Gary Kirsten enjoyed a spectacular run of form during South Africa’s closely fought Test series against England in 2003. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year the following spring.
It has been easy to overlook Gary Kirsten when the game’s accolades are being handed out. It is the price, he might reflect, for placing pragmatism above the other, more appealing, qualities to be found in great run-scoring batsmen. Connoisseurs may doubt his right to be called a great batsman in the purest sense, but his status as a great run-maker is beyond question. He demonstrated this once again during a typically acquisitive 2003, when he played the England bowlers with a bat that at times must have appeared broader by some distance than the legal limit.
After a faltering start to the series in England, Kirsten, approaching his 36th birthday, quashed the notion that he was past his retire-by date with one of those merciless bouts of heavy scoring that have characterised his career. The five innings he played in the second, fourth and fifth Tests – injury kept him out of the third – produced 417 runs, including successive centuries at Lord’s and Headingley. No matter that his batting was, as ever, more functional than festive, his runs gave the solid core to South Africa’s batting after Graeme Smith’s extraordinary form evaporated.
Originally, he planned to retire after the England tour, but he was persuaded that the team’s needs and his lingering cricketing ambitions were intertwined. “I didn’t want to leave with the possibility of any regrets,” he said. He fancied scoring 20 Test hundreds, and got there in the Durban Test after Christmas, which took him to the edge of the top 20 most prolific scorers in Test history. His 100th Test beckoned in 2004. At the same time, he insisted: “If I wasn’t performing, then I would have retired when I originally intended to.”
Gary Kirsten was born in Cape Town on November 23, 1967, the latest addition to a cricket family even more sprawling than the Pollocks. His late father Noel, brother Paul and half-brothers Andrew and Peter – who made 12 Test appearances – all played at first-class level. Noel, who represented Border from 1947 to 1961, became the Newlands groundsman and for eight of Kirsten’s formative cricketing years the family lived at the ground. Kirsten was also a useful rugby, squash and tennis player, but it was cricket, which he started playing “from the moment I could stand”, at which he excelled.
He was in the Western Province Under-19 team for three years and played for South Africa Schools in 1985. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach who was an early influence on Kirsten’s career, was among the first to spot his qualities. “There are those few players like Gary who have technical faults, but with guts, determination and the will to succeed it’s very difficult to put a ceiling on what level of cricket they will play,” Fletcher said.
Happy birthday, Gary Kirsten!
Do you think he’s the best coach India have had? 🤔pic.twitter.com/s5JYBr465r
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) November 23, 2020
Like many left-handed batsmen, Kirsten is essentially a right-handed person. He writes and plays golf and tennis right-handed. If players like David Gower and Brian Lara have helped to establish a swashbuckling reputation for left-handers, Kirsten is certainly not unique in being a chiseller rather than a chaser. More than anyone, he probably resembles John Edrich, the England opener of the 1960s and 1970s, with his controlled power square with the wicket and unrattled response to playing and missing. Like Edrich, he may not be the most obviously intimidating presence at the crease, but his wicket is prized by opponents more than most.
Kirsten’s most monumental effort was a match-saving 275 against England in Durban in 1999/2000. It lasted more than 14 hours, making it the second longest Test innings behind only the sultan of stickability, Hanif Mohammad. Surviving an apparently certain lbw appeal on 33 because Phil Tufnell overstepped, Kirsten never budged thereafter or gave the bowlers a sniff.
“That was special,” says Kirsten, who has always been happily unrepentant about the way he amasses his runs. “You always have dreams of trying to hit the ball out of the ground, but I think if I had done that my average would have been nearer 20 than 40, and I wouldn’t have been around very long.” He adds: “I like to focus on batting for as long as possible. There are too many bad days in the game to give it away when things are going your way. And when I get in, I like to score big.”
In his final series in March 2004, Gary Kirsten became the first-ever South African to play 100 Tests and finished with 7,289 runs at 45.27. He has gone on to achieve success as a coach, too, famously guiding India to World Cup flory in 2011.