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James Kirtley's ecstasy and agony

For one Test in the summer of 2003 against South Africa, he was golden. Then everything went pear-shaped

Tanya Aldred
Tanya Aldred
James Kirtley takes a catch off his own bowling to dismiss Paul Adams, England v South Africa, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, 5th day, August 18, 2003

Kirtley catches Paul Adams off his own bowling  •  Getty Images

James Kirtley cut a slight figure in his cricket whites - all limbs, pint-pot ears and a face straight out of the '50s - but what he lacked in menace he made up for in intelligence.
If you were following county cricket in the noughties, you looked for his name. He was a diamond in Sussex's jewel of a team, a reliable, accurate, effective, nippy bowler with a knees-up action and clockwork-dog arms, who could produce extravagant swing in the right conditions. He took 50 or more first-class wickets seven times between 1998 and 2005, including 75 in 2001, and was a crucial reason why Sussex, historically an also-ran side, became something special, winning the Championship in 2003, 2006 and 2007. And yet he was only able to pull at the hem of Test cricket, playing just four times. A nice guy who didn't quite make the cut.
Kirtley was haunted throughout his career by claims that he had an illegal action. He was found to have a hyper-extending elbow and was cleared by the ECB before making his one-day international debut, in 2001, but was reported by the match referee. He returned home and worked to keep his action more upright, and was cleared six months later - only for the ECB to find his action illegal again, in October 2005. Kirtley returned after remedial work, but right to the end the whispers followed him. The strain was sometimes hard to bear. "It has been a stigma in my career. It is a taboo in cricket and sticks like mud."
In the early summer of 2003, he was bowling well and without adverse comment. He'd taken 19 wickets in his first three matches. When one of his team-mates shouted at him down at Hove that he was picked in the squad for the two-Test series against Zimbabwe, it came as a huge surprise. Although he never made the final XI, he spent a lot of time hanging around and getting to know the other players. England demolished Zimbabwe in both Tests and won the triangular one-day series that included the second visitors of the summer, South Africa. However, the Test series that followed was a far more difficult challenge.
South Africa were a grown-up side, albeit one in transition, under a new leader, the 22-year-old Graeme Smith. Smith was titanic, in size, talent, aura and self-confidence, and had stamped his authority on the side by leaving at home talisman Lance Klusener. When the England captain, Nasser Hussain, referred to Smith as "Wotsisname" in a pre-series press conference, he little knew what he was provoking.
In the first Test, at Edgbaston, Smith scored 277 and 85. At Lord's he made 259. He was like Thor, relentless and grinding. England were saved by the rain in Birmingham, but lost Hussain, who felt he no longer had a hand on the tiller of the team and resigned in favour of the one-day captain, Michael Vaughan. Vaughan then lost his first Test as leader by an innings. Darren Gough retired. A summer of ridicule and frantic blueprints seemed written, and by the time Trent Bridge rolled along, the public were ready for change.
David Graveney had called up reinforcements from the counties and there was a battle for the final bowling place between two faithful county bloodhounds, Kirtley and Lancashire's Glen Chapple. Kirtley had been picked and discarded for four successive Tests - would it be a fifth? He remembers: "There was a bit of a shootout, but because I'd spent a lot of time around the side that summer, I got my chance."
It was a short-sleeved-jumper sort of day at Trent Bridge. Kirtley was only told he was playing on the morning of the game. He and Ed Smith, the other debutant, were presented with their caps out on the boundary. "It was a great moment but I can't remember much else from that other hour and a half," Kirtley said.
"I did feel an electricity in the atmosphere. Trent Bridge is a fun and knowledgeable crowd - they are aware what people are playing for. You are embraced by all of these factors. It's like a drug, I guess, and you can get so caught up in it"
England won the toss and batted first on a pitch that looked as if it had been put together by a toddler with unsupervised access to a Pritt stick. Mark Butcher made a beautiful century, which included 21 courtly fours, and Hussain a pugnacious, liberating one, which reached its climax with a raised fist and cathartic rage at the world in general. Ed Smith, on debut, and Alec Stewart, in his final series, made fifties. Kirtley contributed one run, but "managed to hang around a bit with Stewie, and it was nice to be able to ease myself into the game".
With 445 on the board, England had something to work with. Kirtley was thrown the second over of the South African reply. "Herschelle Gibbs promptly smashed me through midwicket for four. Thankfully Trent Bridge was a good pitch for me. I took six [seven] wickets there earlier in the season."
When Graeme Smith trod on his stumps for 35, the whole team, the whole crowd, perhaps the whole country relaxed. On the third morning, with the fifth ball of the day, Kirtley got what he wanted. "I got one to leave [Jacques] Rudolph and I was up and running. When you're a batsman you just want to get off the mark and as a bowler it is exactly the same feeling. The fact that I only needed the next ball for the second one - I got [Boeta] Dippenaar lbw - all helped."
