When Gary Kirsten batted for 14 and a half hours on the final two days of the Boxing Day Test against England 12 years ago, he wasn’t just trying to save the Test match – he was trying to save his career.
South Africa’s selectors were even more ageist back then than they are now and, when a batsman hit his first bad patch beyond his 30th birthday, he could expect serious discussion and debate concerning the axe. As Kirsten did.
He resolved to explore depths of his determination never before visited but, crucially, emerged on the fourth morning with a calmer demeanour than he had ever taken to the crease before. He accepted his fate. He came to terms with the fact that he would be dropped and would find it extremely difficult to ever be given a second chance. Unlike those who were regarded as ‘entertaining’ and ‘match-winners’, Kirsten was a mere foot soldier.
It was only after that career-defining innings of 275 that he truly blossomed. His career lasted another five years and he played, without question, his very best cricket. His career also ended on his own terms, with victory in his final Test match against New Zealand in Wellington.
So when Kirsten spoke at the close of play on the third day, he did so from the heart: “It’s an opportunity for someone to do something very special for their country. We need a hero. We are in a deep hole and we need to dig ourselves out of it. We have done it before, and we can do it again.”
The difficulty for the likes of Jacques Rudolph, Ashwell Prince and Mark Boucher is that a white-knuckled, intense determination is unlikely to help them as they contemplate the dreadful, personal consequences of failure in the second innings. Instead, like Kirsten did at the end of 1999, they will be better served by coming to terms with the reality that all good things come to an end. Their best chance of ensuring that it doesn’t happen will be to be at peace with their fate when they walk out to bat sometime in the next two days.
Hard to do, of course. But they will also do well to remember that their predicament is not as a result of failure in the first innings. It goes back a bit further than. A couple of years in the case of Prince and Boucher, but just three Tests in the case of Rudolph. Still, it’s a tough and unforgiving game. The beautiful thing for all three is that they have a chance to put it all right again.
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