew Maynard at Centurion was more evidence that the coaching world may be changing. Walter holds a level three coaching certificate and will be completing the elite level-four course in August. His respect for "traditional" methods is complete. He also says things are changing.

"Technique has been blamed for too many things over the years. Of course it is important, but the way a player thinks affects his technique, too. A batsman walks to the crease at 30-3 and thinks 'I must not get out, I must not get out.' That is bound to affect his technique. So he nicks it to slip and it's 40-4.

"The coach then throws 200 cover drives to him and he middles them all. Problem solved. Except when 30-3 comes around again and he starts the same thought process which got him into trouble the first time. This scenario has been known about for many, many years. The challenge is how to tackle it and overcome it; that's what excites me," Walter says.

No difference to preparations
Prone to understatement and, like Kirsten, firmly of the belief that coaches should stay "out of the limelight", when Walter describes the squad's mood in England as "pretty good" then followers should have few concerns. More worrying would be "great" or especially "perfect". Like all the best coaches, Walter believes that perfection exists only in the pursuit, never reality. It can always be better.

The format of the Champions Trophy is a good coach's dream. Every match is vital. Victory or defeat against India in Thursday's opening match will make no difference to preparations for the second match against Pakistan on Monday. "Intensity is what the players thrive on, and those of us in the background are no different," says Walters.

So what will happen when the invisible colossus and the visible one, Kirsten, are no longer there? The players are in no doubt about the size of the double whammy when they leave.

"Gazza will be a huge loss, but nobody is bigger than the game or the team. They will move on, our places will be taken by good people and the team will prosper. There are far too many brilliant cricketers in this team to be affected by the change of any coaching staff."

The value of the five days the team spent with explorer Mike Horn in Switzerland before last year's tour of England was hard to understand for anyone not involved. The players said it played a role in winning the series and climbing to the top of the Test rankings. It was valuable enough to persuade Kirsten that a scaled-down version was worthwhile before this three-week tournament.

"The enormity of the things he has achieved puts into perspective what we are trying to do. He circumnavigated the Arctic Circle and the equator. He cut off his own frostbitten fingers. He has stared death in the face on a dozen occasions. When he tells the players the stories, it makes it a little less easy to complain about the pitches we're playing on," says ultra-marathoner Walter with a charismatic, sardonic smile.  

There are "issues" ahead for the team in the next few weeks. Play an extra batsman and ask JP Duminy to bowl the majority of the fifth bowler's 10 overs? Keep faith in Colin Ingram at number three? Is Rory Kleinveldt good enough to bowl at the death? Will the world media's macabre fascination with Protea "chokes" affect the players?

At least they know they are unlikely to lie, poisoned, on the floor of the Amazon jungle for four days waiting to die. Or freeze to death in temperatures polar bears avoid.

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Neil Manthorp
Neil Manthorp works from Cape Town. Talk and write about cricket,golf and most sports. Executive Coach. Cook for the family when at home. Neil Manthorp has over 27405 followers on Twitter.

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