Gary Kirsten (above) was born in one of the most famous cricketing families of South Africa. The patriarch Noel was a wicketkeeper for Boland; Gary’s half-brother Peter played Tests for South Africa. another half-brother Andy was a batsman for Western Province. His brother Paul was a wicketkeeper for Griqualand West and Western Province © Getty Images
Gary Kirsten (above) was born in one of the most famous cricketing families of South Africa. The patriarch Noel was a wicketkeeper for Boland; Gary’s half-brother Peter played Tests for South Africa. another half-brother Andy was a batsman for Western Province. His brother Paul was a wicketkeeper for Griqualand West and Western Province © Getty Images

Gary Kirsten, born November 23, 1967, was the first South African to play a hundred Tests. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the career an obdurate opening batsman, the first to many South African milestones, and a successful coach who guided India to the No. 1 Test spot and the World Cup, in 2011.

I was there 17 years back, braving the concrete seats at Eden Gardens, watching South Africa take on India after their dramatic defeat at Ahmedabad. I was fortunate to have witnessed many a special performance: from Mohammad Azharuddin’s outrageous 77-ball 109 to Lance Klusener’s 8-for on debut, from the second-day collapse triggered by Venkatesh Prasad to the brilliance of Andrew Hudson and Darryl Cullinan with the bat.

Along with them was Gary Kirsten. He was perfectly happy to take the backseat, completely oblivious to boos from the huge crowd. It was excruciatingly painful to watch him bat — especially since the runs were being scored against the side I was supporting. But when I returned home from the ground after Days One and Day Four I could not help but appreciate the tenacity of the man.

Kirsten had scored two hundreds in the Test. He was involved with two double-hundred partnerships in the Test. Few people noticed him amass the runs, and even fewer remembers them. That Test, in a nutshell, represents Kirsten’s career: jeered by the crowd, cheered by his teammates, feared by the opposition.

He was not an attractive batsman by any definition. He did not please the public with dazzling strokeplay; the bat resembled a chisel in his hands more than a paintbrush or a sledgehammer. He did not make batting look easy; he did not plunder; he simply accumulated runs with a single-minded dedication that has been matched by a select few.

Kirsten’s batting centred around hard pushes and drives down the wicket and an excellent control of strokes square of the wicket. Brought up on hard pitches he was an excellent cutter and puller of the cricket ball when the ball was pitched even marginally short, and did not hesitate in going over the fielders when it was pitched up.

Of his batting Jon Henderson wrote for Wisden: “It is the price, he [Kirsten] 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.”

In Kirsten’s own words, “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. 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.”

He was the stone on which the formidable South African batting line-up of the 1990s was founded. Others came and went — some for inconsistency, some for their weakness against spin, and others for lack of credibility. ‘Gazza’ stood through the ups and downs of post-apartheid South African cricket: he saw heroes rise and fall, victories and defeats, and made sure he lasted through it all despite making his debut at 26: in the process he became the first South African to play a hundred Tests.

Kirsten’s numbers were impressive: from 101 Tests he scored 7,289 runs at 45.27 with 21 hundreds and finished with most Tests, runs, and hundreds for South Africa (all three records have subsequently been overtaken by Jacques Kallis). From 64 partnerships he had added 3,592 runs with Kallis at 61.93 — a tally bettered by only Hashim Amla and Kallis among South Africans (3,923 at 61.29).

In First-Class cricket the tally read 16,670 runs at 48.31 with 46 tons. For someone who was considered a formidable force in ODIs, his numbers read an impressive 6,798 at 40.95 with 13 hundreds. His strike rate was a not-too-bad 72.04.

He was also an outstanding fielder, which is saying something given the fielding standards South Africa set in the post-apartheid era. Gifted with exceptional flexibility and reflex, Kirsten could often pluck the ball out of thin air whether at gully or at bat-pad.

Early days

Gary Kirsten was born in Cape Town in one of the most famous cricketing families of South Africa. The patriarch Noel was a wicketkeeper for Boland; Gary’s half-brother Peter played Tests for South Africa (though apartheid meant that he was almost 37 when he made his Test debut); another half-brother Andy was a batsman for Western Province.

Additionally, the youngest of the four half-siblings (Gary’s own brother) Paul was a wicketkeeper who played for Griqualand West and Western Province. The Kirstens were keen tennis, squash, and rugby players as well, but cricket always got priority. Kirsten later confessed that he had started playing cricket “from the moment I could stand”: though he is a right-hander (he writes and plays tennis and golf with his right hand) he batted with his left.

