Gary Kirsten has called it a day. Neil Manthorp looks back at his life and career in a piece that was published in the April 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket
Noel Kirsten was the ground superintendent at South Africa's most famous and beautiful cricket stadium, Cape Town's Newlands. Apart from paying the bills and allowing young Gary and his brother Paul to attend a good school, the best part of the job was the house that came with it.
Gary's bedroom overlooked the pitch itself, which made studying for exams all but impossible. Dreaming of a future playing cricket, however, was easy. He did that every day.
Older brother Peter had already made his mark on the first-class scene by the time Gary became a teenager, and while the pride Gary felt for him knew few bounds, the Kirsten name became a burden throughout Gary's school and university days.
"Every time I was selected for any team, rugby or cricket, people would say it was because of the name. It felt like I had to achieve a bit more than everyone else just to prove myself," Kirsten remembers.
The young Gary never dreamed of playing international cricket, not because he wasn't ambitious but because South Africa didn't play international cricket, at least not officially. "The biggest game on the calendar was the New Year Currie Cup match between Western Province and Transvaal. It was played at Newlands and my father used to build a scaffolding platform in the garden so the whole family could watch the match in comfort," Kirsten recalls with a smile.
It was during his second year playing for the University of Cape Town as an offspinner and No. 8 batsman that Kirsten was driven to the next level of his career by first XI coach Duncan Fletcher, who now coaches England.
"He made me believe I was good enough to play for Western Province. Until then I'd never thought about it seriously. I played cricket hard but basically for fun and the after-match parties. Duncan encouraged me to take my batting more seriously and give up the offbreaks, which were hopeless anyway," Kirsten says.
It was not long before the young Kirsten was summoned to Australia as a replacement for the injured Brian McMillan in the World Series, which had attracted widespread interest back in South Africa. His introduction to international cricket was anything but romantic as South Africa were bowled out for 69 - still their lowest one-day score - on a deathbed pitch at the SCG. A bewildered Kirsten scratched together four runs from 27 deliveries. In the next game he scrambled another seven from 23 balls.
It was a rude awakening but, instead of retiring to lick his wounds, Kirsten fought back. It was determination and bloody-mindedness more than anything else that saw him compile two fifties in the next three games. The nation's love affair with the gutsy little opener (whom everybody thought of as "Peter's kid brother") really started in earnest during the first leg of the World Series final at the MCG when Gary made an unbeaten 112 to earn victory. A win against the Aussies, and a traditionally gutsy, determined South African cricketer leading the way. Gary was the toast of the nation.
At Test level a remarkable run of 18 scores between 25 and 76 caused people to question his staying power, and soon enough the world's international captains were copying the example set by Allan Border and positioning two gully fielders and a backward point to stifle Kirsten's greatest (some said only) strength.
Finally, however, the first of his 21 centuries arrived, against England at the Wanderers in the 1995-96 season. "Every batsman who has ever played the game will regard their first century as a career highlight. It changes everything, your approach, your confidence, your belief. The doubts disappear and you start to grow as a cricketer," Kirsten says.
Two out of three other career highlights came on the subcontinent, though the first is a triple-pronged affair. "Lord's. Three Tests, three huge wins. In 1994 there was the history of the occasion, the first team back after isolation. In 1998 there was the disbelief of repeating the win so heavily and then, last year, Graeme Smith's second double-century and Makhaya Ntini's 10 wickets. And my century, of course. Another huge win and three more names on the Honours Board to go with Allan Donald, Kepler Wessels and Jonty Rhodes," Kirsten says.
Depending on who he is talking to, Kirsten describes Eden Gardens as either "the other home of cricket" or "the real home of cricket", and it was at India's most famous venue that he made a pair of centuries to help set up a famous win. "There is no atmosphere like it anywhere else in the world - it's fantastic. When India are winning you can't hear yourself think, but when the opposition are doing well, like when me and Andrew Hudson put on 200 for the first wicket, you can't believe that 70,000 people can be so quiet. I don't think a cricketing education can be complete without an Eden Gardens experience. To score a hundred in both innings is something I'll never forget."
Faisalabad is another venue Kirsten will never forget, but purely for the quality and significance of the innings. South Africa had collapsed to 83 for 7 on the first day when Kirsten and Pat Symcox launched a recovery that finished with the opener carrying his bat for a century and South Africa winning the Test - and the series.
Glenn McGrath and Courtney Walsh were comfortably the hardest opponents he faced. They dismissed him eight times apiece, with Walsh doing it in just nine matches. "I would have averaged 60 if they'd played basketball instead of cricket," Kirsten laughs. Steve Waugh is the man he admires most apart from his own colleagues because "he wasn't, perhaps, the most naturally talented guy around but he turned himself into one of the greatest players of all time through hard work, determination and discipline."
Kirsten settled on the approach that has won so many friends around the world - hard but fair, decent and respectful - after a conversation in the mid-1990s with his great friend, Eric Simons, then a Western Province and national team-mate and now the national coach.
Gary had just had his first encounter with the genuine nastiness that players and some nations believe is a necessary component of international cricket. "If that's what it takes to get to the top," Kirsten confided to Simons, "then I don't want to get there." Simons assured him that his way could succeed too.
As the years marched on, Kirsten became more and more aware of the legacy he might leave and that future generations would look to his example. Apart from being the first South African to reach 100 Tests and 20 centuries, his determination to be a worthy and lasting role model extended to every innings.
When he was struck a fearful blow to the face by a Shoaib Akhtar bouncer in his 94th Test in Lahore, he returned to the crease for the second innings barely able to see out of one eye. He scored a courageous 46. "I knew it might be an important moment. I thought young batsmen might remember me going back to face Shoaib after being hit and think of doing it themselves," Kirsten says.
Happily married to Deborah for six years and blissfully happy with the arrival of Joshua five months ago, Kirsten has no regrets about leaving the game and starting 'real life' - for which he has prepared by studying for a business degree during the last 12 months. A gentleman in every conceivable way, Kirsten's expertise and experience will not be lost to the South African game immediately as he will now work as a consultant at the national academy. As for the rest of the nation and his fans, their memories of him will probably outlast his lifetime.