Tue, 07 Jul 2020

Peter Kirsten's international career statistics cruelly say so, so little about his majesty. He was a pioneer of innovative stroke-play and would have revelled in T20.

Kirsten's fielding standards were a trigger for the likes of Jonty Rhodes to succeed him.

Every now and then, you have reason to feel genuinely blessed about something.

One of my most memorable sporting instances, in a life of increasingly weighty girth, involves Peter Kirsten.

The delightfully wristy, innovative, devoutly attack-minded stroke-player was my numero uno schoolboy cricket hero.

Little was I to know at the time - and you would have had to pinch me to convince me it would come to fruition - that in later years I would have plentiful dealings with the little maestro of the crease as a then-newspaper scribe on the game.

Best of all, really, I got to sit slap-bang next to my idol (at my other shoulder was a teenaged Morgan Mfobo from Langa, the genial, soft-spoken SA U19 squad off-spinner on his first ever flight out of South Africa) on the SAA Boeing 747 long haul to the Caribbean, and the country's poignant maiden post-isolation Test match against West Indies ... albeit preceded by three one-day internationals.

The tour had been very hastily assembled in the still early days of apartheid's official dismantling, and there was no filtering of the main national squad into business class on what was really a scheduled flight to New York with a large stop-off diversion to Kingston: oh no, they simply mixed quite randomly with general travellers, team supporters or journalists in "cattle".

During those many hours en route to Jamaica, my own tour for then-Argus Group reportage duties got off to an exhilarating start as "Kirsey" regaled me with his confessions of unbridled excitement about finally getting a personal opportunity to tackle the very best (West Indies were still right up there, then) at the most coveted level of five-day combat.

The Maritzburg-born cricketer was almost 37, don't forget, as he contemplated his grossly overdue Test debut against Messrs Lara, Ambrose, Walsh and company.

For in truth, this was a player who so clearly might (apologies, WOULD) have enchanted that landscape had it been possible to aspirant South Africans - whether from the "establishment" or non-racial cricket folds - from some 15 or 16 years before that.

Do not be deceived for one, single second by Kirsten's eventual, moderate Test career stats of 626 runs at an average of 31.30 from 12 appearances up to age 39 in 1994: they came way, way after his sparkling prime.

Even with his waning powers, it was wonderful to witness the gnarly veteran so swiftly confirm his relish for a scrap - just another quality to accompany the more aesthetically-pleasing ones at his craft - in the eventful second innings of the Bridgetown Test.

Having sensationally bossed it for most of the four preceding days, South Africa tumbled to a 52-run defeat in pursuit of a seemingly so gettable target of 201.

But at least Kirsten and another old dog in the fight, captain Kepler Wessels (fleetingly a Western Province team-mate many, many moons earlier) had posted a defiant near-century partnership for the third wicket, the right-hander's own 52 in a 168-ball vigil being second top score in what would turn into a rout of the lower order.

That innings alone left such a powerful sense of the proverbial "what might have been" in his heyday: I have no doubt Kirsten would have become the holder of plentiful South African Test batting landmarks.

Instead the baton was handed, in many respects, to his significantly younger half-brother Gary - left-handed and an entirely different animal in playing style and approach - in later years to carry the Kirsten name onward with pride, planet-wide.

On that note, I still vividly remember the day, too, when Gary was picked for his senior WP Currie Cup debut (1988/89), in a line-up also featuring seasoned Newlands legend Peter: on my amateur art-directing suggestion, The Argus ran a large photograph on the back page of the pair seated convivially on the older Kirsten's "coffin".

But my worship of Peter had begun around 1976, when I was 12, and he was an already booming presence in the WP team led by the indefatigable Eddie Barlow.

It was filled with characters - "Bunter" himself, Andre Bruyns, Hylton Ackerman, Gavin Pfuhl, "Houtie" Nieuwoudt, Denys Hobson, Peter Swart - and, with respect, some were not the nimblest or most finely-sculpted of athletes in those still largely amateur times.

Nor were they averse to a jug of hops and malt.

But that is where a slim, youthful and light-on-his-feet Peter Noel Kirsten bucked the pattern, in many respects.

WP's No 3 was hugely before his time for enterprise and constructive audacity: put it this way, he looked tailor-made for T20, for example, decades before it even took root.

Apart from possessing all of the most textbook shots - his cover drive was crisp, fluent and beautifully balanced, his pull usually very decisive - Kirsten struck me as a pioneer of "dabbing" craftiness, if you like.

He was able to soften his wrists, to improvise, in a jiffy: he was a master at causing mayhem for opposition field placings with his sizzlingly cheeky, last-minute adjustments to strokes, and his constant look-out for sharp singles into gaps.

Had he been active in current, white-ball cricket, I have little doubt either that Kirsten would have handsomely, comfortably employed the reverse sweep to a burgeoning degree.

Then there was his fielding: if Colin Bland was an illustrious predecessor for South Africa, and Jonty Rhodes a later, enormous icon of the trade, Kirsten was the sumptuous 1970s and '80s meat in the sandwich, if you like.

