fter his 49th Test century, against Australia in Bangalore last October, Sachin Tendulkar stopped just short of calling Gary Kirsten a bowling machine. In addition to appreciating the 'thousands of balls thrown down' in the nets, Tendulkar's praise spoke implicitly of Kirsten's man-management methods.
In the final months of Greg Chappell's tenure as Indian coach, which coincided with one of the worst phases of his illustrious career, Tendulkar was often a miserable figure. Chappell had convinced himself that Tendulkar, who had made 37 of his one-day hundreds till then as opener, needed to bat at No. 4 for the good of the team. Tendulkar was no fan of the move, and it had predictably disastrous results. Defeats to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka meant that India's World Cup in 2007 lasted just over a week.
Things couldn't be more different heading into this tournament. The insecurity and paranoia of those days has given way to a spirit of optimism and quiet confidence, as players believe they can finally lay the ghosts of 1983 to rest. You won't hear any Glenn McGrath-like prophecies, but despite a recent spate of injuries, this is a team that doesn't lack faith.
Coaches come and go. Some, like Bobby Simpson with Australia, Dav Whatmore with Sri Lanka and Duncan Fletcher with England, leave a deep imprint. John Wright did so with India early in the new millennium, dragging the side into modernity with increased fitness work and training sessions.
Most top international players don't require much coaching. Kirsten, who as a player was coached by the likes of Bob Woolmer, Graeme Ford and Eric Simons, recognised that, and focussed instead on the aspects of preparation and mental conditioning that could get the best out of his wards.
||He knew that some of us were not the best athletes, including myself. But we could contribute in other ways. He made sure that we knew our value and our role. - V V S Laxman
VVS Laxman, who played some of his finest firefighting innings in the Kirsten era, pinpointed his method beautifully. "Gary knew that each player has strengths and weaknesses," he said. "Whatever he didn't like as a player, he'd make sure that we didn't have to endure that. Whatever had made him comfortable, he'd try to inculcate within the team.
"He knew that some of us were not the best athletes, including myself. But we could contribute in other ways. He made sure that we knew our value and our role. He always communicated that really well."
The other thing with Kirsten was his near-abhorrence of the limelight. Chappell was the opposite. On one occasion in Johannesburg, after India's first Test win on South African soil in 2006, he regaled print journalists for 94 minutes. The headlines were as much about him as about the players that had won the game on the field. Kirsten comes to a press conference when no one else wants to, when the team's had the sort of day that's best forgotten. He'll sit behind the microphone and defend each player, regardless of how badly they've performed. It's that sort of unequivocal support that has made him so adored within the team.Image 2nd
You don't preside over the most successful period in a team's history – 16 Test [six defeats] and 50 one-day wins [28 losses] – just by being empathetic though. Kirsten isn't just good at his job, he's a workaholic. "The most impressive thing about him is his work ethic," says Laxman. "Whenever you talk to those who played with him, they say that was the hallmark of his career.
"From the first minute of a net session to the last, he's either giving throw-downs, hitting catches or talking to someone. He's always busy. His capacity for work is unbelievable and that's been infectious."
The demands of raising a young family mean that the World Cup will be his last Indian adventure. In the three global events that India have played under his tutelage – the 2009 Champions Trophy and the World Twenty20 in 2009 and '10 – they have performed miserably. This then is the litmus test.
After the drawn Test series in South Africa, M.S. Dhoni said: "I don't know if this is his last Test as India coach but every member loves him and acknowledges and respects the amount of time and devotion that he has given Indian cricket."
Now, those players have the opportunity to give him the perfect send-off. Before that, though, Kirsten has a few thousand more balls to throw in the nets.