Cricket hero Gary Kirsten on leadership, coaching and changing lives in Khayelitsha

LONDON — Cricket hero Gary Kirsten has a new BHAG – building a cricket ground for sports mad school kids in Khayelitsha. Now 49, the star batsman who kicked on to become India’s World Cup winning coach, is expanding a programme that is installing its fifth block of cricket nets and coaches into Western Cape township schools. On July 6 he will host potential donors in the UK with the intention of raising the £600 000 required to build an artificial pitch for the Chris Hani High School. In this fascinating interview, Kirsten explains what motivated this expansion of his Foundation’s horizons and offers some insights on leadership, the Proteas and why SA coaches have been so successful globally. – Alec Hogg

Thanks Alec, yes we’re looking forward to an event which we are hosting on the 6th of July, which is linked to my foundation where we are building cricket infrastructure in some of our townships in South Africa. So yes, the reason to be over there is for that event. We’re very excited by the event and we’ve appealed to, obviously a lot of South Africans living over in the UK and friends just to join us and really just to understand what we are doing and hopefully, if they feel urged to, to make a contribution to our projects.

What exactly does the foundation do?

About three years ago, we identified that there was precious little in the way of sporting development at some of the township schools, in fact, certainly the ones that we went to which was just on the Eastern side of the biggest township in Cape Town, which is Khayelitsha. We attended eight schools, which each had a thousand schools scholars in each of those schools and we didn’t find one sports field in any of those schools and that kind of precipitated a movement, I guess in many ways, to begin something in our capacity. You know, what can we do to help those schools begin a cricket programme?

Former South African cricketer Gary Kirsten

Why cricket only? Because that’s our language and you know, that’s obviously something that’s been part of my life for a long time. So, we just decided, the first thing that we can begin with is to build some form of infrastructure and we started building nets at as many schools as possible. We’ve now done installations at four nets and we’re about to begin our fifth one and then place a coach there to run a programme, buy them some equipment and get them playing cricket, which is certainly what was the ultimate intention, just to get young people to participate in the sport.

And the fields?

Yes, the fields are non-existent to be honest with you and one of our drives and one of the reasons FOR coming over to the UK is to raise a significant amount of money to be able to build an artificial field out at one of the township schools. The township school is Chris Hani and it was our first school that we developed some infrastructure there. They have a 96% matric pass rate in their school, so it’s a very successful school academically, but there are no sports programmes run at all apart from what we’re doing in the cricket space.

They have a fantastic piece of land in terms of size, but it’s not developed at all and we’ve realised that it’s pointless putting grass down on those fields, because to maintain them is going to be too difficult, so we’re considering the idea of putting some artificial surface down there to allow for, not only cricket, but a multisport kind of process to be able to run on those fields, so at least the kids are getting regular interaction with us and with other sports practitioners on a decent facility.

What would it cost to put that kind of an, I presume, Astroturf type facility in?

Yes, it’s expensive, so many of the elite schools in the area for example, have put up all these Astro hockey pitches and there are many of them being installed in various areas in South Africa and I’m sure around the world. They’re not cheap. For us to install a full sized artificial cricket field is going to cost us about R10m but then once you’ve done the installation, the maintenance costs after that are very low and you don’t have this kind of lingering legacy of a cricket field being built, that you’re kind of wanting to maintain and keep up because as we know, with cricket fields, it’s incredibly expensive business to maintain a field year in and year out, so the artificial surface is a no-brainer, but unfortunately, it’s an expensive upfront cost to put it in.

Gary, what got you going this route? Did you see something similar to this elsewhere in the world where underprivileged kids have, once given the opportunity, risen to the top?

Yes, Alec that’s a good question. I think it’s really just for me been more along the lines of having had the privilege of having every opportunity possible for me to grow my talent to the level of being able to take it onto the international stage and when I say opportunity to grow, we have too many young people in our country that don’t receive that opportunity. So what we would do is, through a lot of our national programmes, we would scout talent in township areas and then recruit them into elite schools in our country and then allow them to develop and grow their talent through those schools. Now that system works, it’s also fraught with issues because to pull someone out of his community’s not a nice thing to do. So, that is the one issue. The other issue, of course, is that it’s very narrow.

We’ve touched base with, as I said, eight schools. I mean, that’s 8000 students and what we’re essentially saying is, we’ll pick two or three and then we’ll put them into the elite schools in the Cape Town area and I think, for me, we need to look at ways we can grow ecosystems and we’ve focused specifically on cricket, but cricket in ecosystems within the townships themselves. That is where the community is, that’s where the majority of the people of our country are.

