World Cup-winning coach and Proteas batting consultant Gary Kirsten offered SACricket his insight into the side’s burning issues going into cricket’s showpiece. Interview conducted by Cape Town journalist NEIL MANTHORP.
How important is it to have a settled XI in the build up to the tournament?
Kirsten: Many people will say it’s vital, but I don’t believe that. It unfolds slowly in a World Cup and you find things out as you go along. We certainly did when I was with India. We were far from blitzing, we had three good games and probably should have lost the quarter-final, but pulled through. If you are fixated on finding the ‘perfect combination’, I don’t think you’ll ever find it. It depends on who is firing at the time.
What’s the burning question?
Kirsten: Is seven batsmen the way to go, with the resources we have available? Do we go with seven batsmen and make up the fifth bowling allocation with whatever we have available? Or play an all-rounder at number seven?
Can you ‘create’ batting depth putting an all-rounder – Parnell? – at number three or four, thereby allowing a specialist batsman to bat a seven?
It is definitely an option. We did that with Robbie Peterson at the Champions Trophy last year, with some success, but we are still in an exploratory space. Dale [Steyn], Morne [Morkel] and Vernon [Philander] are our three seamers. Immy [Imran Tahir], however, is our key bowler. On the stats of the last two years, he is pretty much signed and sealed.
Are you the ‘batting consultant’, or more than that?
That’s my label, and that’s my area of expertise, but it’s a bit more than that. I work with everyone, the leadership group, see how everyone is doing. I’m obviously not a stranger to the squad but when I join up with them it is, hopefully, with fresh eyes and perspective because I haven’t been with them all the time. I try to facilitate discussions to benefit as many as possible.
Discussions about? The choker tag?
I am extremely sympathetic towards the players on that subject. The national team’s record in ICC tournaments has become this terrible legacy which is handed down from generation to generation. Some of the guys have never even been there but they get called the same names, it’s unfair. But there it is. Paddy [Upton? confirm with RV] was a great help with that. Do we embrace the vulnerability and talk about it, or do we pretend it doesn’t exist and just get on with it, like life is perfectly normal? We have tried both. This time the team is just trying to be as natural as possible … going for the middle ground!
Where is AB’s captaincy now?
I’m bloody excited by AB de Villiers. He didn’t have a great start as captain and there was a bit of criticism of his leadership and strategy. But I have always maintained that leadership starts within the person and then grows outwards into different areas like man-management and tactics, but it comes from the foundation of being a solid human being. AB is a solid human being. He is a bloody good player – the best, actually, but when he speaks, there is an authenticity to his words which makes people listen.
Most important job ahead of the World Cup?
We have some of the best batsmen in the world, all capable of scoring hundreds. Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and De Villiers, but we need to get numbers five, six and seven really firing. To get David Miller going would be fantastic. He is such a destructive player and he’s working hard to build the totality of his game. It would be good to have another ‘finisher’ down there with him, unless we go with AB at five, JP at six and David Miller at seven.
The era of using part-time bowlers for 10 overs seemed to have ended when fielding restrictions changed. Are the Proteas really considering returning to it?
It is an option. You can use JP as the fifth bowler but you can’t expect him to bowl all 10. He might be able to, but you need some other options. That might be Rilee Rossouw with a bit of off-spin or even AB. Farhaan Behardien did an excellent job in a game against Australia in Perth. Collectively, if they can deliver those 10 overs for around 60, and you have an extra batsman as the trade-off, that sounds pretty good.
How important will powerplays be?
Largely irrelevant. Often there isn’t much you can do to ‘capitalise’ on it. Of course, you try and keep wickets in hand to cash in on the second one, but the first 10 overs will be more about survival.
Is South Africa equipped well enough in the death bowling department?
Death bowling is a problem for every team in the world today. I don’t think anyone has got it sorted. I’m beginning to think that spinners play more of a role than seamers. Everyone uses seamers because they are scared to use the spinners. In a 50-over game, your last 30 can be critical. Tahir could do an outstanding job. Batsmen have become so good. In the old days, we used to pride ourselves on the bowlers being able to land their yorkers but, if they didn’t, the ball went for one – now it goes for six. So they are understandably reluctant. Bat technology has a lot to do with it but guys are playing reverse sweeps, sweeps – they can hit the ball 360 degrees. Although 10 an over seems easier in a 20-over game, it’s still possible in the 50-over version.
Planning a run chase, are you telling the guys that 10 an over is OK?
It’s a tough ask, even with wickets in hand on big fields. I’m certainly not suggesting that we leave ourselves 10 an over, even with wickets in hand. The fields are big in Australia. In the IPL, on small grounds, 10 an over is easy.
Once again, the length of the tournament could be an issue. An average of six days between games. Problem?
Exactly. The knockouts start on 16 March and we are going to be there from 4 February. The guys have to go through six weeks of tournament play, six days between games and manage the whole process. Then, when they get to the knockouts, all the talk of our record at World Cups will be in overdrive. Each guy has to manage himself as well as possible. But the baggage will be unpacked. There is no magic recipe out there that will make all the difference. It is not insurmountable, but we’ll need a bit of luck. Every team does.
South African supporters and, to a degree, the media might think about the way they talk about ‘choking’. Maybe don’t ‘expect’ it … negative thoughts come true. The players may decide not to look at the media, or listen, but the opposition is shouting at them, the media is, the public is … it gets heavier and heavier. It becomes a dark cloud which sits over the team. But it will just take a short blast of wind to clear it. One win in the knockout stage could change everything. Gary Player always says: ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’ You have to put yourself in the position to get lucky.
It’s not about luck, though. Is it?
Yes and no. Luck always plays a part but you can’t rely on it. Everyone chokes, in whatever walk of life. Even winners choke. Great golfers choke over five-foot putts, but they bounce back to win. Some players in the teams which beat South Africa have also choked at important times, It happens all the time. Overcoming it requires significant resilience and courage and I believe we have put together a group of senior players – Hashim, AB, Faf, JP, Dale Steyn, Vernon – who can manage it
So, this time?
You don’t expect me to answer that, do you?
This interview appears in the January-March issue of SACricket magazine, currently on sale.