Gary Kirsten is a World Cup winner as a coach and one of the giants of South African cricket, and he believes the Proteas have every chance of success in England… if they don’t overhype their chances, writes COLIN BRYDEN.
Not many in South Africa are better qualified to talk about Cricket World Cups than Gary Kirsten. As a player he was involved in three campaigns that ended in various degrees of disappointment. He coached India to triumph in 2011 and was, all too briefly, coach of South Africa in the early stages of the buildup to the 2015 tournament.
He was on the field and in the dressing room – when the heat was at its most intense – and has some thought-provoking views on why South Africa have fallen short in knockout games, usually after playing well in round-robin matches, and the approach which can be adopted if Faf du Plessis’ team are to contend this year.
Kirsten’s first World Cup was in 1996, when South Africa, under Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer, won their five group matches by margins which ranged from crushing to merely convincing. They played a quarter-final in Karachi against West Indies, who had scraped into fourth place in the other group despite losing three times.
‘In a knockout game, the teams become more evenly balanced,’ says Kirsten. ‘Every team can play above their potential and have one great game. Often what’s happened to South Africa is the expectation to win has risen through the tournament because generally we have done really well in the round-robin stages. A long tournament drags on and suddenly it’s like this team should win, and it’s surprising if they don’t. You end up having one bad game, and often the other teams step up their level of performance for that one-off game.’
The 1996 quarter-final illustrates Kirsten’s point. Crucial catches were dropped by South Africa and Brian Lara scored a century. ‘West Indies stepped up, we did not respond and were on our way home,’ he says.
‘I’ve always believed that as a cricket nation, in the past, we suffered a little from an inferiority complex,’ says Kirsten. ‘We knew we could compete and that we would fight to the death. When we wanted to dominate at the top of the pile, sometimes it felt like an uncomfortable situation and we often did not play at our best.’
Kirsten feels there were two sustained periods when South African teams were truly comfortable with being top dogs – under Graeme Smith in Test match cricket when South Africa became the No 1 team and won away series in England and Australia in 2008 and 2012, and in the late-1990s when ‘under Hansie and Bob, we were comfortable with the title of being the best one-day team around’.
Yet that ‘best one-day team’ fell agonisingly short, by less than the length of a pitch, at the 1999 World Cup in England.
Twenty years later, Kirsten believes there are still after-effects from 1999. ‘We were a fantastic team, our winning conversion rate was close to 80% and Lance Klusener was playing the best cricket of his life. To understand why we faltered and underperformed at that point is, for me, the centre of our problems in World Cups. Unfortunately that scarring has run deep.’
Kirsten’s final World Cup as a player was in 2003 in South Africa. The hosts were defeated twice and failed to reach the Super Six stage when a rained-out match against Sri Lanka ended in confusion over the Duckworth-Lewis target. It was not a particularly strong team compared to previous ones, and in Kirsten’s words it was a ‘disjointed’ campaign.
His appointment as coach of India in 2008 was a surprise, but Kirsten proved the ideal person for a challenging job.
He says the successful 2011 campaign was based not only on good preparation, but also a willingness to be agile and flexible in match situations that enabled the team to prevail despite not always playing to their maximum ability. The team did not rely on one or two players, but had many who could produce match-winning performances.
Preparation for the World Cup, as with most teams, started a year and a half before the tournament. ‘We would take every series and treat it as either quarter-final or semi-final events. We would try to simulate what it felt to be in a big situation and a big game. We included this kind of language in our team meetings, knowing the pressure would be intense in a home World Cup event.’
Having a settled, strong group of players was important. ‘We knew who fitted in where. There were a lot of senior players and great maturity within the group. Most importantly, there was never any internal hype around the World Cup. We tried to play down the event as much as we could with each other. We never specifically spoke about winning it. We spoke about playing as well as we could in every game and getting across the line, even if it did not look pretty.’
Kirsten says India didn’t play particularly good cricket in the round-robin stage. ‘However, as we moved into the knock-outs, although we were up and down in all three games, we had enough resource and composure, either with ball or bat, to cross the line.’
The way the World Cup unfolded, illustrated Kirsten’s emphasis on being adaptable and agile. ‘Everyone wants to ride the perfect Plan A. Knockout games never happen that way. They are unpredictable; you often need to overcome adversity or a tough period and then you need to be able to transfer pressure on to the opposition at the right moment,’ he said.
The leadership of Mahendra Singh Dhoni was important, not just because of his ability to ‘front up’ to any pressure situation – a trait Kirsten says was also possessed by Graeme Smith – but also his calmness and composure. ‘Where Dhoni was outstanding, was his ability to accept what was not going well. His emotional maturity separated him from other leaders.
‘Largely because of Dhoni, we accepted match-day adversity without a problem. Take the Pakistan semi-final. Half the guys couldn’t get to the breakfast table because the president of Pakistan arrived at the hotel. When we got to the ground there was no lunch because the cavalcade had blocked the catering. We had guys whose routines and rhythms were completely out by the time we walked on the field. It did not become a big thing; we were playing in a semi-final – that’s all that counted.’
Although India lifted the trophy in 2011, Kirsten believes South Africa had a good chance. They beat India in the group stage and topped the log. As in 1996, that earned them a quarter-final against a fourth-placed team, in this case New Zealand. ‘It was a strong team, with lots of experience and form going into the knockouts,’ says Kirsten. South Africa’s bowlers were outstanding throughout the tournament, but against New Zealand the batsmen ‘lost composure in the middle overs’, according to captain Smith.
Kirsten coached South Africa for two years after his stint with India. He watched as AB de Villiers’ team dominated New Zealand in the 2015 semi-final in Auckland before an unexpected shower cut short their innings on the way to a huge total, making New Zealand’s chase slightly easier. It literally ended in tears when Grant Elliott hit Dale Steyn for six off the penultimate delivery.
‘When you are playing in World Cups there is always a case to be made that circumstances were against you, but those actually aren’t the reasons,’ said Steyn at the time. ‘Great teams are able to overcome obstacles and make the plays they need to make. We didn’t bowl well enough at crucial times. It’s quite simple. With some really good senior bowlers we didn’t cross the line.’
So, what is needed if South Africa are to challenge this year?
First up is to confront what Kirsten describes as the elephant in the room. ‘South Africa have a history of underperforming when it counts most in the World Cup. The team needs to embrace it for what it is rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. I believe the Proteas need to build on a language of ‘group acceptance’, that we are mature enough as a group to deal with it. Then each individual needs to come up with his own plan to manage and overcome it. Every player must have a “go to” strategy.’
Kirsten believes the format, with all 10 teams playing each other before the semi-finals, suits South Africa, as does a strong bowling attack in English conditions.
Expectations, though, need to be managed. ‘In the last World Cup, I believe AB took a lot on his own shoulders, that they were going to win it for the country. I think it’s dangerous territory. Positive talk can often be rhetoric with no specific substance to it, even with best intentions,’ he says. ‘A World Cup will be won by an entire team. We have a great group of young guys who play the game freely, with incredible flair and instinct. Senior players will always be there when needed, but I believe with low expectations there’s a fantastic opportunity to look the “elephant in the room” squarely in the eyes.’
To sum up then, Gary Kirsten believes there is reason for hope. Just don’t talk about winning the World Cup!
– This article first appeared in SA Cricket magazine issue 144, now on sale