His reflexes and speed quite spellbinding as a predator of the cover or backward point region, he also kept expanding a reputation for effecting vital run-outs with his consistent ability to strike the stumps, often with just one of them in his line of sight.

That extra string to his bow amplified his ability as an all-round sportsman: he and the 102-cap Springbok fullback/centre Percy Montgomery, by the way, represent the finest ball-game products boasted by Newlands-based SACS High School.

Kirsten had been a hugely gifted schoolboy and student flyhalf, coming through roughly at a time when the country was also spawning such names in the berth as Gavin Cowley, Robbie Blair, De Wet Ras and soon afterwards Naas Botha.

He might feasibly have become as good as the others at first-class level, but for a serious knee injury that - an incalculable tonic for the summer pursuit, mind - led to his full-time devotion to cricket.

I sadly just missed out on seeing Kirsten's exploits at pivot, though someone like Herschelle Gibbs, whose versatile sporting career had many similarities, became a later, same-region reason for admiration and wonder in that regard.

But as a schoolboy I simply could never wait to get to Newlands after classes (a mercifully short, three-station journey from Mowbray on the suburban train) or at weekends, and more especially if there was a good chance Kirsten would be at the crease.

If Province were batting, I would crane my neck out of the window as the rattler slowed down ahead of the station - drivers and conductors used to stick their heads out for the score, too - desperately hoping to see the yellow-painted "KIRSTEN" sign high up on the middle of the manually-operated Memorial Scoreboard.

On the right meant, more regrettably, the "batsmen out" side.

Kirsten was particularly in his element in the 1976/77 season, I recall, when he lashed five centuries in six innings in a near Test-standard Currie Cup of the deep isolation years, including 173 not out and 101 in successive knocks during the home scrap with Eastern Province which I saw plenty of from the wobbly wooden scholars' benches in front of the Oaks enclosure.

"When Peter reached his fourth consecutive ton against Transvaal at Newlands his partner, Hylton Ackerman, knelt in the middle of the pitch in homage," wrote Cape sports-writing doyen AC Parker in his centenary-geared book of 1990 'WP Cricket: 100 not out'.

"Kirsten, who later was to excel also for Derbyshire in county cricket, blossomed into full flower as a stroke-player (that summer) who, for his slight build, imparted progressive power to his shots and was not afraid to hit over the top."

In some four years as dedicated cricket writer for The Argus from 1988, the period immediately up to and then including unity, I got to understand at close range what made Kirsten, then a hugely revered and experienced figure, tick.

He did a regular column for the popular Saturday editions of the paper for a while, and if WP were on an away trip and I was tagging along for the journey, he would sometimes scramble it in just ahead of deadline ... written on foolscap in ballpoint pen, and with yours truly occasionally dictating it to our beloved, gran-like copy typist Bubbles.

For someone whose grittiness - he wore rib bruises uncomplainingly for the cause - against the pace bowling of Mike Procter, Sylvester Clarke, Rupert Hanley and others was undyingly admirable, Kirsey seemed to have a surprising fascination more with the spin aspect of bowling attacks he encountered; many of his columns were devoted to that art.

Mind you, that may have been at least partly because he sent down extremely serviceable off-breaks himself if required as a "second" spinner to leggie genius Hobson for WP: he picked up 117 first-class wickets at an average of 40, and he was a good brake-puller on the scoring rate, sporting an economy rate of 2.73.

A vivid recollection whenever I shared the minibus with the WP team on upcountry assignments (ah, those were the days ... well ahead of more sanitised, guarded "media opportunities" with players) was of Kirsten sometimes piping up from a seat toward the rear: "You know, I have a good feeling about this match."

When those words came out, Kirsten would then have an uncanny knack of posting major runs, and usually in a Province triumph.

What pleased me the most about his lengthy, eventful career, was how - once again, remember, with halcyon days already distant - he nevertheless thoroughly illuminated South Africa's first World Cup in Australia/New Zealand in 1992.

Initially and unfathomably omitted from the provisional squad, along with equally miffed co-veterans Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook, Kirsten was later restored to the party ... and dramatically exposed the folly of the first move at the tournament where SA stirringly progressed to the semis despite their greenhorn team status at CWC.

The self-motivated character amassed 410 runs (average 68) at the event, third only to Martin Crowe and Javed Miandad, including innings of 49 not out against Australia at Sydney, 90 against New Zealand at Auckland, 47 against Sri Lanka at Wellington, 56 against West Indies at Christchurch, 62 not out against Zimbabwe at Canberra and 84 against India at Adelaide.

It is left to our imagination how he might have prospered, when obviously better geared to do so, at any of the 1979, 1983 or 1987 World Cups had that been possible.

Peter Kirsten, currently 65, has spent recent years imparting his vast knowledge of the game on the developing cause of Uganda.

In my mind, though, I'll forever be looking out of a train window on the Cape Town to Simonstown line, praying I spot that Kirsten sign situated centrally on a now non-existent Newlands scoreboard ...

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