‘Rebel’ Kirsten doesn’t fit system

Some sportsmen are just plain rebels. The few brave but foolhardy men who tried to make James Small adhere to a code of conduct usually came second to the feisty Springbok winger, for example. He was a round peg and the hole was square. He bucked the system. He didn’t fit. But he was good.

Cricket has had its share of rebels, too. Recent examples might include Nantie Hayward and Neil Johnson, although they come from completely different ends of the rebel spectrum with one more likely to be concerned at the consequences of a disciplinary hearing and the other with manipulative and unfair small print in a playing contract.

And now the latest to flee the nest of South African cricket’s infrastructure is Gary Kirsten. Uuh? But ‘rebel’ is one of the least appropriate words imaginable to describe the former Proteas opener who became the first South African to win 100 Test caps during a first-class and international career that spanned 17 years.

Appointed less than a year ago along with former national team manager Tim Southey to run the High Performance Centre at the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, Kirsten has resigned to set up his own, independent coaching operation while Southey’s skills were appreciated by a multi-national corporation and he is now based in Karachi on a three-year contract.

The floundering High Performance programme is now in the hands of Allan Donald (who was never offered a contract when Kirsten was in charge despite Kirsten virtually begging for him to be appointed as an assistant) and Manager of Professional Cricket, Vince van der Bijl.

Kirsten was an inspiration to the 38 young players who passed through his hands and received tuition in the time he was in charge. He threw his heart and soul into the programme and dedicated hundreds of hours in behind-the-scenes planning quite apart from the thousands of hours of fitness, net sessions, diet, health, life-skills and mental conditioning.

No – Kirsten is no rebel. He may have had a mischievous streak to match that of any sports-loving student in his Varsity days but they are long gone. He is passionate about giving back to the game he loves so much and which allowed him to earn an income for 17 years.

So was he the problem, or is ‘the system’ the problem?

Never mind. Kirsten says it was always his intention to be his own boss and he always wanted to be a consultant to the United Cricket Board rather than an employee. He speaks of the ‘frustration’ and ‘handcuffs’ of the last year but of the ‘release’ and ‘freedom’ he has felt since establishing the ‘Gary Kirsten Cricket Centre’.

He is still based in Cape Town and he still runs his operation from the Sports Science Institute – except now he’s paying the rent out of his own pocket. A year ago he was told he couldn’t work with South Africa’s best players unless he was part of the system. But it’s a free country and individual choice and freedom of expression are enshrined in our constitution. Anyone and everyone is entitled to make use of Kirsten’s experience and skill. And they are already doing it…

Gary Kirsten is as much a national cricketing treasure as Allan Donald, and we almost lost him to England a couple of weeks ago. Amongst Kirsten’s intake of local students, all of whom have first-class experience, there is likely to be a considerable number of English boys taking advantage of the Cape’s fair weather and the superb facilities offered by the Sports Science Institute and the Western Province Cricket Club.

It will be an interesting test for the country’s national ‘system’ to see whether they offer an independent Kirsten the handshake of co-operation or the cold shoulder of rejection.

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