Why not build programmes and build success stories within their own community, so the goal for us is to take Chris Hani School, which is the first we’ve joined force and the goal would be for their under 19 team to beat a Rondebosch or a Bishops at a game hosted at Chris Hani and then for that school to become a recognised cricket school in the townships where guys can walk from their homes to the school and get all the training and necessary coaching to develop their skills like the kids in the elite schools are getting.

It sounds pretty obvious really. Is there anything else like this happening in the country?

I think there are many initiatives on the go and we’ve just felt that the one gap in that space is through the schools and I think that there’s a lot of emphasis being placed on development within the clubs, club systems and facilities dotted up all over the place and it’s not to say that those aren’t working .I think a lot of those projects are working, but you know, as I said, Khayelitsha’s the biggest township in Cape Town, where I live and when we did some research on it, it was glaring to kind of see that through eight schools we went to, each with a thousand scholars, that they were absolutely no sporting facilities.

I mean, it actually shocked me to be honest with you. I couldn’t believe that with sport being such a crucial component to a young person’ s development in their life as we know, and it’s not about producing one or two that go onto play cricket at the highest level, it’s actually not about that. It’s about young kids after school, having extramural activities to keep them occupied and to grow their general wellbeing. Sport plays a huge component for every one of us in that and for them to be denied that opportunity; I think it’s something we need to address.

What are you doing on the 6th of July?

We’re having a small cocktail evening and as I said, we’ve invited a variety of different people just to, I guess, show them what we’re doing, to create a bit of awareness around our projects and then obviously and most importantly, for anyone that feels moved to making a financial contribution to the programme. The goal is to build an artificial cricket surface (when I say cricket, a multi-sporting surface at Chris Hani) for Chris Hani to become I guess, a leader in many ways in terms of what can be done.

So, you know, it’s as significant amount of money, but we do feel that as long as we’re creating the awareness out there and there might be one or two people that have the opportunity to be able to make a contribution in one way or another and obviously we wanted to create that awareness. Why London? Only because there are many South Africans living over there, number one, number two, there’s a great interest in cricket and number three, I’m going to be over there anyway watching South Africa playing in the test match.

Yes, well let’s hope that the wallets are opened. There certainly is a very warm and deep affection from the Saffer expats who live in London for the homeland and the belief that most of them are going to be going home at some point anyway, so maybe they can throw you some of those Pounds. But Gary, what about you? You’ve done incredibly well as a coach, so moving on from your cricketing career. What brought you back to South Africa when you were right on the top of the world with the most populous country in the world in India?

Yes, Alec so I had a three-year contract with India. It was an incredible experience, a really privileged journey. I was very lucky to get the post in the first place, I felt, but then things went well in the time that I was there. I think there was a good matchup between my coaching style and what the Indians were requiring at that point in time, but then when that contract ended, I was approached by the South African team and you know, for me it was always a dream to be able to coach my own country and I decided that it would definitely be something to consider, so you know, the fact that I’d made the decision after three years to head home anyway and then for the South African team to phone me up and say, “Would you be interested in this job?” was kind of a no-brainer for me.

England celebrates the wicket of Stiaan van Zyl (not in picture) during the second cricket test match against South Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, January 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

So, that was the reason to come back and also I have three young kids and the idea of travelling and being on the road as much as I was, was something that we had to consider as a family as well. I guess that was the reason to come home is just to create some stability for our young children, especially when it comes to their schooling and you know, at the same time pursue this opportunity with the South African team. That ended in 2013 and in the meantime, I set up a cricket academy business.

I have a fantastic team of guys working with me and we just are in the cricket coaching space globally in many ways and just having a lot of fun. So, coaching has become part of my DNA, Alec, in many ways and something I really enjoy doing. I think there’s always opportunity abroad for me, which is, again a blessing and I do look at the various opportunities and try and match them up with my needs from a family perspective and to enjoy and go in career as well.

Your whole view of leadership – I know you were involved with Dale Williams or perhaps still are and Paddy on building a different approach towards leadership. There are many different views on what makes great leaders. Some people say it’s the courageous; the fighting general, others say it’s the servant leader. Where do you in that spectrum?

Yes, Alec, that’s a great question. I think it’s something that can be unpacked over a whole day to be honest with you, but you know, I think we all have traits within our leadership capabilities that are our leadership strengths and I think on the other side of that we also have our weaknesses, you know areas that probably we miss and we’re not as strong at. So, for me from a leadership perspective, I think it’s to understand what are your strengths, what are the things that you are good at in the leadership space and then to also understand what are the areas where you need people to come and help you to compliment your skillsets?

I think understanding that and being aware of that is probably the number one step that you would take to really understanding the strength in your leadership, but I think for me, probably the one thing that stood out more than anything is, I’ve always been of the view that an inclusive style of leadership is everything to me because I want the best thinking of the group, not just my best thinking and I think the ability for a leader to be able to communicate and facilitate best thinking of the group, community, organisation or the people you are with and to be able to facilitate a process of getting that best thinking out there and then making the decision around that probably is where your true value in leadership sits.

I think we always talk about, you know, do you have great presence in front of your people, are you an inspiration to your people? All those things are as important, but for me, it’s really to be able to collaborate the best thinning in the house and then to identify one and then to run with that and that’s where your decision making ability becomes very important. That’s what kind of gets me out in the leadership space. I enjoy the idea of working with people to say, “This is our goal, this is where we want to go to and our best thinking says this is the direction we should take”.

So, what do you make of Graeme Smith, for instance, saying that he doesn’t think the current Proteas Captain AB de Villiers should be in that post, that he should be stepping down?

The questions are getting harder and harder. Yes, I think Graeme has incredible experience as a leader. He also knows AB very well and I think they are also good friend and that he’s kind of looking out for AB to be honest with you. He’s saying, “Maybe what you should do is, relinquish the leadership, focus on your game and make some decisions around your future and what it looks like and do away with the notion that the team desperately needs you to be leading for it to do well” and I think that’s an important one for any great player, is to say, “You know, you’re part of a bigger puzzle, you’re part of a bigger picture here. The team can actually survive and do well without you in it, you know. It’s great to have you there, but teams become truly teams when you can have a number of individuals winning games and a number of individuals making big performances”.

Memorable – Proteas skipper Graeme Smith tweeted this pic of Jacques Kallis acknowledging cheers from Kingsmead’s famous Castle Corner.

I think maybe we’ve been at fault as a South African team, of spending too much time and focusing too much attention on one, two or three players rather than saying, you know, “We have a number of individuals that can produce match winning performances” and the current wonder team has, you know. We do have four or five guys that are now comfortable match winners in the international competition. We had a disappointing champion’s trophy, as we know.

In fact, for all of us, it was quite a surprise to see the team play the way they did and then I think the questions around the leadership really for me, sit in can we unlock the abilities of their entire team with a leader that people really kind of buy into, number one and with a leader that really values that idea that it’s not only about one, two or three people, it’s about everyone in this group. That’s not to say that AB wasn’t going down that road. He’s always been a team man, but I think sometimes everyone gets caught up in focusing our attention too much on one or two individuals.

Get back to what you were saying earlier about inclusive style and it’d be interesting to share with us your engagement with the Chris Hani School. How did you go about getting buy-in from them to have cricket there in the first place for this enormous project that you’re aiming towards.

Yes Alec, a great question and very relevant. My answer to that was the relationship I built with the headmaster at the school and it was a very slow process. I mean, we’ve been on this journey for the better part of three years now and exactly the point you make, which is a very relevant point, there’s no point in doing something unless the community accepts it, number one, buys into it, number two, and is willing to take on the project as its own. That’s why I felt engaging the schools was probably the most important vehicle to do that because in a broader community, outside of the schools you have a variety of different influences and those influences can derail a project of this nature because many would feel that it doesn’t necessarily serve the needs of the broader community.

However, when you move into a slightly more closed environment like a school facility and you build a relationship with the headmaster and you say to him, “Listen, I think this kind of stuff can add value, what do you think?” and he starts to buy into it and say, “You know what, we’re part of the education space in this country and we’re answerable to the heads of education and I think this is something that I could get through, something that we’re passionate about and something I could get through for us all”. So that relationship was a crucial relationship to making anything work and I mean, he’s been an inspirational leader in his own right. You know, he took the school of Chris Hani in 2010 on a 45% matric pass rate and six years later turned it into a 96% matric pass rate, so I see an incredible leadership quality in this individual and I just kind of warmed to him.

It shows South Africa has got some unbelievable talent in every field. Just talking a little more about coaching and leadership itself, it’s interesting to notice how South African coaches struggle at home, but when they go offshore they do incredibly well with other teams, the Pakistan example with Mickey Arthur being the most obvious, or the most recent one.

Yes, absolutely and listen, I think South Africa coaches by and by have done well. You know, I think we travel well, we South Africans, so the idea of being in another country is no issue to us. I mean, you just look at the performances of the Protea team travelling away from home, still the best in the world, in fact, by a long way. I mean, under the Graeme Smith era, we went through eight years of not losing away from home. In many ways it’s not celebrated enough, but it is a massive result.

Then I think if you look at the current team, we seem to be a high performing team at all times except knockout tournaments. We’ve battled in that space and we’ve been at wits end trying to look for the magic potion or solution that’ll turn that around and realised that it’s not necessarily some sort of magic potion that they’re going to make us a team that performs well in those situations and that maybe there’s a system that needs to be created. I think there’s a lot of intellectual poverty going into that space at the moment, but I think the South African coaches have worked well because we generally have a good work ethic as people and we don’t mind travelling.

Gary, next challenge for you, you are now looking at one school. Is the foundation’s intention to have many of these school pitches around the country?

As I said, they’re expensive projects. Our smaller infrastructure is building two concrete nets at a school, placing a coach and providing cricket equipment and that’s a R100 000 project and you know, we have funding for that from government as well, so we’re going to roll those things out. Every couple of months we’ll roll out a new one and as I said, we’re getting our fifth project now, like that and that’s a beginning process for us. The idea of dotting around the schools, these very expensive artificial cricket fields, I think we’re fully aware that to duplicate that is not going to be easy. However, what we want to do is, to make an example of one.

Gary Kirsten.
Gary Kirsten.

You see, if you have that surface, what happens with the schools in the townships, is that the headmasters have all got relationships with each other and you know, if it’s within walking distance, which many of these schools are, all those feeders schools that feed into Chris Hani will have the opportunity to make use of those fields. So, it won’t only service one school, it’ll probably service seven or eight school and I think there, we can maybe go to various communities and say, “Okay, let’s raise the money and let’s see what we can do”, but as you know, this is a benefactor, you know, this was someone who says, “I think this has got some good value.

We understand that there’s no return on the investment here, you know, that we can’t offer that. There might be a way that we can produce some visible branding leverage if that is required of a funder, but typically, I think we’re approaching those individuals who feel that it’s a great project and we are making contribution in the social investment space anyway and we like the idea of what this can offer”.

So you could have a Khayelitsha School League, for instance, before or simultaneous with the teams there taking on the Bishops and the Sacs etc.

Absolutely and something that we’ve pondered as well, is to say, “You know; now we can build a township league”. There are township leagues going on at present, but again, under very tough circumstances, but the one thing that would excite me, is that we have 150 kids playing cricket that have never played cricket before on our programme and we know that there are ten within that programme that, if given the right opportunity to play on the best surfaces with some decent coaching, they have the opportunity to grow their talent as much as a kid that comes out of Bishops, Rondebosch, or Sacs.

It’s a travesty that it’s not happening, first of all and for me, if we can achieve that in a small way and maybe begin to duplicate it, then we just grow our talent pool, which ultimately is a goal for sport in the country anyway and yes, I would be excited to be able to produce something like that, that people look at and say, “Hold on, that works” and we are now providing measurable opportunities, you know, for those kids as well and let’s go for it”. One of the things that has often been said to me, Alec, is you know, “What about informal cricket?”

If you go to India, there’s a lot of kids just playing on the street and then they get picked up and they get put into programmes, absolutely, but there’s a much broader scale going on there as well that one needs to appreciate and you know, one needs to also understand that I don’t see too many informal games of cricket going on in the townships, so we have to generate the interest, whereas in India, that’s happening anyway. You go to any informal area and you’ll see cricket being played. In South Africa you’ll see soccer being played, so you know, for me to grow the game of cricket, we need to create the opportunities for that to happen.

Just go close off with, the artificial grass that you’re talking about putting down as this cricket field that will be in at Chris Hani School, does it discourage aggressive fielding, say, diving and sliding because plastic can burn quite badly or is it particularly engineered in a way that it won’t affect it?

Yes, Alec it has. I mean the technology out there is amazing, so there are. Some of the mainstream schools are pondering it and I do know of a school out in Somerset West, a tiny school actually, which has built an artificial surface for cricket, rugby and soccer and I quizzed the headmaster on the rugby surface and he said, “You know, the technology is so good these days and players learn to play slightly differently on an artificial surface”, but he said they’d had no increase in injury, even in a contact sport like rugby. So yes, we’re comfortable that, that won’t be an issue.

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