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Such is the volume of work he has put in, and the success he has masterminded, at the international and franchise levels that Gary Kirsten, the coach, needs little introduction. Given his man-management credentials embellished during his golden association with the Indian national team between 2008 and 2011, the South African is in pole position to drive the new ethos of Royal Challengers Bangalore which revolves around collective leadership and a structural overhaul that places emphasis on the group rather than on individuals.
Batting coach and mentor during IPL 2018, Kirsten has now taken over as RCB coach and mentor, a natural progression once the franchise and Daniel Vettori, the former head coach, mutually agreed to part ways amicably at the end of the latter's contract after a five-year stint. Kirsten's familiarity with the players formalised the concept of continuity. His popularity within the set-up and unwavering commitment to providing an environment that will allow the players to give their best game after game are just the tonic RCB are looking for after a disappointing campaign in Season 11 when they finished sixth.
"I am looking forward to helping the franchise have success in the IPL. This is a celebrated franchise and the demand and expectations on us... this last IPL, the franchise was not really happy about it," Kirsten said on being unveiled as coach on Thursday (August 30). "That is a general feeling the players share. As the coach, the responsibility is to help the team and optimise the performance of the players."
Unsurprisingly, Kirsten's philosophy to coaching extends beyond technique and ability. "Man-management to me is everything," he insisted. "It is the most important job in coaching. Next would probably be building a team strategy, as to how you want to play. Cricket coaching has really shifted significantly over the last while. There has been this kind of traditional view that the captain is the main guy and he runs the ship and he makes all the decisions. In T20 cricket, no, he is not making all the decisions. Yes, he makes a lot of them and he goes on to the field, but he goes on to the field with a plan. There are a lot of discussions that are taking place around the selections, the teams, around recruitment for the season, around opposition that we are playing against and how we want to play against them, what players we want to use against them on certain conditions. Working with support staff, preparing the team, rotating your squad.
"The coach has got a lot more work to do than the captain. But it is all off the field. The captain walks on to the field, he has a plan. This is how you are going to play in this game, you got to make it happen. If you take any sport around the world, you will see that the manager or the coach plays a very significant role and T20 cricket's doing that now, more and more. A coach is much more relevant than maybe in a Test match."
RCB made several significant buys at the mega auction earlier this year, lending the team greater balance than previously. Reiterating that the core group would remain unaltered, Kirsten said what he would try to instill within the set-up was a sense of consistency that would contribute to a successful campaign. "The word that stands out for me is consistency," he pointed out. "The performance is the end result. What are you going to do to create consistency in performance? When you look at teams with a high level of performance in the IPL, they give us great examples of what they are doing and we can say we are learning out of that. Often, the high-octane energy and intensity around the IPL and the real pressure to get those two points can put pressure on people. Everyone reacts to pressure. If we can put in place a system where we can create consistency – team selection, some consistency with our players that we recruit into the franchise, that will be one big step in helping the situation. But you have to take some pain along the way because if you are not getting the result that you are looking for, the easiest thing is to go into crisis management. You start changing and chopping and when you do, that the players are on a slippery slope."
Virat Kohli, the captain, and AB de Villiers are the obvious leaders within the playing group, but in keeping with the philosophy of creating a base of leaders, Kirsten observed, "One thing I have enjoyed about coaching is, I don't cross the ropes and go and play the game. My role is to optimise the players' abilities, whether they are leaders or bowlers or whatever work that they are doing. My role is to help them bring out their best. It's important to have group of leaders in a high pressurised environment like IPL. That's what we are going to create for Virat, to help him make decisions that he makes on the field rather than a case where everything rests on his shoulders, because I think that's a tough task to take on. He does it pretty well but in T20, there are a lot of decisions you make. It really helps when you have more leaders you are working with."
Kirsten's methodology to identifying leaders within the group beyond the obvious is predictably simple. "By their behaviour – how they operate on and off the field," he said. "There are guys who will surprise you. For example, Parthiv Patel only played 6-7 games last year, but he showed great leadership. It was an informal leadership, rather than a formal one like the roles of captain and vice-captain. You need other guys to help out along the way. Parthiv, an experienced player, came on and showed that he can
offer some value in decision-making."
Kohli and de Villiers are obviously in a class of their own, but it is practically impossible for two individuals to keep delivering day in and day out. While they might be the unquestioned superstars of RCB, there are nine other members who must contribute consistently so that the load is shared around, Kirsten said. "Others players need to stand up with their performances. We certainly will endeavour to make every player feel like his role is as important as anybody else. Virat and AB would also want that. Someone like Virat has a superstardom status in India and everyone expects him to score runs in every innings, which he does most of the time. It is also good for him as well to take pressure off him when he knows that there are other guys who can win matches. IPL teams require match-winners, it is simple. It will be our responsibility to build a unit that can have more than two guys winning matches. We will look closely into that."
RCB have a new chairman in Sanjeev Churiwala, and the new management group is keen on greater local flavour to the playing group, Kirsten revealed. "I certainly think it's the vision of the franchise. I had a conversation with the team owners a couple of days back about this and we feel it's important to recognise local players. They (owners) have asked me to pay attention."
During his celebrated stint with the national side when he steered India to the No. 1 Test ranking towards the end of December 2009, and then equally famously to the World Cup in 2011, Kirsten complemented rather than completely overhauled the system. He will, understandably, bring more of that same approach to RCB too. "What I enjoy about coaching is working out what the environment requires," he acknowledged. "When I joined the Indian team, we didn't know anyone. They were looking for a coach to fit that environment. The same applies for any team - what are the leadership qualities, and where do you fit in it. It requires time. How can I get the best out of players – it is as simple as that.
"My coaching philosophies will not always work. I'm comfortable with it. I'm hopeful that in some environments, they do work. I've had failure and success in my coaching career. Hopefully, more times than not, you will get it right rather than wrong. I'm not the head coach, that's not the RCB way this year. I'll look forward to working with the leadership group and captain, and flattening the structure to provide for good thinking across the board. And hopefully create success for this franchise."