Rob Houwing

Kirsten to help SA 'grow up'

2011-06-07 15:48
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing

A new maturity: I strongly suspect this will be an important focus for South Africa’s freshly-announced coach, Gary Kirsten, when he assumes charge on August 1.

Predictably unveiled for the job to widespread acclaim on Monday, he will almost certainly share the belief that, broadly speaking, talent is not in short supply on these shores -- either within the national Test and limited-overs squads or on the immediate periphery of them.

There is a wonderful blend of proven experience and youthful promise in batting, a cultural shift in spin bowling with containment no longer the only useful prong to the trade (Imran Tahir, you would assume, is going to be tantalisingly blooded in the Test environment next summer) and a shock bowling department that will always look good when Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are in full cry.

Perhaps the only short- to medium-term voids Kirsten is going to have to put his mind to in significant earnest soon after he starts are on the back-up front in genuine pace bowling, and in extra wicketkeeping options: warhorse Mark Boucher is in his twilight and AB de Villiers’ ascension to limited-overs national captain and continued front-line responsibility at the crease may mean he is inclined not to want the gloves all of the time.

As evidenced in his massively successful three years in charge of India, the 43-year-old will not try to enforce any autocratic “Kirsten way” of doing things or summarily send his charges up the mountain with rocks in their backpacks for several days at a time.

But he will certainly cajole his players to constantly assess, re-assess and challenge themselves. Kirsten will discourage comfort zones, I am pretty sure.

He is admirably free of egotistical tendencies, partly a product of his own international past as a player, where he was never in personal doubt that he had to make up in iron resolve and a clever ability to mask his technical shortcomings what he always lacked in his older half-brother Peter’s obvious natural genius.

That goes a long way to explaining why Kirsten was held in such high esteem by the likes of Indian blue-chip players Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni: he was big on “recommendation” rather than prescription, and endeavoured as strongly as possible to help keep the fires of long-established superstars burning to the benefit of the team cause.

Keep in mind that the last-named requirement can be a tough ask on the crazy modern treadmill, where one match and one series can quickly blur into another.

Kirsten keeps notably high standards of personal fitness, which favourably influences his strong hands-on qualities ... for instance with energetic “throw-downs” to batsmen at the nets. (It seems he must have done tens of thousands with an appreciative Tendulkar, for instance.)

But I was especially interested in his statement, upon announcement of his appointment, that he intended giving his charges “options, so that they can grow both as cricketers and as people”.

And the “people” part may well be significant: it has been my own suspicion for a fair while that the Proteas have not quite managed to dominate the world as had been hoped after that heady Test series success in Australia, because a certain emotional maturity and “real life” experience has been lacking even in some of the most senior players.

Getting married, having children, doing school drop-offs and taking the lawnmower for a service may not be the be all and end all of enrichment and “perspective”.

But Kirsten - who was once a student partygoer and mischief-maker of some magnitude, by own admission – long ago struck a key balance personally and may wish to hasten a process where our feted, more-flush-than-ever national cricketers “grow up” to the benefit of both self in daily existence and by extension in cricketing performance too.

After all, even if there appeared to be some signs of improvement in Corrie van Zyl’s stop-gap tenure as coach, several of the current nucleus of Proteas players remain subjects of lingering suspicion of a damaging clique culture and a tendency to drain the proverbial barrel or fall pretty to dietary lapses just a wee bit more often than is ideal.

Such tendencies were even admitted to a good degree by the then all-embracing captain Graeme Smith, only four years ago, so whether they have since been fully eliminated is a matter for conjecture.

“Biff” will quite rightly extend his long-time role as Test leader, and as he begins life as a thirtysomething may well be encouraged by his new coach and former dressing-room colleague Kirsten to detach himself a bit more from his “one of the boys” penchant.

Smith and several current counterparts around the planet are never going to be of the Mike Brearley school of captains - this legendary England skipper of the 1970s practises these days as a registered psychoanalyst, no less - partly because the landscape has changed so much and good cricketers go straight into professional careers rather than university or other studies.

His great strength, besides, lies in his lead-from-the-front relish and preparedness to take a personal battering for the cause, but it would also be nice to imagine that Smith one day might do something unorthodox or more general-life relevant with his charges, like Steve Waugh did when he poignantly took his 2001 Ashes squad to Gallipoli in Turkey, where 9000 Australian soldiers lost their lives in World War I.

Additionally, Aussie players have always had a greater appreciation for their cricketing heritage and heroes past than most.

We know Kirsten’s official, senior right-hand personnel will be Allan Donald and Russell Domingo, but it will also be fascinating to monitor whether he summons the services, in some capacity, of Eric Simons and “mind coach” specialist Paddy Upton, both of whom, it seems reasonably clear, significantly aided his era with India.

As long as everyone suitably tempers their enthusiasm for his appointment by Cricket South Africa, by realising that he does not bring with him a magic wand that immediately transforms the Proteas, voila, into a machine comparable to the West Indies of the Viv Richards era or Australia in the Shane Warne heyday, the possibilities for Kirsten’s tenure look very appetising indeed ...

Rob is Sport24's chief writer

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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