The argument that the Indian Premier League is directly responsible for India chasing down a massive target to win their series is flawed. It has more to do with a thinking transformation that Gary Kirsten was the catalyst for, writes RYAN VREDE.
When I was a kid, India touring South Africa or Australia, and to a lesser extent England, for a Test series made for poor viewing. Their team was loaded with incredibly talented players, not least of all Sachin Tendulkar. But, aside from Tendulkar and a small clutch of others, their talent didn’t travel.
They lacked the technique and temperament to deal with hard, bouncy tracks, and opposition bowlers who were intent on exploiting those conditions to their advantage. India’s fast bowlers, unaccustomed to these conditions, simply didn’t have the pace or skills to match their hosts’ potency. Consequently, Test series were largely dull affairs.
India’s cricketing fraternity was deeply frustrated at this. They have a deeper talent pool than any cricketing nation on earth, so the frustration was justified. Yet, talent was never the issue, temperament and self-belief was, and Gary Kirsten played a big role in changing this.
Kirsten’s appointment in 2008 was the catalyst for India’s re-emergence as a force in international cricket. Kirsten went on to become one of the most successful India coaches in history, guiding the team to the top of the Test rankings in 2009, and winning the ODI World Cup two years later.
In Kirsten’s interview with the BCCI board, current India coach Ravi Shastri asked him what the Proteas had done to beat India so regularly at home. Kirsten didn’t reveal the strategies, but he did intimate that there was a prevailing belief that many of India’s batsman didn’t have the self-belief or temperament to succeed in foreign conditions.
After a short conversation, Kirsten was handed a contract that still had former coach Greg Chappell’s name on it. A BCCI board member took a pen and scratched it out, replacing it with Kirsten’s name. The rest is history.
After Kirsten’s contract ended in 2011, MS Dhoni lauded his impact, hailing him as ‘the best thing that could have have happened to Indian cricket’. Tendulkar cited Kirsten’s emphasis on the mental dimensions of coaching, saying: ‘A lot of credit has to go to coach Gary Kirsten who has allowed the natural instincts of players to flourish. A lot has got to do with what’s going on in a player’s mind and Gary has played a huge role there.’ Virat Kohli credits Kirsten for transforming his mindset after a frank discussion between the two in the early stages of the India captain’s career.
Kirsten never styled himself as the saviour of Indian cricket. That would have been an insult to the rich history of, and deep talent pool in, India. He did, however, completely capture the spirit of the time, harnessing ‘Young India’ (more on this in a bit) and transformed their thinking. With the assistance of expert mental coach Paddy Upton, he instilled in individuals and the collective the ability to negotiate the most mentally taxing circumstances successfully. This allowed their talent to soar, which was at the heart of their revival across all three formats of the game.
In the wake of India’s dramatic, last-day victory over Australia on Tuesday, Shastri made regular reference to ‘Young India’ being at the heart of their success. Kohli himself referenced this prior to the series, explaining that ‘… Young India aren’t caught up in what’s happened in the past’, in reference to India’s historic struggles Down Under.
Broadly speaking ‘Young India’ is a movement for Indian youth to converge, lead, co-create and influence India’s future. This implies a shift away from the conservatism (in deed and thought) that had gripped the older generation of Indians for much of their post-colonial history. Kirsten was central to the cultivation of ‘Young India’ in a cricketing context. They believed and then achieved.
The truism goes you can only be what you can see. It is therefore no co-incidence that the generation of players who have emerged post-Kirsten carrying with them degrees of self-belief that mimic their predecessors. Shubman Gill, just 21 years old and in his third Test, played with the surety of a Test veteran to score 91 in the Brisbane victory. The 23-year-old Rishabh Pant, in his 16th Test, looks like he has been built for the demands of Test cricket at its most elite level. He embodies the spirit of his predecessor, MS Dhoni – aggressive, measured and composed under even the most immense pressure. Washington Sundar, 21 and on debut, played like a Test veteran. Mohammed Siraj is slightly older at 26, but he carried an attack decimated by injury, and looked like he has played 53 Tests, not the three he actually has.
So, what then of the impact the IPL has had? I saw some respected voices in the game draw a direct link between India’s ability to chase 328 on the final day of the Test and the impact of the IPL. I think this argument is flawed.
There is no question that playing T20 cricket against some of the world’s elite players benefits young Indian players in a myriad ways, not least of all the fact that constant exposure chips away at the aura of invincibility that many of these elite players embody. The format has also shown that scores that were previously considered winning ones, are gettable on a good wicket (which the Gabba certainly was) and with a deep batting lineup (which India had in Brisbane). This has much to do with innovations in stroke play, which has created scoring opportunities and areas that hadn’t previously been exploited.
But to draw a direct link between the victory and the IPL ignores the revolutionary work that has transformed the mentality and self-belief of India’s elite cricketers. This is the work started by Kirsten 13 years ago and its impact and influence lives on today, evidenced by the granitic nature of this India side’s collective temperament.