Towards the end of last season he was reported to the ECB for a suspect action, having earlier had a run-in with officials during England's tour of Zimbabwe in 2001-02. He was banned for five months, but that coincided with the winter, and he spent the time remodeling the bowling action he'd used since his county debut in 1995. However, that was only half the challenge and there was no guarantee it would work. It wasn't just his action that needed rebuilding, but his confidence too and that was, in many ways, the harder task.
At the start of the summer - also his benefit year - he was nursed back into first-team action by the Sussex management and his early performances were far from convincing. Slowly he found his feet and ended the C&G group round with 14 wickets and Sussex's best economy rate. "You have your doubts and your dark moments," Kirtley said. "I can't be fighting demons in my head, it's a hard enough game bowling against anybody but if you have distractions it's trickier."
However, none of his early season performances came under the spotlight of a 20,000-plus Lord's crowd and a large TV audience. Just in case Kirtley needed any added pressure, the Sussex batting only limped to 172 and confronted with the likes of Mal Loye and Stuart Law, not many watchers gave Sussex much hope. No one told Kirtley.
Racing in from the Nursery End, he hit his line and length immediately, despite Loye's best efforts to knock him off his stride with a trademark slog-sweep for six, and swung the ball at 86mph. Later in the over he nipped a ball back into Loye's pads, starting a dramatic top-order collapse. Nathan Astle went in similar fashion before Law was also given out leg-before, despite an inside-edge. Few people, however, would have denied Kirtley his moments of fortune.
After a seven-over spell which knocked the stuffing out of Lancashire, Kirtley was rested and wasn't recalled to the attack until the dying stages of the match with the tension rising. Dominic Cork nursed Lancashire near the target, but Chris Adams held his never, knowing there were three overs from Kirtley up his sleeve. With the runs required down to 22, Kirtley trapped Tom Smith, then in his next over removed Murali Kartik, with his fifth lbw. He sank to his knees and was engulfed by team-mates before leading his team through the Long Room. Those demons had been laid to rest.
"Everyone at Sussex has been behind me 100% and it's nice to reward their support - I hope everyone has a drink on me. I've shown I can perform, I just want to play cricket. I've talked about the action for four or five years now - the action is the action, it's there and it's sorted - I just want to perform."
What they said - Chris Adams, the Sussex captain
"People like James do not come along often, I've met thousands of people who would have fallen away into insignificance if they went through what he has. He's decided he would come back and fight hard. He's very modest - what he won't tell you is about the six hard, long, dark and dreary months he was arriving at the ground at 8.30am and going into the indoor school every day and working on his action for two hours at a time. The action is fine, what James is fighting against is if he believes he can do it. That's character."
What the future holds
Adams believes an international recall is not out of the question for Kirtley but, in reality, his time has passed with the new generation of pace bowlers coming through. However, for Kirtley to even be back playing a major role for Sussex is a triumph over adversity. He now has the chance to help Sussex to the Championship title and even complete a treble with the Pro40 within their grasp. Suddenly, those dark winter months seem a lifetime away.
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo