May 17, 2016

'I preferred winning four-day games to T20'

Justin Kemp, who called time on a two-decade-long career at the end of the last season, looks back at his playing days

"I had a huge love for the game but it was only when I got picked for the South African Under-19 side that I believed I could actually do something with cricket and I tried to" © Getty Images

For more than 20 years, Justin Kemp stood as one of the best examples of a particular brand of South African cricketer: the allrounder. He was talented and enterprising, bustling, burly, and at times, brutal. The 2015-16 summer was Kemp's last as a professional cricketer. In an exclusive interview he recalled some of his fondest memories, reflected on the state of the current South African system, and revealed what life after cricket holds for him. And yes, some of it involves more cricket.

What prompted your decision to retire?
I just wasn't playing much cricket for Cobras anymore, and this past season, when I was due to play quite a big role in the 20-over competition, I got pneumonia and it meant I only played in two of the matches. By the time I recovered, the season was over. For the franchise, it just doesn't make sense to keep picking a 38-year-old anymore, and I knew I would have been keeping other guys out of the side. I had a long career and played for a long time, so I am happy with that decision.

You're leaving Cobras in something of a state of limbo. They didn't win a trophy at all last season, which is rare for them. What's going on?
The Cobras have a fantastic bunch of players and a lot of guys with international experience - Stiaan van Zyl, Dane Vilas and Dane Piedt. The challenge is keeping the team together and the guys grounded. Cape Town is such a cosmopolitan city and we live a really good life there, so it can be hard to have guys always on the same page. It can almost become a case of, if you win for a while, you take your foot off the gas. You forget that other teams improve, they come after you.

So do you think if you moved the whole team to Bloemfontein, for example, where there is a bit less going on, it could spark some success?
(Laughs) You said it!

"The challenge at Cobras keeping the team together and the guys grounded. Cape Town is such a cosmopolitan city and we live a really good life there, so it can be hard to have guys always on the same page"

On a serious note, this season has also seen the likes of Neil McKenzie and Jacques Rudolph call it a day. Do you think South African franchise cricket is at risk of losing too many experienced players?
It's a fine line, because I am not sure you can have guys playing until they are 45. On the other side of that argument, senior players are very important in a team, but you need to make sure they are contributing. If they're still enjoying it and adding value, then they must keep going but not at the expense of keeping a talented 24-year-old out of the team.

Let's go back to your childhood. Your grandfather and father were both first-class cricketers. Would you say the game was in your blood?
Absolutely. I grew up watching my grandfather and my father, and I knew I wanted to play. I was a boarder at Queens College from the age of five, and from then, I played cricket. I had a huge love for the game but it was only when I got picked for the South African Under-19 side that I believed I could actually do something with cricket and I tried to.

You were part of the set-up for more than two decades. How much did things change in that time?
The professionalism got better. I think two or three seasons ago South Africa had its golden period with Graeme Smith's team, and that was all a result of what was happening at lower levels. When I first started, there were very old-school philosophies about how as a youngster you were really a junior, you had to earn your stripes and prove yourself. Back then you needed to have two to three really good seasons before you could say you were knocking on the door of the national side. Now you might only need to have two or three good games. Things change.

Especially in 20-over teams. You were one of the first T20 freelancers, so to speak. Tell me about about the ICL [Indian Cricket League].
We were given clear mandates that we would be playing some cricket and making some money. It was money I never dreamed of. Of course I thought it was a chance to get ahead. Sportsmen's careers are short. We didn't go there to murder anyone. The first season was not on as grand a scale as the IPL was. But it was a good bunch of guys. I do regret it in some ways. I stifled my career for two years, and I was probably in the best form then.

Kemp on his way to his only one-day hundred, against India in Cape Town, 2006 Gianluigi Guercia / © Getty Images

Do you feel you maybe missed the real boom, which has come with the IPL now?
Maybe. But you know, I was never really a massive T20 player. I never really enjoyed it. Honestly, I preferred winning four-day games. Obviously with T20, there are the crowds and the atmosphere, but it all got a little lost on me.

Are your career highlights mostly to do with longer-form cricket then?
Mostly. I played a fair amount of South Africa, and in most major events, which was obviously a highlight. But then I also spent five years on the county circuit. I had a year at Worcestershire and then some time at Kent, and that was a very special time for me, as well as the years I spent at the Titans and Cobras when we won a lot of trophies.

The main highlight was batting all day with Jacques Rudolph to save a Test against Australia in Perth, especially because no one thought we could do it. And then a lot of four-day innings stand out. The hundred I scored for South Africa in the ODI against India is also up there but so is a hundred I scored for Kent at Lord's. And the first four-day trophy I won with the Cobras. We went on to win about four in a row - that was really special.

Sounds like you have many more batting memories than bowling ones?
I suppose so. Bowling-wise there were those times when I took five wickets but it's the batting that stands out.

Did you enjoy captaining?
Very much. I was in charge for a few seasons and I really felt that it came naturally to me. I didn't get taken in by the stresses.

"The ICL was money I never dreamed of. The first season was not on as grand a scale as the IPL was. But it was a good bunch of guys. I do regret it in some ways. I stifled my career for two years, and I was probably in the best form then"

Who were same of your favourite team-mates?
I'm going to get into trouble here!

Most recently, guys like Andrew Puttick, Rory Kleinveldt and Dane Vilas. We had a very good thing going at the Cobras. And then back in the day, I was quite close to Pierre de Bruyn and Martin van Jaarsveld. And Neil McKenzie was always my room-mate on tours.

And the opponents you dreaded?
Australia. Domestically, I always tended to have some big battles with the Lions.

Do you have any regrets that you did not go on to play more regularly?
I guess so. I wish I had played more games for South Africa, but I am happy with what I achieved.

What do you think South African cricket needs to do to get back on track?
We need to make cricket decisions. I know there is a lot going on and I don't want to get into politics, but to be a top international team, you need to make the right decisions. Some of the ways things are handled make me wonder. Whoever is in charge should take a long hard look at what is being done and why, and really take a deep look at things, and then the record may speak for itself.

In his last Test, in Perth in 2005, Kemp batted for over three and a half hours with Jacques Rudolph to secure a draw © Getty Images

What does life after cricket hold?
I have always been a huge fisherman. One of the first things I remember from growing up was that I had a fishing rod in my hand. We're very lucky to live in Cape Town, which has one of the biggest tuna-fishing environments around. Along with a friend I bought a recreational fishing boat and we are trying to make a thing to take people out to catch their own fish. We've also bought a fishing shop where we sell equipment to long liners and trawlers and we've had that for two years. I put a lot of money into it and hopefully we will start seeing some returns soon.

So its business, not cricket, in the near future.
Not entirely. I am currently at a club in Belfast called CIYMA. I was offered a job to join them for four months as a player-coach, and with the rand at more than 1:20 [to the pound], it helps. My wife can work remotely and my daughters are still young. They are two and five, so we are home-schooling them for this period and taking the opportunity to show them the United Kingdom. I am working with young cricketers, mostly 15-to-18 years old and I am quite impressed by the standard of cricket in Ireland. This came really out of the blue, completely unexpected, but I am enjoying coaching.

Does this mean you may consider coaching in South Africa?
I'm not sure. It might be something I look into at a later stage.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments