Great players rarely make great coaches in any sport. Jacques Kallis has an opportunity to prove his worth and should be given the space to do so, writes SA Cricket magazine editor RYAN VREDE.
Last week, Jacques Kallis incorrectly asserted that he wasn’t able to continue with the Proteas because of a transformation policy Cricket South Africa had instituted.
I argued this was not only false, but a dangerous rhetoric, given that it spoke to the victim-minded sensibilities of many white South Africans. That’s in the past, but it also got me thinking about Kallis’ career as a coach in a broader sense.
We can’t make a fair or absolute judgement on his coaching ability with the Proteas in a tenure that ran from late December 2019 to late February 2020. In that period, South Africa played a Test, ODI and T20 series against England, who are among the best in the world across all three formats. They also played a T20 series against Australia, who excel in the format.
They did so with a team in transition, one that featured many rookie batsmen and a clutch of others who were experiencing a slump in form. It would have been a difficult assignment for even the most experienced of batting coaches, let alone one like Kallis, for whom this was a first international gig.
He has subsequently taken a consultancy with England. If Proteas head coach Mark Boucher has his way, Kallis will be involved in some capacity again in future. There is something to be said for the sheer value of Kallis’ aura alone, but his ability to improve players technically, to help them clarify their mental approach and his ability to apply the requisite EQ to extract the best out of them, are all more important than his aura.
The notion that being a great player will easily translate into being a great coach is fundamentally flawed. Some great players develop into great coaches, but those are extremely rare in any sport. Jacques Kallis is without peer as an all-rounder in the game’s history, but that doesn’t earn him immediate credibility as a coach.
Indeed, if you cast your eye across the sporting landscape at present, you can count on one hand how many great players are at the helm of dominant teams.
In football, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City was a great midfielder who progressed to build a decorated coaching career. It would be remiss not to note that he has only ever coached teams comprising some of the world’s best players. That, however, is no guarantee of success, and shouldn’t diminish what he has accomplished. Zinedine Zidane, coach at Real Madrid, has enjoyed plenty of success, but like Guardiola, has also benefited from a talent-stacked roster.
One of the best current managers in football, Jurgen Klopp, wasn’t a playing great. Neither was Jose Mourinho, who is leading Tottenham Hotspurs’ revival as a Premier League force. Sir Alex Ferguson, who built a dynasty at Manchester United in the ’90s and early 2000s, was an average player.
In basketball, the NBA’s most successful coach of recent times, Steve Kerr, was a key member of the Bulls’ dominant unit in the ’90s, but isn’t considered a great. In American football, Bill Belichick, the league’s most decorated coach, never played professional sport.
I could go on citing examples of average players who’ve turned into great coaches. The converse wouldn’t take me that long.
In a cricketing context, Gary Kirsten oversaw a highly successful period in charge of India and the Proteas. He is an iconic player, one whose 21 Test centuries and nearly 8,000 Test run puts him in the conversation as a great – certainly in a Proteas context.
Kallis, though, is among the game’s greatest-ever players. He breathed rare air. There is a something about the way those types of players are wired that allows their talent to soar as consistently as it does. It also prohibits many from becoming great coaches.
Let me explain.
A close friend of mine played football for the New York Red Bulls. He described the experience of playing with Thierry Henry, who had a stint there in the twilight of his career, as both exhilirating and depressing. Henry would often get angry in games and training sessions when his teammates couldn’t execute skills or exhibit the vision he deemed to be simple. It rarely was, but Henry’s genius blinded him from seeing the limitations of those who weren’t blessed with his immense gifts. When he later transitioned into coaching, Henry would often lament his players as ‘not good enough’, which, making an educated guess, translates as ‘not as good as me’.
In his book ‘What sport tells us about life’, former England batsman Ed Smith tackles the issue of sporting genius, writing: ‘Scratch a brilliant sportsman deeply enough and you’ll reach a layer of self-certainty in his own destiny. The greater the sportsman, usually the more convinced he is of his own predestined greatness.
‘The big stage means it must be his stage, victory has been arranged on his terms, it is his destiny to win the World Cup, Olympics or Ashes. It might be perfectly rational for a great player to believe he has a good chance of decisively influencing the big occasion. But that isn’t what he thinks. He thinks it is inevitable. After all, well-balanced self-awareness and genius seem so rarely to co-exist.’
We could have a lengthy debate about under what set of circumstances, especially in their formative years, these great players are moulded. There is no debate, though, that these players cannot teach others without their extraordinary gifts to have this mindset, from which their technical brilliance flows.
They also can’t teach players how they respond to setbacks, which Smith describes as something great players experience in a detached manner – a mere blip on their journey radar to even greater feats. This is critical to their consistency.
Smith, writing about Zidane’s playing career, describes his mental approach in a way that resonates when you think about Kallis. ‘He has a completely natural type of focus – there is no posturing, attention-seeking or affected team-spiritedness. He is also shown to possess a paired-down control of emotional stimulus. “Focus” and “concentrate” are the two commonest sporting clichés. But rarely does anyone add that you cannot focus and concentrate on everything. The art is what you leave out.’
This is part of what made Kallis a great batsman. His work environment, particularly in Test cricket, was unforgiving. Batting is a lonely job and there are a myriad stimuli battling for your attention. Only the great players are able to filter most of those out.
In my 14 years’ experience as a sports journalist, I’ve seen one common thread in all of the great players I’ve interviewed – their inability to describe their thinking in decisive, match-defining moments they were central to. This is because they were doing that while others were thinking.
The two happen simultaneously for the greatest players. This renders opponents who have to think, and then do, helpless. Smith writes: ‘The truism is that the best players seem to have “more time”. One neglected explanation is that self-belief operates like a partial stun-gun on opponents. By the time you are finished asking, “What the hell is he going to do now?” the champion player has already stolen a march.’
The struggle these types of players have to comprehensively articulate their thoughts in a coaching environment is part of the reason so few of them go on to be great coaches. This is understandable when you’ve spent the bulk of your career not thinking, but doing.
Kallis is undoubtedly one such player. Again, there is no question that his mere presence has power. But that alone won’t facilitate good international players reaching the ceiling of their potential. The great ones don’t need Kallis, but their shared experience will make coaching easier.
Kallis is in the infancy of his coaching career. It is too soon to make an absolute judgement on whether he is one of those rare greats who transition into being highly successful coaches.
We wait. We watch.