Gary Kirsten

'If you can handle cricket, you can handle life'

South Africa's grittiest customer on what the game has taught him

Interview by Neil Manthorp  |  

'I laugh at my style of batting' © Getty Images

My first taste of international cricket was when I travelled to Barbados as a backpacker in 1991 to watch South Africa's first Test after readmission. I slept on my brother Peter's hotel-room floor and gave throwdowns to the guys before each morning's play.

I was barely in Cape Town University's first XI then, and hadn't even dreamed of playing international cricket, but that experience gave me all the desire I needed.

When I first made the national team I was a very limited player and aware of my shortcomings. Kepler Wessels took me aside one day and said, "Gary, remember this. It doesn't matter how you look, it's just the total that people will remember." That gave me confidence and belief.

I've often batted virtually from sunrise to sunset in the nets, to learn new shots, to get my feet in the right place and to drive straight, not through gully. But that's my job and it's the job of the people who buy tickets to be entertained. But a little understanding of our predicament, sometimes, is well appreciated. We are not machines.

My greatest desire for the future of international cricket is that administrators understand the need for rest. Fast bowlers are the obvious example, but opening the batting is equally taxing - mentally more than physically. It wears you down. If the economy of world cricket can sustain the game for 12 months of the year, great, but players need to be rotated.

Cricket occupies so much of your time that it's difficult to have a normal life - when you're playing and especially after you've finished. I'm hugely grateful to the Foundation for a Brighter Future for the passion I have found outside cricket. We try to give hope and meaning to the homeless street children of Cape Town.

I laugh at myself, in public, at the style of my batting.

I'm not a Herschelle Gibbs. I was never going to put bums on seats as a "flair" player. I know who I am, and I know there's no point pretending to be someone else.

There have been a couple of "heroic" moments in my career, but I'm not a heroic kind of batsman so I don't mind if they are forgotten.

When I was asked to reconsider my decision to retire, I felt flattered. My wife and I had delayed the start of a family and we both felt another couple of months wouldn't hurt. But I won't be away for months at a time when our children are growing up. That's very, very important.

I don't mind if people don't remember me for anything in particular, except that I scored 6000-plus runs and gave my all, everything I had.

I've worked very hard and tried to be humble in all circumstances, though I'm the first to order Cuban cigars and a drink when we win.

Cricket really does reflect life. It gives you more bad and ordinary days than good ones, and if you can handle that then you can handle life. Even better, you can associate with, and help, people who've never even had the chance to experience what it was like, going to work in front of 70,000 at Eden Gardens or the MCG.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency. This interview was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2003