Friday, 28 December 2012

From Distant Lands to Derbyshire 6: Peter Kirsten

By any standards against which you care to judge, Peter Kirsten was an outstanding batsman for Derbyshire.

The dapper South African made his reputation after being brought to the club by Eddie Barlow and after hitting local bowlers and Second XI players all over the place in our second team, he had a couple of range-finding seasons at the club.

1133 runs at 36 came in his first season, then 1148 at 32 in his second. Neither statistic was especially impressive, though those who saw his double century against Glamorgan at Chesterfield in that debut season will never forget the innings. After taking his time over the first thirty or forty runs, Kirsten flayed a decent attack and was nigh impossible to bowl at. That became a feature of his game, in much the same manner as Dean Jones later. His first half hour to an hour at the crease saw him take stock of the bowling and conditions then, if he got through it, would unveil an array of strokes rarely seen before and seldom since.

To say that Kirsten played beautifully through the covers ignores the fact that he had shots around the wicket. Once he was in, his fast footwork made him a bowler's nightmare and the runs flowed from his bat. Between 1980 and 1982 he scored nearly 5,500 runs in championship matches ALONE, with successive averages of 63, 55 and 65. The great thing about him was that he always seemed in total control of the situation, aware of the required run rate and exactly what was needed to attain it. He could hit sixes, but timing and placement were cornerstones of his game and he always seemed beautifully balanced at the crease as only the best players do.

His partnership with John Wright was special, left and right hander, each aware of the other's strengths, good runners between the wickets and capable of putting away the bad ball at will. They were great summers to be a Derbyshire fan. We only had that Lords final of real importance, but there was some great cricket and spectacular batting.

On one visit to Chesterfield I asked my Dad, who had watched Derbyshire since the war, if he'd seen anyone like Kirsten.

"Not in Derbyshire colours" was his considered reply. "Maybe Compton would be the closest when he's in this mood," Praise indeed and pretty illustrious company.

He looked for a year's break at the end of 1982 and was refused. I understand that he wanted to get an increasingly troublesome knee sorted, but Derbyshire wanted him to play. Man management was never a strength at Derbyshire pre-Grant and Krikken and an outstanding cricketer walked away from the club forever.

That knee had restricted his useful off-spin bowling and turned an outstanding cover fielder into one who was only marginally less effective close in. Logic should have seen him given that year off, then he could have returned to the club refreshed and ready to batter more attacks into submission. More than a few around the circuit might have somewhat perversely enjoyed that, as they had to face instead a West Indian named Holding...

Peter Kirsten returned to South Africa and continued to score good runs, though never as heavily as in those golden years between 1980 and 1982. His career average finished in the mid-40s, good but again perhaps not fully indicative of the talent of the player at his best.

He was lucky enough to get a handful of Test matches at the tail end of his career, as his country was readmitted to the international fold. He let no one down and played some important innings, but international cricket came too late for Peter Kirsten. Five years earlier and he could have taken on all-comers, but the movement wasn't so swift by then and the innings as a result were more dogged than flamboyant.

Yet no one who saw Peter Kirsten at his peak will ever forget the sight. In his baggy cap and with a slight build he could have been mistaken for Bradman at the crease. His team mates recall a quiet man, especially in his early years with the side, one who rejoiced in the nickname 'Charles'. This was the end product of a moustache that they reckoned made him look like Charles Aznavour, the French ballad singer.

Aznavour at his best was good, but Peter Kirsten was special, really special. In the pantheon of great Derbyshire batsmen, I would probably put Kirsten and Dean Jones on a par, with Mohammad Azharuddin and John Wright close behind. In terms of international attainment you might need to revise that order, but Kirsten was a true Derbyshire 'great'

That was pretty good company to be in but Kirsten was a match for them all.

A wonderful player, without a doubt.

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