Kirsten played for South Africa Schools in 1985 and also for the Western Province Under-19 side. Duncan Fletcher was among the earliest to spot his immense talent. In an interview to Wisden Fletcher said “There are those few players like Gary [Kirsten] 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.”

With South Africa still serving their ban Kirsten made his First-Class debut for Western Province B against Boland at an age of 20 at Stellenbosch, scoring 20 and 8. In the next match against Border at Cape Town he slammed 163 not out. He eventually finished the season with 424 runs at 60.57, and was selected to play for the first team the next season.

He oscillated between the first team and the ‘B’ side for the next few seasons. South Africa’s return to the world of cricket gave him a glimmer of hope. With the seniors like Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten on their way out, Gary was in the running for the national side in the early 1990s. He was eventually selected for the 1993-94 tour of Australia.
Test debut

Kirsten made his Test debut against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). In a rain-affected draw (South Africa’s response to Australia’s 342 for 7 declared began only on the fourth afternoon) Kirsten, opening with Hudson, helped add 49 in 89 minutes. His 59-ball resilience ended when he edged Mark Waugh to Mark Taylor for 16.

He was retained for the second Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). It was this Test that established Kirsten at the top level. He lost Hudson to Glenn McGrath with a solitary run on the board, but was then involved in a gritty 152-minute 90-run partnership with Hansie Cronje. The pitch was doing things, and Shane Warne was really making the ball talk — but that had hardly any impact on Kirsten’s defence.

Even after Cronje’s departure Kirsten did not flinch. He was eventually fifth out for a 186-ball 67 and had kept Warne and co. out for 218 minutes. Cronje and Fanie de Villiers were the only others to go past ten as the tourists succumbed to Warne (7 for 34) for 169.

Australia managed a 123-run lead before Hudson fell with 2 runs on the board. Once again Kirsten came to the rescue with a 121-ball 41; Rhodes played a crucial hand, and when the hosts were set only 117 to win Australia lost by 5 runs in one of the classic finales of the history of the sport. The defeat brought a six-year curtain on poor Damien Martyn’s Test career.

The hosts squared the series with a 191-run victory in the final Test at Adelaide. This Test saw Kirsten assume a completely new role. Mark Taylor and David Boon were going on sedately against the four-pronged seam attack with the score past 150 when Cronje, in a sudden brainwave, brought on Kirsten to bowl his off-breaks.

Kirsten struck immediately by hitting Taylor’s stumps. He was given a long spell and finished with figures of 23-8-62-1 before scoring 43 in the first innings. Kirsten’s only other Test wicket came in the next season he had Matthew Hart caught-behind at Kingsmead.

The Adelaide Test was also the first time Peter and Gary Kirsten played together. The senior man scored 79 and 42. The pair would go on to play 7 Tests together.

Gary Kirsten’s maiden international hundred came in the first final of the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup that followed at MCG. Opening batting with Peter Garry batted through the 50 overs, scoring a 137-ball 112 with 8 fours before Richard Snell bowled the tourists to a 28-run victory.

Kirsten did not have a hundred from his first 10 Tests. The first ton came in the historic Test at New Wanderers. Hudson fell for a duck but Kirsten held fort, relying mostly on his favourite square-cuts, square-drives, and flicks — and stealing swift singles in partnership with Cronje. He was eventually sixth out for 260, and scored a 241-ball 110 with 16 fours. However, the show was stolen by Michael Atherton’s epic 185 not out and his 274-run partnership with Jack Russell in the fourth innings.
ODI blitzes, twin tons, and a deluge of awards

Kirsten exploded in the second match of the 1996 World Cup against UAE at Rawalpindi (the match that is usually remembered by Allan Donald hitting Sultan Zarawani on the head). He dominated all three partnerships (with Hudson, Cronje, and Cullinan), and finished on 188 not out from 159 balls. He hit 13 fours and 4 sixes. It remains the highest score by a South African in ODIs as well as the highest World Cup score.

South Africa were knocked out in the quarterfinal of the 1996 World Cup, but Kirsten’s ODI form continued. He scored 4 hundreds in a span of 10 ODIs and finished the year with 1,442 runs at 57.68 (and a strike rate of 83.64) with 6 hundreds. This is the highest ever aggregate by a South African in a calendar year, and has been bettered only by Kirsten himself in 2000 when he scored 1,467 at 44.45 with 2 hundreds.

Later that year Kirsten scored 102 and 133 at Calcutta (mentioned above) to seal South Africa’s first Test victory on Indian soil. He had also batted brilliantly in the Titan Cup earlier that year and was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year. Earlier, he was named the South African Cricket Annual Cricketer of the Year for three consecutive years from 1994 to 1996.

