[*This article (an edited version of it, actually) was published in The Sunday Indian post World Cup special in the issue dated April 17, 2011]
A sporting team’s support staff are like those little blinking lights on highways. It’s easy to miss them when the dazzle of the big car’s headlights lights up the road, but it was they who guided the way in the first place. In the wake of India’s epic and epochal World Cup win, it is worth paying them a warm tribute.
In the Fall of 2010, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in baseball, the top prize in professional baseball in the US. But about a month before the triumph, in a customary meeting of the players and the union representatives, it had been decided how much of the revenues earned from the Giant’s postseason appearance would be shared with the clubhouse staff (everyone from the team chef to acupuncturist to the water boy). The World Series win only enhanced the payout for the tireless (and faceless) workers behind the scenes in the Giants franchise. It is a far cry from the knee jerk reaction of the BCCI to award the support personnel of the Indian Cricket team Rs. 25 lakhs each after the World Cup triumph. As the country basks in the afterglow of a win almost three decades in the making, here’s a question to ponder on: just how much of this victory does Team India owe to its tireless squad of support staff who were aiding Gary Kirsten shape up team fit and tough enough to carry the weight of expectations of a billion plus fans?
You can have all the Sachins, the Dhonis and the Yuvraj Singhs you want but as Jack Nicklaus, the champion golfer had so succinctly put it, “Sometimes the biggest problem is in your head. You’ve got to believe.” The backroom staff of Team India were the people who made them believe. While John Buchanan ran strategies straight out of a laptop (well, to be fair to him he did have an off-beat sports psychologist, Dr. Phil Jauncey as well on his team), Gary Kirsten took, to put it mildly, a different route. He brought in good friend and business partner Paddy Upton as the team’s mental conditioning coach and then before a crucial test match against South Africa at Kolkata in 2010 (a match India had to win to become the No.1 test team in the world), Upton introduced the team to Mike Horn.
Horn has never played any cricket in his life. In fact this Arctic explorer and mountaineer has spent most of his life navigating terrain which couldn’t be more ill-suited for this game! So what does Horn bring to the table that any other conventional coach doesn’t? His mindset, his mind boggling stories (about how he scaled a mountain 8000 meters above sea level without oxygen, among others) and his spirit. Horn also visited the team just before they kicked off their world cup campaign and had chats with the players about exorcising the demons of expectations and failure in their minds. After the talk, during India’s preparatory camp in Bangalore, when asked if India can win the cup, he replied to ESPNCricinfo with these prescient words – ‘That question I will answer not if Indian wins the World Cup, but when they win the 2011 World Cup’.
Horn’s ‘intervention’ is an example of the rising influence of cross fertilization of ideas in the field of sports (Horn has done talks for Rugby, Soccer and sailing teams too), something that the backroom staff brainstorms to bring in. In that respect the Indian team has been extremely blessed to have had a varied and expert team at their disposal. The pressures of the modern game are extremely complicated and it is not easy to disengage from the stakeholders and their lofty expectations. Perhaps that is why these different kinds of coaches and such unique and possibly extreme perspectives become necessary. A coach always has had to work on the skill level as well as the psychological level and a lot of successful boxing trainers have straddled this schizophrenic situation well, but team sport requires an even more complex level of processing on both sides. Under Gary Kirsten, the coaching staff seems to have coordinated this exceedingly well. The results and their acknowledgment were there for all to see as a joyous team took Kirsten on their shoulders for a lap of honour around the Wankhede moments after a titanic triumph had been sealed.
Even destiny needs a little push. For India this time, it came in the form of unconventional support staff. After all like the famed American motivational speaker Zig Ziglar had said, “You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win.”