Kepler Wessels

He led them in from the cold, a modest man with a private face and a lion's heart. It is not how many times you fall down, he assured them, but how many times you stand up. His moral is that you must never give up.

And so, on such simple and strong virtues, Kepler Wessels has shepherded South Africa from a quarter of a century of numbing isolation to a position of honour and respect in world cricket. If, a decade ago, someone had told you that this Afrikaner, who was opening the batting for Australia at the time, would lead South Africa to victory over England at Lord's, you would have worried about their marbles. But there he stood, in the shimmering heat of an unlikely British July, his arms aloft in exultation. Not only had South Africa crushed England by 356 runs on their return to the home of cricket but their captain had made yet another careful, crucial century when his team had needed it most.

KEPLER CHRISTOFFEL WESSELS was born in Bloemfontein on September 14, 1957 and as a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, he learned the discipline and self-justification that were his people's hallmark. He was educated at Grey College and, though gifted at both boxing and tennis, he insisted on learning about cricket, a game not previously linked with the traditions of Afrikanerdom. His insistence intensified as a generation of South African heroes emerged in the late 1960s to embarrass Australia and threaten the world.

As a schoolboy prodigy - mentioned in the same breath as Graeme Pollock for his free and uncomplicated style - he sometimes found himself excluded from South African Schools teams in which he should have played. Then, with South Africa firmly exiled from Test cricket, he set his own course. He arrived at Sussex when he was only 18, and was there for five fruitful, if at times uncomfortable, seasons. But when he was barely past 21, he emigrated to Australia. The initial lure was Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket; the ultimate goal a place in the Australian Test team. It is important not to underestimate the extraordinary gamble that Wessels was taking. He had come from the most introverted part of an introverted country, where national pride burst from the chest of the revered rugby players. And this shy, slightly scared but extraordinarily ambitious 21-year-old cricketer just upped and left, with his cricket bat and his dream.

After a heady baptism under Ian Chappell in the cauldron of World Series Cricket, he settled in Brisbane and during his four years of qualification for Australia became, with Allan Border, the toughest nut in Queensland. When chosen to play in his first Test match in November 1982 at his adopted home ground, the Gabba, he responded to the jibes about his nationality by making 162 and driving Botham and Willis, heroes of Headingley 16 months earlier, to distraction. And there Wessels stayed, happy at heart amongst the bluntest Australians and a virtual ever-present in the Test team. And then three years later, as abruptly as he had arrived, he went, forced out of Australian cricket amid false accusations of recruiting for the rebel tour of South Africa. He flew back to South Africa, shaken but sad. He signed, against his better judgment, to play for the Australian rebels against the country of his birth, while at the same time taking on the captaincy of Eastern Province, leading a desolate team off the floor and in just three years taking them to the Currie Cup.

He was selected for South Africa against Mike Gatting's rebels, but was so badly received by the senior Springbok players who had stayed put through the years of isolation that he withdrew from the team, amidst accusations of being a quitter who wanted to have his cake and eat it. Just 21 months later he was shaking the hand of Mother Teresa and batting for South Africa in an official international match, in the improbable setting of Eden Gardens, Calcutta. He was his country's most valuable, most travelled cricketer and was rewarded as such when he was selected ahead of Clive Rice to lead the 1992 World Cup campaign.

From that day, to the announcement of his retirement from the captaincy last November, the boy from Bloemfontein has seen South African cricket through the most extraordinary years of their history. He has not been everyone's cup of tea; he can be aloof, unsmiling and, at times, unsympathetic, but his inspiration has been remarkable. In the Sydney Test in January last year, his team marvelled at his indifference to a hand so badly smashed that he sat in hospital with an anti-infection drip. His response was to push the shattered finger into a heavy splint, promote himself two places in the order and bat virtually one-handed to convince the boys that victory was possible. And, quite famously, it was - by five runs.

He is not a pretty batsman - the limpets to the crease rarely are - but he is an indispensable one. In defence, he sits on the ball, consuming it and extracting its venom with a dead bat or an obstinate pad. In attack, he nudges past point and square leg, only occasionally allowing a flourish through extra cover or, at his most rampant, a punch over mid-wicket. He is efficient but ugly; uninteresting but packed full of substance. When he came to the crease at Lord's, South Africa were a fidgety 35 for two; when he left it, minutes before the close, to a tired, uncharacteristic stroke, his team had responded to his spirit and his determination and were on course for their remarkable victory.

Confronted by innumerable obstacles, Kepler Wessels has hunted down his ambitions with a grim determination that has misled his detractors. That he does not see cricket as wildly funny is neither relevant nor realistic; he has given it his best shot, applying a conviction and resolution that most men could scarcely imagine. Throughout, he has endured as much criticism as praise but has always gutsed it out when others might have quit. "All through my career I have tried to beat the odds," he says. "I want to be remembered as someone who got stronger as the going got tougher."

© John Wisden & Co