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Kepler Wessels

When one researches cricket world records, you are bombarded with highest individual or team scores, or bowling achievements of 5 or more wickets, hattricks, or 10 wicket innings. These records are rightly so attained and held for long by stellar players; those that often bear down on or breach 100 Tests. To look at the other spectrum there are quite a few ‘mid-field’ record achieving players, perhaps even ‘1, 2, or 3 Test wonders’, such as Richie Benaud’s brother John, players easy to forget and forgive oneself when you do recall them.

Top of this list was one of my ‘superstar’ Australian idols when growing up in Melbourne and he wasn’t even for that part Australian, but South African by birth. Kepler Christoffel Wessels, with an extremely unorthodox left-handed batting stance, made his debut for Australia against England at Brisbane Cricket Ground (colloquially the ‘Gabba), on Nov 26, 1982. In doing so, he became the first South Africa born cricketer to play for Australia and 13th Australian to make a century on debut, with a cracking 162. At 12 years of age, anyone that makes a century on debut was a superstar in my book.

Saying this, in 1992 when the subject of a ‘World XI’ was discussed, Ravi Shastri smashed 206 at the SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground), and was Shane Warne’s first test wicket. My brother questioned why I didn’t have Ravi in my World XI, he had after all just scored 206. I argued, ‘just because a batsman scores a double century doesn’t make him one of the best batsmen in the world’.

Fast forward to Australia’s Tour of Bangladesh 2006 when Australian fast bowler Jason ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie scored 203 not out, as nightwatchman no less. Accident or otherwise, you wouldn’t select Dizzy as your number 3 on that performance. As it was, Dizzy was never selected again full stop; not even for his bowling, let alone batting!

So back to Kepler, whilst reaching three figures on debut for Australia is an incredible achievement, 6-months later he became the first international player to score a century in Sri Lanka, the island-nation only gaining test-status in 1982. Scoring test centuries was maybe not one of Kepler’s ‘young dreams’ as he had his eye on several sporting codes. Kepler was a natural sporting superstar, excelling at any discipline he turned mild-attention to. Though introduced to cricket at age 6 years, rugby union was his focus, and at aged 12 was selected to represent ‘Free State’.

When not scoring tries, Kepler kept his feet wet in the swimming pool and like rugby, was one the best nippers in Free State. Suffering near-death from nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys), his dad decided to hang-up Kepler's  Speedo's and Kepler switched his focus to cricket and tennis, the latter he played during rugby season. Winning many events and becoming South Africa’s #1 U16 player, Kepler was offered a 4-year tennis scholarship at Houston University. After losing a match and then his mental rag, he turned down the scholarship, quit tennis and made cricket his game… after scoring a century at aged 9 and earning selection for Free State U13’s.

At the age of 12, Kepler had a batting average for his school, Grey College, just shy of 260 after 9 innings. The run-fest continued for many years. He made his first cricket class debut for Free State at just 16 years and in 1978 Kepler was scouted by Kerry Packer to represent an Australian XI in World Series Cricket (WSC). Ian Chappell famously quoted when announcing Kepler would play for Australia, “Wessels is coming to play with us. If you don’t like it, score more runs than him.” Once WSC drew stumps in 1979, knowing there was no chance playing Test Cricket for South Africa because of apartheid, Kepler took up residence in Australia.

Playing for Queensland, Kepler qualified to play Test Cricket for Australia in 1982 when he surpassed ‘Kim Hughes’ as my number 1, with his 162 on debut. After what many ‘would-be’ Test cricketers would regard as a phenomenal test cricket career, filled with the dizzying heights and suicidal lows one may expect, Kepler wrecked my cricket summers by packing his bag and going home after the 1985/86 season. What’s worse, because Kim Hughes was on a Rebel Tour to South Africa in 1985/86, he too would never wear the Baggy Green again.

Following the end of apartheid and South Africa’s readmittance to international cricket in 1991, incredibly, at 34 years, an age when many Test Cricketers would be enjoying a long-retirement, Kepler was not only selected to play, but captain South Africa. In doing so he become the first player to represent two countries at the top-level; a world record Kepler holds alone! He was selected for his experience to lead a team that, for the foreseeable future, would be almost entirely debutants.

In their comeback Test against the West Indies in Bridgetown, Barbados in April 1992, Kepler scored 74 in the 2nd inning as South Africa lost by just 52-runs. Though falling short in Bridgetown, when Kepler scored 118 against India in Jo'burg in 1992 he became and remains the only player to score a Test century for two nations.

Kepler returned as South Africa Captain for the Australia summer of 1993/94, and when Australia toured South Africa for the first time since 1970; a series that ended 1-1. Perhaps a fitting result for a bloke that has played for both sides. After touring England, Kepler retired from Test cricket for the 2nd and final time in August 1994.

For someone of his unique sporting and cricketing ability, Kepler had a truly short and unremarkable career, but memorable for his rare achievements.  Kepler played 24 Tests for Australia and 16 Tests for South Africa with a combined 6 hundreds and 15 fifties at an average of 41. Not to rest on laurels, Kepler is now lawn-bowling with Belgravia Bowls Club and not surprisingly, has finished runner-up in the national championships… twice!


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