The coaching roundabout

Just over 20 years ago Duncan Fletcher was coach of the UCT 1st XI. He had made a huge career decision. Cricket coaching was nothing like it is these days – very few positions were paid, let alone well paid, and it was hard for an ambitious coach to see where he could make a living.

Fletcher had other options in the world of business. He was offered a number of positions in work on the outside and periphery of cricket and was contemplating accepting them. But he loved coaching – really loved it. His greatest satisfaction since he retired had been in helping others to reach their potential – even further it.

So he decided to make sure he didn’t die wondering what may have been. He accepted the extremely modestly paid position as head coach of the University of Cape Town 1st team. Amongst his ‘assets’ was a 21-year-old off-spinner who batted at number eight – or even nine. His name was Gary Kirsten.

It didn’t take long for Fletcher to figure out that his off-spinner wasn’t very good. But after just three or four sessions in the nets, Fletcher saw something nobody else had even imagined. The young man who was more recognised for his prowess as scrumhalf in the University rugby team was actually a budding batsman of considerable quality.

When Fletcher suggested to Kirsten that he should consider playing for Western Province, he was answered with nothing more than a disbelieving chuckle. Eventually, of course, the coach was able to make his man believes in himself. It was a quality that would make his career. When others doubted themselves, Fletcher had the ability to help them overcome those doubts.

There was a seminal moment in both their careers all those years ago. Kirsten and John Commins, another man who would go on to represent South Africa, were ‘side-tracked’ one lunchtime (as all students are) by half a dozen beers. They were scheduled for practice later that afternoon.

Kirsten and Commins were convinced (by the beers) that they would be ‘fine’ for training – as long as they kept a low profile. But two drunk students cannot be disguised, especially when they think they can be. Fletcher immediately started the training session with high catches. As Kirsten recalls in his biography, “We didn’t lay a hand on any of them. If Duncan hadn’t stopped the session after five minutes, one of us would have taken one between the eyes.

“But he wasn’t angry. He just called us to one side and quietly suggested that we go home and take a cold shower. After that, however, we knew that we would never, ever be allowed to get away with that again. When he was coach of England I always read with interest about his reputation as a disciplinarian. He probably was. But he also knew that he had to be more lenient with students – he has always had the ability to be flexible.”

Kirsten handing over the reigns of ‘Team India’ to Fletcher represents the most extreme example of ‘student-to-master’ switch-overs that Cricket has ever seen. And the plot thickens. Once Fletcher had taken over as coach of Western Province in the mid-90s, with Kirsten as a young but senior professional, his captain was Eric Simons. It was a glorious era for the province.

So now, the student hands over control of the greatest job in the game to the two people he learned almost everything from.

Bizarre.

But there’s nothing wrong with that.

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