When Gary Kirsten did well, South Africa did well. Over the course of an 11-year career the nuggety left hander from Cape Town became the rock upon which the South African team built its batting. And when he was finished he owned most of the important South African batting records.
He was an unspectacular player, an accumulator of runs whose score tended to creep up, steadily but not always noticeably, until he was approaching another fifty or hundred. He was an important member of the South African team – witness his record of 7 289 Test runs and 6 798 one-day international runs, the highest aggregates by a South African in either form of the game when he retired.
Kirsten brings to mind former Protea skipper Kepler Wessels, in that he understood his strengths and weaknesses and played to his strengths. He wa also similar to Wessels in his ability to concentrate for long periods at the crease, and because he was a left-handed batsman.
He made his international debut down under in December 1993 in the World Series involving New Zealand and Australia. It was a disappointing debut; South Africa were dismissed for just 69, chasing only 173 to win.
Later in the series, though, he made his mark, hitting 112 in the first match of the best-of-three final that South Africa won before losing the next two games to the Australians. His test debut followed shortly afterwards in a traditional Boxing Day test at the MCG.
Kirsten, who averaged over 40 in both Test and one-day cricket, at one time shared the South African test record for the most runs in a single innings with Darryl Cullinan, after scoring 275 against England at Durban in 1999 in a match-saving effort. The Proteas trailed by 210 runs on the first innings after Andy Caddick blasted through the South African batting line-up, capturing 7 for 46, and it appeared that the tourists were well on course for victory.
Kirsten, however, occupied the crease for 14½ hours, helping South Africa to 572 for 7 declared in their second innings, and the Test was drawn. It appeared that Kirsten would take over the record from Cullinan, and no one seemed more surprised than Cullinan himself when the opener was bowled by Mark Butcher on 275 exactly. Kirsten’s innings was the second-longest in the history of test cricket.
Early in 2002 it appeared as if Kirsten’s Protea days might be numbered, but when given a chance against Bangladesh he responded in the best possible manner, with innings of 160 and 150. Those showings booked his place in the team to tackle Sri Lanka in the following series and in the first Test at the Wanderers he became the first South African to pass 6 000 runs in Tests.
However, it appeared that Kirsten was no longer part of the selectors’ plans with the World Cup in South Africa fast approaching, but he was given a lifeline in the fourth ODI against the touring Pakistanis and he responded in fine fashion, hitting an undefeated 102 to guide South Africa to a series-clinching win. That performance won Kirsten the man of the match award and secured him a place in the Proteas’ World Cup squad.
Unfortunately for Kirsten, his final foray into one-day international cricket ended in disappointment as the Proteas failed to make the Super Sixes at the World Cup. He fared well, making 169 runs at an average of 62, but it wasn’t enough to help South Africa to a glorious result on home soil.
21 centuries and 34 fifties in Test cricket and 13 centuries and 45 fifties in limited-overs internationals are clear proof of Kirsten’s powers of concentration, as is his superb conversion rate from fifties to centuries. Those figures were, at the time, all South African records.
He retired from limited overs internationals after the 2003 World Cup, but decided to continue his career as a Test cricketer.
Kirsten didn’t take part in South Africa’s tour to Bangladesh, but returned for the Proteas’ tour of England, not as an opening bat, as he had been for so long, but as a number three and he proved very successful there and proved his worth in no uncertain terms.
His calming influence clearly benefited the players around him and such was his impact with the bat that he was persuaded to stay on as a Test cricketer, having previously intimated that he would retire after the England series.
Kirsten had a quiet start to the series, scoring 44 and one in the first Test, but in the second Test he shared in a stand of 257 with Graeme Smith, making 108, as South Africa recorded a crushing victory by an innings and 92 runs.
Unfortunately for the Proteas, Kirsten missed the third Test through injury and in his absence England was able to square the series. Back for the fourth Test at Headingley, Kirsten produced the most important innings played by any batsman in the series, a brilliant 130 scored on a difficult track. He added 60 in the second innings and was named man of the match as South Africa won by 191 runs.
In the fifth Test he contributed 90 and 29, but it wasn’t enough as England turned around a hopeless looking position to race to a stunning nine-wicket victory. Kirsten, though, could hold his head high, having scored 462 runs in the series, including two centuries and two fifties, at an average of 66.
In late 2003, early 2004, Kirsten played his second last Test series and the West Indies might have felt a little better had he missed it. In the second Test, in Durban, he made his twentieth test century, 137, as the Proteas scored a South African record 658 for 9 declared. He averaged 57.66 for the series.
That left just one more series to play, against a tough New Zealand team in New Zealand. In the very first innings of the Test series Kirsten was again on the mark, making 137 once more to lift South Africa to a competitive total of 459.
The next Test, the second, was his one-hundredth. He became the first South African to the magical mark, but sadly it was a poor game for the left-hander as he managed only 0 and 1. That left Kirsten with one final match in which to make his mark. Thankfully, and somewhat predictably, he did.
After an uncharacteristic third failure in a row, Kirsten was needed to come through for South Africa just one last time. Chasing 234 to win and level the series, the Proteas were in trouble at 36 for 3 when he came to the crease. Yet, Kirsten did the trick when he was most needed again. He scored 76 in a partnership of 171 with Graeme Smith, to take the Proteas to the brink of victory. When he left the field there were tears in his eyes.
Kirsten was a model for what dedication and commitment can achieve. He knew his limits, he played within them, and he led in his own quiet way. He was a cricketer and a man to respect.
After retiring, Kirsten took over the high pressure job of coach of India. He enjoyed great success with them and led the country to the 2011 Cricket World Cup title. After that, in April 2011, he stepped down as coach.
In June 2011, Kirsten was appointed coach of South Africa. He steered the Proteas to number one in the test rankings, but after two years in charge opted not to renew his contract to spend more time with his family.
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