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September 4, 2010
It was fitting that after 15 years in the game James Kirtley should bow out on the ground that has been his home since boyhood.
Born in Eastbourne, Kirtley is very much a son of Sussex and after making his first-class debut for the county against Glamorgan in 1995 he has taken 614 first-class wickets and 395 one-day scalps - the last being Kevin Pietersen in the Clydesdale Bank 40 game against Surrey on Saturday. Still good enough to hold a place in Sussex's limited-overs teams, Kirtley has decided to call time on a memorable career.
"It is a bit emotional and a bit nerve-wracking, but there have been lots of well-wishers and people saying kind things," he told ESPNcricinfo. "There were a combination of factors that led to me making the decision but ultimately my body is probably telling me it's time. I'd far rather people saying 'can't you stay another year' than going 'he probably bowled a year too long'."
It's a body that has been put through some of the stiffest possible tests as Kirtley had to overcome murmurs over the legality of his action. Despite being cleared by an ECB panel ahead of his ODI debut in 2001 in Harare, doubts were raised by the ICC match referee for that series, Colonel Naushad Ali, and he was twice reported mid-match in 2005. It was a bitter episode and Kirtley thinks it could have been handled far better.
"I felt a lot anger and a lot of resentment with the way things were done. I don't think the protocols were particularly observed - there was secret filming that went about, there was a lot of guesswork without much detail, it felt like a bit of a witch-hunt at times. I've probably been the most scrutinised and analysed bowler in England but what else can you do but try and get through it."
It's because of that intense pressure that Kirtley rates his Man-of-the-Match winning performance in the 2006 C&G final at Lord's, when his 5 for 27 secured a tense 15-run win over Lancashire, as the highlight of his career, above even his matchwinning Test debut against South Africa three years before.
"That C&G final in 2006 was my career highlight," he said. "What I went through with rebuilding my action over the winter and then going out on the biggest domestic stage and winning a game we were being written off in, was the most satisfying moment in my career."
After bursting on to the Test scene with 6 for 34 in the second innings at Trent Bridge to skittle South Africa for 131 and record Michael Vaughan's first Test win as captain, Kirtley only went on to play three times more at Test level. If the crumbling pitch at Trent Bridge was perhaps too friendly a start to judge his potential his final two Tests were equally misleading - played on two of the world's most unforgiving pitches for fast bowlers - Colombo and Kandy. Though hardly disgracing himself, Kirtley was quietly nudged off the team-sheet for the next series against West Indies as England landed upon the 'fab-four' that went on to deliver the 2005 Ashes.
"I don't know if you can judge a bowler on four Test matches. That would be my main question. But I came at time between Gough and Caddick and the group of bowlers that won the Ashes - I was a stopgap for want of a better expression. I'm just thankful I had my opportunity and took it in the first couple of games before the flat ones in Colombo and Kandy but I'll never begrudge playing for England on anything."
The swing-bowling, fourth-seamer role was reclaimed by Matthew Hoggard - who himself revealed in his autobiography that Kirtley could easily have had the role ahead of him - but Kirtley is clear that England went with the right option. "I think Hoggy was probably a better bowler, certainly in English conditions. While I can see the comparison I think our skills are probably a bit different."
One area that Kirtley undoubtedly edged over Hoggard was in limited-overs cricket. While Hoggard confessed to being 'allergic' to the white ball, Kirtley revelled in the shorter formats, excelling enough to end his career as a one-day specialist for Sussex. Despite the well-founded concerns over the bloated one-day fixture list in domestic cricket, Kirtley believes that they have helped push the standards up to a level higher than at any point in his career.
"One-day cricket has really improved the skills in the English game. The number of different deliveries bowlers have is huge and batsmen have also adapted to them as well. Cricket has bigger profile too nowadays. The Twenty20 Cup here, the IPL and the also Ashes success at home recently has meant cricket is in a bigger and better state than it has probably ever been."
It's fitting for a man that has devoted his life to the county game that he should end his career with it stronger and more competitive than when he first set out.
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