In an exclusive interview, Gary Kirsten, who was overlooked for the head coach role in 2019, talks to Phil Walker about his vision for English Test cricket.
In the autumn of 2019, Gary Kirsten interviewed for the role of England men’s head coach. He’d been turned down for it once before, but felt that this, his second effort, was the best interview he’d ever done.
But there was a sticking point. The MD of England men’s cricket, Ashley Giles, was convinced that one person had to do the lot. He didn’t want some job-share, split between two coaches, as had happened in 2012 when Giles himself had been the white-ball coach and Andy Flower ran the Test team. Kirsten, whose family is based in Cape Town, was not thought to be wholly enamoured by the prospect of living out of a suitcase for 10 months a year. And so for the second time, the man who turned India into world champions and took South Africa to No.1 in Tests would miss out, this time to the team’s bowling coach, Chris Silverwood.
Two-and-a-half years and one pandemic later, it’s unlikely that Kirsten’s position has changed, and indeed he clarified to Wisden Cricket Monthly last summer that he’d always made “specific career decisions” to prioritise time with his family.
But English cricket’s position may have. With Covid exacerbating the psychological demands on individuals amid a schedule bordering on the inhumane, the notion of one person overseeing the whole show – and, as with Silverwood’s case, the added burden of selecting each squad – is perhaps no longer the bright idea that Giles once thought it was.
Kirsten has watched the Ashes keenly, and not just as an outside observer. He has worked with Dawid Malan for years – Malan cites him as the best technical coach he’s ever worked with – and as a former protege of Duncan Fletcher, he has a longstanding connection and interest in the English game. He spent much of last summer with Welsh Fire in The Hundred, watching and listening.
“It was interesting,” he tells me on the line from South Africa. “When I was at The Hundred, I asked six or seven people what they thought the England Test team’s top six should be and no one gave me the same answer. That was a real indication to me of the fact that England don’t understand what their top six is. That would be a massive cause for concern.”
English cricket, he says, has enviable resources. It remains in many ways a thriving culture, much-loved and well-supported, and the white-ball revolution that took place after 2015 is an inspiring model for what could yet be done in red-ball cricket. But it’s time for some hard truths and difficult conversations. “Look,” he says, “I don’t know all the answers but I’d love to be involved in the discussion.”
To the fundamental question of whether the first-class game is producing Test cricketers, Kirsten has been around too long to pull any punches. “It just feels like it’s Groundhog Day there,” he says. “It’s average, mediocre cricket. I think there needs to be more intensity to the first-class format. You can’t have so many games. You lower the intensity, you lower the standard. Make every innings a priority. Don’t make it so you’ve got 28 innings in your season, make it tight, make it 16. So every innings is a big one.
“You need players thinking. ‘Jeez, I don’t have a whole lot of games here, I’ve got to make this a big one’. And the other thing of course is that bowlers operate at 70 per cent because they know they can get performances on wickets bowling at 70 per cent, so it’s not good for them either.”
Kirsten has been studying Test match batting for most of his professional life. A top-order nugget who made over 7,000 Test runs, when he took over as South Africa coach, he oversaw a culture unapologetically obsessed with red-ball cricket.
“The only thing that we were interested in was Test match cricket,” he says. “Dale Steyn was in his prime, I don’t think in the whole time I was there he played more than 20 ODIs, we just left him out. Test cricket was the only focus. Maybe the time has come for England to say that Test cricket is their focus.”
He remains intrigued by technique, working today with a handful of batters in his Cape Town nets as part of his coach education programme, (coachedcricket.com), a platform set up with the aim of diversifying the coaching base in South Africa.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says, of his theories of modern batting. “A good Test match technique is about presenting the full face of the bat to straight deliveries – beautiful straight-bat players who hit the ball down the ground. There’s no funkiness to the way they play. It’s just solid.
“Often they don’t get the short format gigs because they’re not explosive enough as players. I mean, Joe Root doesn’t even play T20 cricket, and Marnus [Labuschagne] is the same for Australia. But those guys, they’re the ones who can manage the tough environments that Test match cricket offers.
“I think it’s much more challenging trying to turn good one-day cricketers into good Test cricketers. And maybe in England you’ve seen a bit of that, people they’ve been picking for their top six batting line-up, they’re often good one-day players but they haven’t really fired as Test match players.
“If I was looking at Test match batting, I’d be thinking, ‘Is it time to go for the type of technical player that is best suited to Test match cricket?’ I think one guy who’s technically a really good player is James Vince, who hits it in the right areas with a really good straight-bat technique. I’m not saying he’s the only one, but he’s the most visible to me.
“So I would say it’s about investing in these guys, and trying to create some stability around the best batsmen in the country. And until someone comes through who technically – not with runs on the board, but technically – is the most suited to that level of the game, then we won’t pick anyone else.”
Change is inevitable now, both structurally and in personnel. In the fullness of time (or maybe just next week), England should revisit the split-coaches idea. And when they do, they should consider returning to the man they’ve overlooked twice before.