Gary Kirsten, head coach of Hobart Hurricanes and former international coach for India and South Africa, talks about the growing importance of the coach in T20 and how to build a T20 team.
Is the coach's role more important in T20 than Test cricket?
T20 cricket is a modern game, so it's more in line with professional domestic sport around the world, more in line with the demands of entertainment in sport. Leadership in that space requires creativity, it requires decision-making at a fast-paced level compared to Test cricket. I think it's incredibly relevant because there's a lot to cover before you move on to your next game, which is often a fairly quick turnaround.
Can a coach add more value to a team in T20?
My experience of that is: definitely. There's a lot more to do in a T20 group. Test cricket just takes a long time to unfold, the levels of skill that are required are probably very different. The game's moving very quickly in a T20 game, requiring a lot of different skills and also decision-making.
There's always a question mark over the role of a coach in cricket. Cricket is moving closer to modern sports. If you take Major League Baseball, if you take NFL, if you take basketball around the world, if you take football around the world, you just have to look at the role of the coach or manager within those sports. They play a fairly significant role. I think cricket's moving in that direction, in T20 cricket.
The other thing is, we're building piles and piles of data that are becoming available for us because of the amount of T20 cricket that's being played, and the data's becoming incredibly relevant - so the better you can use and decode that data, then you can be on your way.
How important is data in T20 coaching?
It's becoming more relevant. There is some information that's becoming compelling, in my view. The question is how you decode the information to build it into your team strategy. I think coaches and teams are getting really good at that. The other thing is that, as long as the information is compelling, you can run with it.
In Test cricket, is dealing with data harder because there's actually less of a sample size for individual players?
Yeah. Test cricket unfolds in a different way. There's a history of the game that has stood the test of time, and players, coaches and experts will always default to what those patterns and trends have been. It hasn't really changed over many, many years. You do get some great teams that have tried to shift it a little bit, but it's kind of pretty much stayed fairly stable for a long period of time.
How hard is it to build a culture in a T20 team, when you might only arrive ten days before the season starts?
It does help being with a team for a decent period of time. If you take someone like Justin Langer, who's had five or six years with a team, you get to know players, so that does make a difference. You do rest on the leadership within the group to build a culture or create an environment that you want. There are challenges there.
The upside is that you can come in with fresh thoughts and fresh views. That can often help and make a difference. It does take time. The biggest challenge I've had as a coach in T20 cricket in the Big Bash is that it's my first time at it, so you don't always necessarily understand the players that way, what you're going to get out of them mentally, and also what specific skills they have that are going to make a difference in a game. So that really helps to have a base to be working with, but then every coach has started somewhere and then built from there.
How much scope is there for technical coaching in the middle of a T20 tournament? Is that impossible?
No, not at all. The question is, can you bring in a new, or upgraded, skill in the middle of a tournament? I'm not sure of the answer to that. I think you potentially can. I still think there's a fair amount of technical work that can unfold, but I think it's difficult for players - they're playing three formats of the game, so for them to be working on their T20 skills in the middle of a Shield season is not easy. So everyone comes together for a short period and then they start working on their skills like two weeks before the tournament starts.
I think there's definitely going to be a move in the game where guys are going to focus their attention on one format and they're going to say, "I'm going to become as good as I can at this format so that I have time to upgrade my skills during the year to get myself ready for these types of competitions."
Even within T20, how different is coaching at club level versus coaching at international level?
I think at international level the stakes are higher. There are more stakeholders that are attached emotionally to the results. Domestic cricket is more accountability to your region, potentially to one owner or one person above you or a small group, so there's a big difference between the two.
Is there more scope to improve players in domestic cricket and tinker with players and selection, or are the fundamentals pretty similar?
There's a real opportunity to be creative in that space and to tinker with players, because you know that you're with them over a T20 season, which is great.
Is the relationship between the captain and coach in T20 a delicate one, especially if the coach's role is expanding? Can that create tensions with the captain?
That's still the most important leadership relationship in any team. That relationship is very important - there needs to be trust in it, there needs to be value-add in it. If it works well, it can make a massive difference. You're two leaders, you're making decisons across the whole group and you need to trust each other in that space. The stronger that relationship the better.
On a match day, do you just pass to the captain?
You are involved in decisions. It's a fluid process - you're in the game the whole time, you're making decisions the whole time. You're doing it with the captain; if the captain's on the field, you're making decisions on behalf of the leadership group. You are a decision-maker as a leader, so there's a responsibility attached to that.
Do you have a say on bowling changes and the batting order during the game itself?
Who decides the batting order?
It's decided within the leadership group, so our strategies are put together well before the game starts and we will go with Plan A. And if Plan A doesn't work and you have to move to Plan B, then you will make those decisions on tap, you'll make them straight away. You'll make a snap call or turn in one way or another. It's on the back of a plan that has been thought out well before the game. These are not just ad hoc decisions that you just go on a hunch. You're giving it your best thought in your planning.
If you think someone should be bowling to a particular batsman during the game, and the captain's not doing that would you try and get a message to the captain?
It's very difficult if the captain's made the decision to go with a bowler and you don't think its the right decision - you don't have time to get a message out there. My tendency there is to say, back the captain in the decisions he makes. Afterwards, if you thought there was another way then just take the learning and move on.
Note: Interview by Tim Wigmore.