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Simons the other South African coaching connection

Trevor Chesterfield

Updated: January 27, 2011, 11:06 PM IST
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John Wright, that laconic down to earth New Zealander who like most Kiwis has a veritable dry sense of humour, once explained the role of coaching a country that is not his own as a matter of teaching the gullible to believe anything is possible.
It is a whimsical comment, suggesting it is like the role of a schoolmaster without a degree; one with the ability to turn an average player into a world-class athlete others want to emulate and a team into one for which they all want to play. This is when they seek you out for advice.

Wright left a lasting legacy for foreign coaches with India that took seismic event - the shock first round World Cup exit in 2007 - to correct through the calming influences of Gary Kirsten. Although both were openings batsmen with a penchant for grinding out runs, dry humour aside you couldn't find two so different in their approach to such a tough role.
During an interview and so typical of a New Zealand mindset, Wright once pointed out how coaching it is all about excellence and knowing how to get the best out of those you are entrusted to help. It is also more than expert advice. Small matters of helping the players achieve success and identifying who they represent.

"When you pull on an Indian shirt, it is more than representing the team you have been selected for," he carefully explained, making sure the comments were understood. "It is a need to remember they are representing a nation of more than a billion people. While the same applies to other countries that may be smaller in numbers and supporters, but they are just as important. You are representing that country.

"India's fan base is bigger and the passion that goes with it is equally important. I saw my job with India as giving the most passionate fans in the world the team they deserve."

Wright did that and Kirsten has carried on the tradition in his own quiet, thoughtful way. It is important to remember, he knows all about pressure, too. What opening batsman hasn't felt the weight of responsibility of the needs of his team?
As Kirsten prepares to relinquish the coaching post, who is there to step into his role? Is it Dav Whatmore? Duncan Fletcher? Graham Ford? Ray Jennings? Well, what about Eric Simons, the bowling coach, who for a time during the slogs against New Zealand, fulfilled the position while Kirsten and several of the Indian team went to South Africa to acclimatise while the subalterns remained at home.

He was South Africa's coach too at one point. Taking over from Ford who was targeted by a then disgruntled United Cricket Board (now CSA), and a media wanting success with a side that was not performing. Simons too ran the gauntlet of accusations of parochialism and favouritism at home when during the 2004 tour of Sri Lanka, the whole venture imploded.

Simons and Kirsten played together for Western Province and for a time South Africa. Simons first emerged during his military service in Pretoria as a quality seam and swing bowler for first Northern Transvaal in the mid-1980s. He returned to Cape Town and later captained Western Province, as well and later becoming their coach.

Simons, like Kirsten's credentials and like those of Wright are impeccable. Kirsten has a similar dry wit to Wright and a legacy littered with achievement that has been all too modest because of his behaviour as a player; it has been one about how team effort was always important and how to fill that role and why. His father Noel was a quality player, if a little grumpy; his elder brother Peter a brilliant batsman whose short international career ended as the country emerged from near 22-years of isolation.

It was in Durban during the Millennium Test with England when Kirsten scored a match-saving double century of impressive constraint rather than tedious indolence; he was given reluctant praise by an ever-waspish British media. It is one of his trademarks and is a typical Kirsten trait: an ability to concentrate for hours. That innings of 275 is the second longest in a Test is just one example. The other had been the habit of wearing the South African flag as a bandanna under his helmet when he batted, the sort of proud talisman saying who he was and represented.

Kirsten occupied the crease longer than any other South African in a Test: all in a good cause, though. It became recognised as the last great Test innings of the 20th century. For sheer theatre, he lived up to his reputation: his stoic calm adding an already impressive reputation. He was that sort of batsman and it has turned out, coach: heroic yet focused, digging deep into energy reserves and finally emerging from the trenches sharing more than a couple of records. A reluctant hero: always a touch shy when discussing his achievements.

As coach, and like Wright, he is rarely short on words whether discussing a player's technique or looking for answers to help India and find players for the future. He made it clear enough in Galle during the rained-off second day of the first Test last year, what were his opinions. Looking into a World Cup crystal ball then, he discussed the need for India to find an all-rounder: there are no Kapil Devs and Manoj Prabhakars readily found in an academy; no Jacques Kallis type either. It is the perennial problem and one that India are not capable of solving in a hurry. There is just not the same quality of player available to fill such an important role Kirsten says India need to be competitive in say the World Cup.

At the time, the focus was on Yusuf Pathan's brother Irfan. In South Africa, Yusuf fulfilled the role; whether he is the answer is another matter. The conundrum still to be answered, however, is not whether Simons will take over from Kirsten; it is a matter of if he wants to as like Kirsten he has a family to think about.

It is known he was hurt by questions of "Eric Who?" when first appointed as India's bowling consultant, and felt let down by those in the media he thought would understand his new role. Some did, and appreciated his frankness; others may still ask whether it is a job he wants. It is a tough one.

First Published: January 27, 2011, 11:06 PM IST

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