Gary Kirsten – the name only brings pleasant memories for the lovers of Indian cricket. He was the man who was the moving force behind one of the finest periods in the recent history of Indian cricket. He was the brains behind India’s rise to number 1 in test cricket, albeit for a brief period, and he was the person who guided the team to a 50-over World Cup triumph in 2011 after 28 years. He was also the man the Indian cricket fans never wanted to leave but he did so and did it on his own terms and with his head held high.
Gary Kirsten came from a family with a sports background – his father and all his brothers were first class cricketers and his half brother Peter Kirsten was a legend of South African cricket, much like Gary himself. Gary was never really as technically gifted as his elder brother nor as pleasing to the eye perhaps, but he sure made up for that with steely determination, immense concentration and an unmatched hunger for runs. As a test opener, Kirsten forged a solid partnership with Andrew Hudson and scored 7289 runs in 101 tests with 21 centuries and a solid average of 45.27 that laid the base for many a success that South Africa achieved at that time.
One of his finest innings, which also shows his qualities the best, was a 275 not out against England in Kingsmead, Durban in 1999-2000 season. He also tormented the same team in the 2003 series at its home ground when he played a typical fighting innings of 130 to help the Proteas win the Headingley test. Noticeably enough, he produced his best whenever his team’s fortunes hung in the balance. In his final test series against the Kiwis in New Zealand, his fighting instincts came to the fore when he scored a century in the first test of that series and helped South Africa draw level in the third test with a typical innings of 76. His innings of 188 not out against the United Arab Emirates is also worth mentioning in this regard. In fact, Kirsten was among the few international batters who were able to perform well in the subcontinent.
As a coach, Kirsten was very much in the mould of John Wright and performed perhaps even better than him in terms of results. His style of coaching was appreciated by both players as well as former players. After leaving the India job, he took up the assignment of coaching South Africa and helped the team achieve the number one position in test cricket. His effect on the team has been palpable with the way it has performed in a carefree and uninhibited way in the last couple of years. His innovative coaching methods like frequent and necessary breaks between series have played an important part in helping the cricketers achieve their best.
In a nutshell, Kirsten was a man who did things on his own terms and like the Indian coaching job, he has exited the South African team with his honor and reputation intact. It is said that he had wanted to coach only for a couple of years and he has done exactly that. He has also been able to groom his successor Russell Domingo and the team looks good to go. Very soon, the battle lines will be drawn once again and hostilities will be resumed – the Proteas will start under a new coach and also do well. However, whenever they do so there will be a man sitting in Cape Town with his family and smiling for a job well done.