The middle years

One of Kirsten’s most memorable innings came in 1997-98 at Faisalabad. With the series levelled 0-0 it all hinged on the final Test of the series. Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, and Mushtaq Ahmed tore through the Protean line-up, reducing them to 64 for 6 and then 98 for 7.

Kirsten seemed unfazed. He found an unusual ally in Pat Symcox, and the pair added 124 runs at a run-a-minute. Symcox biffed his way to a 94-ball 81 before Wasim cleaned him up. The seamers cleaned up the tail; South Africa were bowled out for 239, but Kirsten remained unvanquished, carrying his bat for a 208-minute 100 with 15 fours.

It remains the only time since 1961-62 that a South African has carried his bat through a completed innings. Though Pakistan managed a 69-run lead they collapsed in the fourth innings against Shaun Pollock and Symcox: chasing 146 they were bowled out for 92. It was the first Test and series South Africa won on Pakistan soil.

A few months later Kirsten played an uncharacteristic blitz at Adelaide. When Cronje wanted his men to go for quick runs after a 167-run lead Kirsten went at the Australian bowlers all guns blazing. With the pitch deteriorating rapidly Kirsten scored 108 not out in 159 balls before Cronje declared at 193 for 6. Mark Waugh’s brilliance, however, saved the Test and helped Australia win the series.

Gary Kirsten © Getty Images
Gary Kirsten © Getty Images

Leading his country, and more

With Cronje unavailable for the first Test of the home series of 1997-98 against Pakistan Kirsten led South Africa for the only time in his international career. The Test at New Wanderers was a draw interrupted by rain and Kirsten scored 3 and 20 not out. Cronje resumed duties from the next match.

Kirsten’s first double-hundred came at Old Trafford in 1998. He lost the exotically named Gerhardus Frederick Johannes Liebenberg early but added 238 with Kallis and 176 more with Cullinan before edging one from Angus Fraser. The 650-minute 210 (from 525 balls) was, at that point of time, the longest innings by a South African. It would change hands before coming back to Kirsten again.

Cronje declared at 552 for 5; England followed-on after being bowled out at 183 and finished with 369 for 9 thanks to some extraordinary resilience from Robert Croft, Darren Gough, and Fraser. It was the first Test that was drawn with the scores levelled. The draw turned out to be crucial as England bounced back to clinch the series 2-1.

In 1998-99 Kirsten scored back-to-back hundreds — spread across two series. He amassed 134 against West Indies at Centurion Park in the last Test of the 5-0 whitewash and followed it with 128 at Eden Park (it was in this Test that Cullinan set the new South African record of 275 not out) on the New Zealand tour that followed.

South Africa were among the favourites in the 1999 World Cup and they reached the semifinal without much fuss. Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs got South Africa to a rollicking start after Pollock and Donald restricted Australia to 213. Then Steve Waugh introduced Warne, who managed to hit a foot-mark and turned the proverbial mile to peg Gibbs’ off-stump back.

The target still looked achievable, especially with Kirsten at the crease. Then, suddenly, Warne bowled one that was too short for a sweep; Kirsten responded in the oddest manner possible, attempting an uncharacteristic slog-sweep and was bowled. From 48 without loss South Africa slid to 61 for 4 — and eventually went on to tie what is generally regarded as the greatest ODI of all time.

Unfortunately, the tie meant that they were knocked out of the tournament. Once again South Africa’s World Cup dreams were shattered as their first win in a knock-out match remained elusive (they still have not won a single knock-out match in the World Cup).

The magnum opus

South Africa had won the first Test at New Wanderers in the 1999-2000 home series and had managed to draw the next at St George’s Park. Nasser Hussain won the toss in the third Test at Kingsmead and decided to bat and declared after his 146 and Alec Stewart’s 95 took England to 366 for 9. He asked South Africa to follow-on after Andy Caddick (7 for 46) skittled them for 156.

There was still a bit of play left on Day Three. The situation was tailor-made for Kirsten, who took centre-stage. Having gone through a lean patch there were speculations about him being axed from the side. South Africa, 27 without loss overnight, lost Gibbs early. Kallis helped Kirsten with 69, but just after the innings defeat was avoided Cullinan and Cronje fell in quick succession. At this stage South Africa were only 34 runs ahead with over a day’s play left.

Kirsten, of course, was there. He had survived a close leg-before call on 33 when Tufnell had overstepped. He had brought up his fifty in 154 balls with a cover-driven boundary off Tufnell, and became the first South African to score ten Test hundreds when he square-cut Gough for a brace in the final session. It had taken him 280 balls and 381 minutes. South Africa went to stumps at 251 for 4, 41 ahead, with Kirsten on 126.

He reached 150 soon, and then went past Cronje’s South African record tally of 3,689 runs. It took him 741 minutes and 522 balls to bring up his double-hundred: in the process he became the first South African to score 2 double hundreds (after Dudley Nourse and Graeme Pollock).

There was no sign of fatigue, though. He lost Mark Boucher (though not before adding a record South African fifth-wicket stand of 192), but his concentration never faltered. With the Test saved he sought to break Cullinan’s South African record of 275 not out; he pushed one to extra-cover and scampered – even after 852 minutes of batting – for his 250th run. It was already the second-longest innings of all time.

He caught up with Cullinan as the crowd came to their feet, waiting for the new South African record. Mark Butcher (of all people) dished out a terrible loopy full-toss that ran through Kirsten’s defence; it was so poor a delivery that even the Surrey man broke into a sheepish smile.

Kirsten’s innings had lasted 878 minutes — still the second-longest in terms of minutes batted. He faced 642 balls for his 275 that included only 26 boundaries. It remains one of the greatest rearguard actions in the history of the sport.

Kirsten bats on…

Kirsten missed out on another 200 when he fell for 180 against Sri Lanka at Kingsmead in 2000-01. In a few months time he became the first South African to score 3 double-hundreds when he slammed a 286-ball 220 against Zimbabwe at Harare. The Test, however, is immortalised by Andy Flower’s valiant 142 and 199 not out.

Once again he faced a slump in his form during the Australia tour of 2001-02. Australia, by then the best nation in world cricket, clinched the series by winning at Adelaide and MCG, and it seemed all over at SCG when South Africa followed-on being 400 runs behind.

Could he pull off another Durban? He lost Gibbs early but found support in Boeta Dippenaar who helped him add 149 for the second wicket. Kirsten seemed untroubled, cutting and pulling and sweeping and driving his way to another hundred. Wickets, however, kept falling at the other end despite fifty-run partnerships for the next 3 wickets.

Then, after 437 minutes and 359 balls, Kirsten’s resilience ended when he dragged a wide one from Stuart MacGill on to the stumps. His 159 had included 20 boundaries. He had not been able to save the Test for South Africa, but at least made sure that Australia had to bat again.

Later that year he scored 150 and 160 in consecutive innings against Bangladesh at East London and Potchefstroom. He started his third World Cup campaign well scoring 69 in a defeat against West Indies at Newlands in the first match but did little else of note. South Africa were did not cross the league stage for the first time in their World Cup campaigns. He did not play another ODI.

The England tour of 2003

With age catching up Kirsten had decided to retire after the England series that followed. Graeme Smith, the newly appointed captain, opened batting with Gibbs, which meant that Kirsten would have to bat at first-down. The Smith-Gibbs partnership clicked as they added 338 in only 74.5 overs at Edgbaston; batting at No. 3 Kirsten scored 44.

Smith and Gibbs added 133 after Makhaya Ntini and Andrew Hall skittled out England for 173. All Kirsten needed was to hang around with Smith and pile on the runs; he did that with clinical efficiency and the 257-run stand killed England’s possibilities of coming back into the Test. Kirsten eventually scored 108 and South Africa won by an innings.

He missed the third Test at Trent Bridge that South Africa lost, but came back strongly at Headingley. Under seaming conditions the English seamers reduced the tourists to 21 for 4 in the 15th over when Jacques Rudolph joined Kirsten. As usual, the senior man decided to drop anchor, allowing Rudolph to play his strokes.

Even after Rudolph departed there was a mini-collapse, resulting in South Africa reeling at 142 for 7. Kirsten, who had been droning on a 169-ball 44, now decided to open up. He started playing his strokes and slowly built up a partnership with Monde Zondeki.

Kirsten and Zondeki added exactly 150 runs for the eighth wicket. Even after Zondeki’s dismissal Kirsten batted on, adding 24 more with Ntini before he was ninth out for a 323-ball, 458-minute 130. South Africa reached 342 before their seamers gave them a 35-run lead.

This time it was about extending the lead, and Kirsten was up to the task: he scored a crucial 60 and helped see off the new ball after the tourists were 31 for 2. A hapless England collapsed to 209 in the hands of Kallis (6 for 54) and lost by 191 runs.

Kirsten scored 90 more in the first innings at The Oval, helping Gibbs add 227 – but Marcus Trescothick’s 219 drowned South Africa’s 484 and England squared the series 2-2. At 35 Kirsten had his most prolific series, scoring 462 runs at 66.00. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Ending on a high

After the series Kirsten was persuaded to stay on by the South African team management. He decided to carry on. Henderson wrote that his “lingering cricketing ambitions were intertwined”. “I didn’t want to leave with the possibility of any regrets,” were Kirsten’s own words, but he added: “If I wasn’t performing, then I would have retired when I originally needed to”.

Whatever it was, Kirsten toured Pakistan after coming back from England. Though South Africa lost the two-Test series Kirsten finished with scores of 53 retired hurt and 46 at Lahore, and 54 and 118 at Faisalabad. When the West Indies came over Kirsten, now batting at No. 5, followed his 118 with a 218-ball 137. In the process he became the first South African to 20 Test hundreds.

He was on 98 Tests when he toured New Zealand in 2003-04. He started the series with a well-paced 137 and 34 not out at Hamilton, but followed the Test with 1 and 1 at Eden Park, which South Africa lost, and 1 at Basin Reserve. In the fourth innings of the second Test — the last of Kirsten’s career — South Africa needed to chase down 234 to square the series.

Chris Martin and Jacob Oram reduced the tourists to 36 for 3 when Kirsten walked out to join Smith. It was a magical partnership where Kirsten would hand over the baton of the South African sheet-anchor to Smith — the only South African opener who has scored more runs than him.

The pair added 171 in 56.2 overs before Scott Styris trapped Kirsten in his last innings. The southpaw’s 76 had lasted for 180 balls and 227 minutes, and had included 11 fours. Smith scored the remaining runs with Martin van Jaarsveld for company. On his way back to the dressing-room after the presentations Kirsten received a guard of honour from his teammates. He did not play another First-Class match.
Post-retirement

Kirsten set up his own academy in Cape Town after he quit First-Class cricket. After Greg Chappell had resigned as the Indian Coach in early 2007 the post was left vacant for want of a suitable candidate. After much deliberation, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) offered him a two-year contract starting March 1, 2008.

Kirsten’s tenure saw a revolution in Indian cricket. Though India drew against South Africa at home and lost the final of the Asia Cup, they avenged the defeat in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy earlier the year by a 2-0 margin. India also achieved their first series victory in New Zealand after 40 years.

His contract was extended by a year, and just before the crucial South Africa tour India once again beat Australia 2-0 at home. Before the South Africa tour MS Dhoni called Kirsten “the best thing to happen to Indian cricket.” However, immediately after India drew the Test series in South Africa Kirsten announced that he would not extend his tenure beyond World Cup 2011.

He wanted to spend more time with his wife Deborah and sons Joshua and James. Corrie van Zyl, the South African coach, had also announced that his contract would end after the World Cup, which meant that Kirsten’s transition as the South African coach would be seamless.

He had one last target to achieve for India, though: the World Cup that had remained elusive to him as a cricketer. India eventually lifted the Cup after 28 years following three high-intensity knock-out matches against Australia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Kirsten was carried around Wankhede Stadium by Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, and Yusuf Pathan on their shoulders after the final.

Gary Kirsten, the low-key coach of the 2011 World Cup-winning Indian team, chaired during the victory lap © Getty Images
Gary Kirsten, the low-key coach of the 2011 World Cup-winning Indian team, chaired during the victory lap © Getty Images

Accolades poured in from the Indian greats after Kirsten’s tenure came to an end. Sunil Gavaskar said: “His [Kirsten’s] biggest contribution was that he not only brought a sense of self-belief, but also calm and trust in the dressing room after the earlier period where players did not know whom to trust.” Sachin Tendulkar added: “I respect his [Kirsten’s] decision. We will miss him a lot. It’s been a pleasure to work with him. He’s probably worked harder than anyone else.”

Kirsten carried on his good job as the coach of South Africa. The side lost only 2 of the 19 Tests he coached them in, and snatched the ICC No. 1 Test rank from England with a 2-0 victory at their den in 2012. Before the 2013 Champions Trophy, however, he announced that he would not renew his contract.

Currently he coaches full-time at the Gary Kirsten Cricket Academy and often provides inspiring insights on achieving goals. Michael Jordaan, the CEO of First National Bank, stated: “Gary’s [Kirsten’s] leadership style is the perfect blend of humility, discipline, empowerment and ambition. He is successful because his true intent is to make others shine.”

On September 3, 2013 Kirsten was named coach of Delhi Daredevils.