Their friendship was forged in Cape Town four decades ago, and little could Gary Kirsten or Andy Flower have imagined then that they would one day come together, in Dubai of all places, working for the benefit of English cricket.
They opposed each other on numerous occasions in outstanding playing careers but had never collaborated, officially at least, until Flower picked up the phone this autumn in his role as head coach of the England Performance Programme, to follow up a conversation the pair had at Lord’s in the summer.
Kirsten had previously been forced to downplay any interest in the full-time role as England’s head coach, both following Flower’s departure in early 2014 and again last spring. That was never going to be a runner, as he had stepped down from the position as head coach of his native South Africa in July 2013 to spend more time with his family.
But a short-term consultancy with the Lions in Dubai was a much better fit with Kirsten’s range of current roles, including his work in the Khayelitisha township on the Cape Flats which was recently featured on Sky Sports.
“I had spoken to Andrew Strauss about being involved as a consultant, and the other component was the relationship with Andy (Flower) over a number of years, the respect we’ve had for our coaching ways,” Kirsten explained. “We had a conversation during a Test match at Lord’s and he asked if I would be interested to come and do some work – I said absolutely.
“We kind of left it there and then I got a phone call from him a few months later and we just said let’s go for it, and this was the time.
“We played quite a bit of cricket against each other, and as coaches we connected when I was with the India team and he was assistant coach to Peter Moores with England. We’ve always maintained contact over the years.”
So Kirsten arrived in Dubai last week, and has been on hand to work mostly with the Lions in their preparations for the five-match 50-over series against Pakistan A which starts tomorrow – although his presence in the United Arab Emirates has also coincided neatly with a short stay for England’s Under-19s on their way to the World Cup in Bangladesh.
That has given the players and coaches the opportunity to pick the brains of one of the most respected coaches in world cricket, after his success in steering first India and then South Africa to the top of the ICC World Test Rankings – either side of England’s period there under Flower – not forgetting a 2011 World Cup win with MS Dhoni’s starstudded team.
“The brief was to come in and have a look, see what you see, share your views, share your thinking,” explained Kirsten. “To get a feel for the environment with a view to it maybe being a continued process – fairly informal, no strict designation, so that’s how it’s panned out. It’s a short period of time, only eight days, but that’s a nice introduction for me to English cricket.”
Kirsten hopes his presence, like that of Daniel Vettori on the first leg of this winter’s programme before Christmas when he worked especially closely with the spinners, can augment a structure in which the vast majority of the England Test side currently doing so well in South Africa – the likes of Stuart Broad, James Taylor, Joe Root and Ben Stokes – have spent considerable time.
“Certainly in my experiences from what I’ve seen around the world I think this is a fantastic system,” said Kirsten.
““Having touched base with the Lions squad here, and a little bit with England Under-19s as well, in my opinion coaching through those levels is critical – in many ways more important than the international team. I’ve been very impressed with the level of intervention that young players in England are getting.
“Andy told me it’s a significant investment in this programme and it’s a very important investment, and I think it’s being done very professionally, with quality coaching.
“I like the way they’ve pulled in coaches from the counties to come and get involved to create an inclusive approach, and for me what I am seeing is a need to create good pathways for the best young players to be ready and developed to go and play for England.
“It’s a very smooth and clean process, so kudos on that – I think it’s great to see.”