Vaughan had James Anderson and Kirtley, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison in his armoury - guile and hammer. But guided by Neil McKenzie, South Africa dragged themselves well past the follow-on target and only 83 behind.
Kirtley felt relaxed. "It was a friendly dressing room. I think because of the degree of recent change everyone was open. I knew Michael Vaughan well enough - not brilliantly because I hadn't done the youth tours as much - but I'd played against him in county cricket.
"I think that he listened to my views over field placing. I remember in county cricket I often had my square leg far too square, and with England it wasn't. And I remember realising what detail went into international cricket.
"But we never really had to strive for plans because we were regularly taking wickets."
Fourteen wickets fell on the fourth day. Shaun Pollock - accurate, miserly - bowled England out in the second innings for just 118. He finished with 6 for 39 - his last bowling before he flew home and became a father. The pitch was doing what it had always promised, to behave badly. Hussain and Flintoff guided England past three figures and Kirtley tripled his first-innings score, with 3. South Africa needed 202 to win and Kirtley had his chance.
"I always had a bit of a reputation for delivering in the big games. I had been bowling well that year and was ideally suited to bowling wicket to wicket, and lbws were massive in the game.
"You just get the feeling that things are going your way. There is an expectation, a buzz."
Kirtley made the initial incision: Smith, with "what replays suggest might have been a dubious lbw", and two balls later, Rudolph legitimately leg-before. By the close South Africa were five down.
Kirtley, his slingy action well suited to the conditions, wasn't going to loosen his grip. The next morning one shot along the ground to McKenzie, there was a half-volley to Andrew Hall, and Paul Adams was the fifth wicket, a caught-and-bowled.
"It was a special one, to get it all by myself. He just popped it back at me, and the tears did well up," Kirtley said.
"I did feel an electricity in the atmosphere. Trent Bridge is a fun and knowledgeable crowd - they are aware what people are playing for. You are embraced by all of these factors. It's like a drug, I guess, and you can get so caught up in it. It is such a great place to deliver and perform. You can't play at a higher stage than Test cricket. It was everything I wanted and it went well."
England won by 70 runs and Kirtley finished with 6 for 34, the Man-of-the-Match award, and the best figures for an Englishman on debut since John Lever. But he found the immediate aftermath of the game rather gruelling and unsatisfactory.
"It sort of got washed away by the press," he said. "I know that interviews go with the territory, but it was a shame not be in the dressing room and revel in the win. It is a bit of the system which is such a special part…
"But Vaughan winning his first Test match, lots of people I respected in the game wanting to buy me a drink - those are the special moments for me. It was so wonderful to be surrounded by players that I respected.
"There was a degree of feeling that you were being watched - they had started using slow-mo actions a bit - but the fact that the cricket was never dull got me off the hook a little bit."
Kirtley was picked for the next Test, at Headingley, but developed shin splints. "I limped off in the second innings, unable to bowl. I had bowled so many overs in the two Tests, 100 overs in the week, and with that sort of workload maybe it was inevitable."
He was distraught; his Test career was starting to slip from his fingers before he'd even enjoyed it properly. "I had waited this long for the opportunity, and I knew there was no way I'd be able to play in the final Test, at The Oval. And I missed matches for Sussex - not being on the pitch when they won the Championship was a tough one. I had ambitions after a good couple of Tests to tour that winter, and I felt that the injury left me with unfinished business."
Kirtley did play two Tests against Sri Lanka in the autumn, after Anderson twisted his ankle playing squash against him. "I remember bowling a lot of overs, but come March, Simon Jones was there, [Matthew] Hoggard was back to his best, Harmison was back to his best, and that side was together again. It is a shame because you learn to bowl on the pitches of the subcontinent, and my bowling got better after I played for England?
"Now I'm quite phlegmatic about it. I was never as quick as some of the others bowling, I couldn't make it bounce like other bowlers, I didn't have the skills that Jimmy Anderson has now. I probably wasn't quite any of those things, but I knew I could perform and had a desire to do well. Ultimately I wasn't good enough, but it is very difficult to be judged on four Test matches."
He looks back now at his cricket career with pride and the knowledge that comes with distance and time.
"I achieved everything I wanted to, both with Sussex's double-winning side and delivering on the best stage you can. Being a cricketer is quite an insular, slightly institutionalised environment. I'm not knocking it, but the more time passes, the more you have chance to reflect that there might be other things that are a little bit more important than bat and ball - but at the time you are playing, it is the be all and end all."
James Kirtley is now the MD of MKK Sports, a sportswear company he jointly set up in 2004. Sussex, Middlesex, Surrey, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire and London Broncos, amongst others, wear their clothes.

Tanya Aldred lives in Manchester. She writes occasionally for the Guardian