Gary Kirsten bows out on top

6 april 2004

Gary Kirsten became the first South African to play 100 cricket Tests during the Proteas’ nine-wicket loss to New Zealand in the second Test in Wellington recently. It wasn’t the greatest of games for the gritty left-hander. He made a duck and one, having made a century in the previous Test.

Typical of Kirsten, though, in the third Test he played a match-winning knock in his final Test innings to help South Africa to victory and a share of the series.

Although never an elegant batsmen, there was something interesting about watching Kirsten at work. Sambit Lal, in a fine article written for Wisden CricInfo, puts it beautifully when he states: “For Kirsten … the beauty is often in the struggle”. Comparing Kirsten to Indian star VVS Laxman, Lal writes: “Laxman’s batting uplifts the soul, Kirsten’s touches the core of it.”

Kirsten’s 11-year Test career demands respect. He earned it by a bloody-minded approach to the game, fully understanding his limitations and playing within them. Probably the cricketer he most reminds of is former South African captain Kepler Wessels, who couldn’t be accused of being an attractive stroke maker, but who was highly effective nonetheless.

2002 ‘comeback’
It seems amazing to recall a Sunday Times headline, dated 15 December 2002, which read “Kirsten makes a comeback”. Yet it was true. Kirsten, just before the 2003 World Cup, was given a late chance to win a place in cricket’s biggest tournament, and he responded in characteristic fashion.

He made an unbeaten 102 at Paarl in the fourth one-day international to win the man of the match award, instantly restoring stability to the top order of South Africa’s batting. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Kirsten delivered the goods when it mattered most. That’s what he did consistently throughout his career.

By the time Kirsten stepped down after South Africa’s tour of New Zealand in February/March 2004, there is no doubt that he would have been a certain selection for some time longer had he chosen to continue his career.

Unfortunately for England, they were victims of Kirsten’s tenacity on more than one occasion. Most recently, in August 2003 at Headingley, Kirsten played two brilliant, very testing innings on a wicket that helped the bowlers throughout the match. I agree with Wisden CricInfo’s opinion that although Graeme Smith compiled superb innings of 277 and 259 in the first two Tests, Kirsten’s effort in the third Test was the best batting performance of the series.

Gutsy innings
In the first innings, Kirsten came in with South Africa in big trouble on 2 for 2. It was not long before the Proteas had slumped to 21 for 4. The gutsy Western Province left-hander stuck around, though, batting seven-and-a-half hours before he was ninth man out for 130, with the score on 316.

In the South African second innings, Kirsten made 60. England were skittled for 209, needing 401 to win, and Kirsten’s 190 runs in the match were very nearly the exact difference – 191 runs – between the two teams.

Then there was Kirsten’s match-saving effort at Kingsmead in Durban as the millennium approached in late December 1999.

Batting first in the third Test, England had declared on 366 for 9, thanks mainly to a fighting effort from captain Nasser Hussain, who had laboured to 146 not out in ten-and-a-half hours.

South Africa’s reply was disastrous. Andy Caddick bowled superbly to capture 7 for 46 as the Proteas rolled over for just 156, a deficit of 210 runs. It looked as if England were on their way to a famous victory. Kirsten played a famous innings to deny them.

Marathon effort
Kirsten recorded the second-longest knock in Test history, occupying the crease for 14 hours and 38 minutes in a South African record-equalling innings of 275. His effort enabled the Proteas to bat England out of the Test as they eventually declared on 572 for 7, scored in a draining 209.2 overs.

Kirsten’s century also made him the first South African to score 10 Test centuries. He would add many more before he retired.

After that match he declared: “I’m not really that exhausted, I like to play long innings, but it was very hot out there. I know I was under enormous pressure, and I started poorly and needed a bit of luck.

“But it’s funny, I was more relaxed than in my other recent innings, probably because I knew it was make or break, and I just decided to play normally. Things got better and I began moving well and then the runs came.” That’s classic Kirsten.

His third great innings against England happened at Old Trafford in July 1998 in a drawn Test. Again, he played a stubborn knock, spending 10 minutes short of 11 hours at the crease in compiling 210. How the England bowlers must have hated him; and how they must have respected him.

Swan song
Kirsten’s last Test innings proved to be an emotional experience for the man who had come to be regarded as the rock of the South African batting line-up.

The Proteas were one-nil down in the three-Test series to the Black Caps and facing a first ever Test series loss to the New Zealanders. However, Graeme Smith’s side was in with a shout as South Africa chased 234 for victory in their second innings.

It all looked very far away, though, as the Proteas slumped to 36 for 3 early on. That set the stage for Kirsten’s swan song.

Together with captain Smith, he took the game away from New Zealand, sharing in a stand of 171, of which he scored 76, before he was out with South Africa within sight of a series-levelling victory. Once again, when the chips were down, Gary Kirsten answered the call. It was a classy final knock from a classy man.

Fine statistics
Although Kirsten was not a strokemaker, he was nonetheless extremely effective in both one-day and Test cricket. One might call him a run accumulator, as opposed to a run scorer.

He finished his one-day career with 6 798 runs, scored at an average of 40.95. His strike rate was a more than useful 72.04 runs per 100 balls faced. He scored 13 centuries and 45 fifties, including a South African record of 188 against the United Arab Emirates in the 1996 World Cup.

When Kirsten retired from Test cricket, he was the third-highest run scorer among active players. He ends with a South African record 7 289 runs, scored at a very decent 45.27 and including 21 centuries – also a South African record – and 34 fifties.

Yet these statistics do not do Gary Kirsten full justice.

Put simply, he was about substance more than style. If I were to go into battle, with the stakes at their highest, with the pressure at its toughest, I would put Gary Kirsten’s name down first on my team sheet.

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