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When playing cricket in South Africa topped the sabbatical list

The Gary Kirsten Cricket academy created a special month-long coaching programme for this writer

Gary Kirsten coaching at High Performance Camp in Cape Town. Photo: courtesy Gary Kirsten Cricket
Gary Kirsten coaching at High Performance Camp in Cape Town. Photo: courtesy Gary Kirsten Cricket

I grew up in an era when parenting was hands-off. You were to produce yourself at meal-times, ensure that your parents were never summoned to school and that you didn’t fail a grade. Apart from that, as long as you didn’t squat on their time, you were left alone with yours. That meant having to figure out a way to entertain yourself for the residual time. For a 1980s Mumbai kid, the bulk of it revolved around cricket. Book cricket, French cricket, box cricket, one bounce one hand. Cricket in the living room, balcony, stairways, terrace, building compounds, public grounds and beaches.

The equipment was almost always improvised. I have played more cricket with improvised stumps than real ones. Broken plastic chair, a piece of rotting plywood, three lines drawn with a brick on a white wall, anything would do. After exams, we would play with a ball made out of a tightly rolled kerchief tied up with elastic bands and use the cardboard writing pad as a bat. It was insane fun.

The one thing nobody cared about was technique. Yeah, that same thing Sanjay Manjrekar keeps banging on about in commentary. Nobody took guard. Nobody noticed where your front toe was pointing. Nobody bothered about the arc of your bat. See ball; hit ball. That was all there was to it . And that’s what made it fun.

I met my first cricket coach in college. He had a lot of free time and didn’t charge much, which is why no one checked his coaching credentials. In the nets, there was an equal barrage of instructions and profanities, and sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between the two. To be sure, that was the prevalent coaching style then and though diminished, it persists even today. The fun evaporated instantly, and so did my enthusiasm for coaching. Life took over and apart from an occasional game for the corporate team or a net session with friends, playing cricket took a back seat.

Even before I embarked on my sabbatical, I had always wanted to work with a good cricket coach. I asked a few cricketer friends if they would consider coaching a middle-aged guy with absolutely no future in cricket, but drew a blank. So when the Gary Kirsten Cricket (GKC) academy agreed to create a month-long programme for me, “getting coached in cricket” went to the top of my sabbatical list. Of all the activities I had planned, I was most excited about this and when covid-19 dashed my plans, this was the one I was most crestfallen about. As I went about doing other things, I kept checking about flights to South Africa and thankfully, by December, things started falling into place. Someone up there had decided to grant me my wish.

Before flying out to Cape Town for a month, I spent a week at the GKC India facility in Pune to remind the bones and muscles what cricket felt like. I was bowling leg-break in the nets and one of the deliveries landed a few feet outside leg stump. My subconscious was expecting an expletive from the coach and as if to pre-empt it, I let one out. The head coach at Pune, Upendra Kulkarni, asked, “ What’s wrong with that one? That’s a good ball for a leftie.” I couldn’t believe my ears and started feeling jealous of the 10-year olds in the adjoining nets.

That coaching philosophy continued in South Africa. I played a cover drive and could almost hear scathing comments on the foot being miles away from the line of the ball. I shook my head and turned to my coach Gavin Kaplan for admonishment, only to hear “Great shot. That’s a four. Cricket isn’t a perfect game. Don’t try to make it one.”

Across different activities that I did over the past year, I have been lucky to find teachers who have assessed my abilities early on and set the course accordingly. Yes, we have been ambitious with our targets but not delusional.

On my first day at GKC in Cape Town, I bowled and batted for half an hour each. There were no instructions but Kaplan was watching closely. We decided that in the month I was going to be there, we would enhance my natural game rather than learn new stuff altogether. There is some truth to that thing they say about old dog and new tricks. I didn’t learn to play the Dil-scoop and I didn’t develop three wrong ones. Instead, we focused on minimising risks and extracting full value out of the shots I already played.

For instance, most back of good length deliveries outside off, I would steer to third-man. It’s a typical “rotate the strike in the middle overs” shot. “Can you cut some of those?” Kaplan asked “Not using the wrists; with more power?” For one session, we just practised the cut-shot ; using shoulder power and bat speed, not wrists. Now I have more scoring options for that delivery. Similarly, with bowling, most of the sessions were about perfecting the stock ball. We did make adjustments to the bowling action and foot movement but the starting point wasn’t, “This is the copybook. This is the only way to play and we need to overhaul everything.” The changes were incremental.

Unlike Indian pitches, the ones in South Africa do not turn much. During my first week there, head coach Ryan Van Niekerk told me: “In India spin bowling is thought of as wizardry, in South Africa it is thought of as hard work. It’s about consistency. Of tweaking your bowling action to get the maximum juice, of bowling to fields and of trusting your process.”

For a few sessions, I used to bowl to a group of 18- to 20-year-olds who I feel will represent their counties in times to come, if not something bigger. After a particularly bad day when I bowled a lot of full-tosses and long hops, I started questioning everything. Why was I even here? A 41-year-old man rolling his arm over at a serious cricket training outfit, making a farce of himself. Why did I lose length at the first sign of aggression? Can I not withstand pressure? Not just in cricket but other areas of life? Maybe I am not good at all.

Starting from a few full tosses, I had created a full-blown spiral and concluded I was an overall wimp. When Van Niekerk asked for self-assessment from that session, shoulders slumped, I answered, “I was rubbish.” “That’s okay,” he said “ Reset and trust your process. I will see you on Monday.” That’s it. No sermon. No dissection of character flaws. Just reset and repeat.

I had to cut short my stay in Cape Town by a few days due to a medical emergency at home, so I had to miss my session with the great Gary Kirsten himself. I was going to ask him if walking down the pitch to Venkatesh Prasad in 1996 Titan Cup was not really a strategy but a way to kill time till the ball arrived. That will have to wait. I also do not have any photographs of myself at the picturesque training grounds but I hope I will be back there sometime in the future. What I lack in clicks, I have more than made up in memories. During one of the batting drills, Kaplan realised I was thinking too much about where my feet were going. “Here, we can think all we want about technique, ” he said, “ but out there in the middle it’s See ball; hit ball.” I smiled. I knew the fun was back.

Swanand Kelkar, who was on an year-long sabbatical, works in the asset management industry.

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