South Africa in England: Great Performances June 20, 2012

Last-chance Leeds

What do you do when you know your days are numbered? You score a Test hundred, of course. The first in a mini-series on great South African performances in England

Day four of the second Test between England and South Africa at Headingley in 1994. The day before, Peter Kirsten had become the second-oldest man since the Second World War to score a maiden Test century, at 39 years and 82 days. But he couldn't take the field the next day.

"The press contingent gave me a few congratulatory free beers that night, to the extent that I couldn't field the next day," Kirsten said. "It was different in those days. But that hundred was the biggest highlight of my cricketing career. I mean, just to score it two Tests before I knew they were going to put me out to pasture. Not bad."

Kirsten knew he was a marked man when the series started. It was not made explicit to him, but he had no doubt the tour, only his third, would be his last. "Peter Pollock [then chairman of selectors] wanted to bring [Darryl] Cullinan into the arena, and he was too good a player to be kept out, so I knew the writing was on the wall for me. I knew before anyone even told me. I knew how they were thinking."

So it was Kirsten's last chance to make a Test hundred, not because he wanted to prolong his career or prove a point to the administrators, but in order to create a memory for himself. Kirsten felt he was ready to do that in Leeds. "I was in a good frame of mind. I got 42 in the second innings of the Lord's Test and I also scored 100 at Sussex just before that, so I felt good. I was the senior statesman and that was the time to be at my best, and I was. Technically I was at my best in that Test. Technically sound, mentally sound."

South Africa had recorded a resounding 356-run win at Lord's and saw the second Test as an opportunity to stamp their authority on the old enemy. But England kept them in the field for over 160 overs as they crafted an innings of 477. By the time Kirsten went in to bat, South Africa were "under the cosh" at 91 for 4.

"It was moving around a bit. That Leeds wicket tended to favour the bowlers," he said. "And England had a good trio of fast bowlers. Darren Gough was quick, and you always had to be at your best against him. He was a good Yorkshireman, with an aggressive attitude. Phil DeFreitas swung it around a bit, and they also had Angus Fraser."

Gough troubled Hansie Cronje with short-pitched bowling through the series, but at Leeds he targeted Kirsten. "Gough felled me when I was on 47 and I was down on the ground," Kirsten said. "But he obviously wasn't quick enough, because I batted on."

Once Kirsten reached 50, with Jonty Rhodes at the other end - "always keeping me on my toes, the little bugger" - the new ball was not far away. By the time it came, the wicket had got a little flatter and things became easier for Kirsten. Brian McMillan was a "tower of strength" as Kirsten accumulated runs, putting to use a tip given to him by one of the game's greats.

At a net practice two days before the match, Kirsten got a piece of advice he credits for the change in his approach at Headingley. "Geoff Boycott was standing behind me when we were practising, and he came to me and said, 'Kirsy, as we get older, we've got to get those feet dancing. Look to get forward a bit.' He was right, because as age creeps on you, your feet tend to get stuck in the crease."

Kirsten still remembers the shot that brought up his only Test century. "It was a fantastic drive through the covers off DeFreitas and we ran three. I wasn't dramatic when it happened. Mine was more of an inward gratification. It was a marvellous feeling and something that I can still feel. It's tangible. I can still feel the goosepimples, and the crowd's acknowledgement was magnificent."

Kirsten had been a popular figure in England, having played at Derbyshire for six seasons until 1982. Even though he was returning after a dozen years, "a lot of people knew me from my county days" as he said. "The cricket culture was marvellous and still is. The cricketing public understand how the game works and they appreciate good cricket, so South Africans are very popular there."

He doesn't think much has changed about the sense of occasion that accompanies a series between England and South Africa and said that this time around, the battle for No. 1 should heighten the contest. Kirsten thinks it will be decided on the strength of the batting and the quality of the spin.

"Both sides have excellent bowling attacks and the batsmen will battle in the first 30 overs or so, when the ball is moving around a bit. Whoever bats better in the top seven will win the series, because both sides will lose early wickets at some stage. If you look at the lower order, South Africa may have the edge but England have got the edge in terms of [Graeme] Swann. He is going to be a big factor."

The upcoming series starts at The Oval, with the Leeds Test sandwiched between that and Lord's. I would have preferred to have scored my hundred at Lord's and got my name on the board," Kirsten said. "But Hansie had a great sense of humour so he got a black pen and wrote my name on the dressing-room wall at Headingley, pretending that it was Lord's. I'm sure by now my name would have been rubbed off."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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