It was a remarkable 16 years ago that Gary Kirsten was named ‘Man of the Series’ in the one-day Triangular series in Australia, which also featured New Zealand.
South Africa reached the final and won a thrilling first match in a best-of-three final against the hosts before suffering a tortuous choke in the final game to lose the series 2:1. But Kirsten was named man-of-the-series nonetheless and was presented with a Harley Davidson touring bike worth over a $100 000.
He was young, fit and mentally fresh but it was a long tour nonetheless with the Carlton & United ODI series being preceded by the usual thrashing in the three match test series. Although he was as ready as anyone to return home, he had the mischievous presence of mind to ask the sponsors if they could have the motorbike shipped back to Cape Town for him.
Such prizes are, of course, merely advertising opportunities for sponsors with an unwritten rule that players will accept a cash equivalent to the value of the vehicle (and then split it among the squad.) Kirsten didn’t even know how to ride a motorbike but the mere sight of the Harley made him want to learn. “I had this vision of my cruising around Cape Town on it,” he admitted later. Needless to say it stayed in Sydney.
Four years later it was a very different story. The same three-test series had been emphatically won by the hosts and the tortuous, 10-match VB Series took the team around the country on another relentless whittling down of three teams to two. All the while, Kirsten was opening the batting against Glenn McGrath. The great fast bowler had his number early on and, although Kirsten didn’t always get out to him, he knew he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to score meaningful runs.
Ironically, in a sport in which players cry out for selection consistency, it was the fact that he knew he would be playing every game that wore Kirsten out. He needed a break, mentally more than physically, and he had the courage to admit it – though not to the team management. He was a senior player by then, too, which weighed even more heavily on his mind.
On the plus side, at least he wasn’t captain.
Watching England captain Alistair Cook over the last couple of weeks has been eerily like watching a frazzled Kirsten – only much worse. Haunted by the humiliation of the Ashes whitewash and hounded by the media, Cook’s batting has become uncertain and unreliable. If ever a man needs a break, it’s him.
Cricket has changed a lot in recent years, both on and off the field. But the examples of international captains voluntarily dropping themselves can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. So I guess he’ll battle on and attempt to regroup back on the family farm next month.
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