The innings behind a good partnership

Deborah KirstenDeborah Kirsten was born in KwaZulu-Natal and is the daughter of Carol and well-known misionar organisation African Enterprise founder and team leader, Michael Cassidy. After school Deborah moved to Cape Town to study at University of Cape Town where she completed a bachelors degeree in primary education and then a masters in theory and philosophy of education. Despite a strong calling into the world of teaching, after meeting and then marrying South African cricketer and international coach, Gary Kirsten, Deborah opted for a more flexible career as a freelance journalist. Deborah's career in journalism led her to write her first book, Chai tea & Ginger beer.

This intriguing autobiography gives an honest look into her life and most specifically her journey being married to Gary. The book is written from Deborah's unique perspective as the wife of an international sportsman and coach. Although Gary and Deborah have had extensive time touring the world in the name of cricket, they now live in Cape Town with their three children, Joshua, James and Joanna.

Deborah loves painting in oils in her spare time and being with friends and family. Deborah is also an inspiring motivational speaker who engages extensively with many different audiences and is passionate about adding value and inspiring other women in their own journeys.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, she talks about the idea behind the catchy title of her book, Chai Tea & Ginger Beer, her tryst with a celebrity lifestyle and the Indian hospitality during Gary Kirsten's tenure as the coach of the Indian Cricket Team.

Chai tea & Ginger Beer is a catchy and romantic title. What was the idea behind this title for your book?
Well, when we were in the process of thinking about the title for my book, it wasn't very easy. Being a book, which had a lot of content on cricket, we were contemplating cricket-related titles such as An opening partner and Running between the wickets. However something didn't feel quite right with each of them. I realised that it was my story and I wanted the title to showcase my personality. Being a creative person who loves colours and photographs, I wanted that vivacity to come through the title and that which would intrigue people as well.

Chai Tea & Ginger Beer did manage to attract a lot of readers and there is a lot of significance behind this title.  Ginger beer is a soft drink made in our country from the roots of ginger and I have talked about that at the beginning of my book.  I wanted to symbolise that aspect of the book which talks about my roots and family - something that was important to me.

Tea is a significant aspect for South Africa as we are always raving about tea and Chai symbolises our journey in India and the warm hospitality that we received during our stay there when Gary was coaching the Indian Cricket Team.  So my title Chai Tea & Ginger Beer symbolised my roots as well as my travel within India.

The transition from a small town girl to the extravagant lifestyle of a cricketing celebrity must have provided that bubble, which was difficult to escape from. While one part of you, as you have mentioned in your book, enjoyed this bubble, another part of you longed for the 'normal' life. How did you deal with this conflicting aspect in your persona?
It's a constant struggle. You see on one hand there are many privileges that come with this celebrity lifestyle. You get to travel a lot and meet people of different sorts. Now for a person like me who loves travelling, that's a big bonus.

On the downside, it's a situation where you are constantly on your own most of the time even when you are travelling with your partner.  It becomes a struggle to manage the relationship as you are constantly apart. Even when you come back home, you are on your toes getting ready for another tournament. So there is very little structure to your life.

You also have to come to terms with the fact that you are leading a public life and that you are sharing your husband's time and attention with a lot of people. So there exists a lot of intrusion.  Added to which you are constantly living in a shadow of being so and so's wife which can leave you feeling undermined.

I think it's a struggle for any woman who is married to a celebrity. Even for women, whose husbands are required to travel frequently, it becomes difficult as the wives are often left to manage their homes and take care of the children, which can leave them feeling worthless, as being a homemaker is a thankless job.

I always feel that it's important to learn to be confident about your abilities, the person that you are and what you offer the world. The ability to do that helped me deal with this constant conflict that I was facing.

There is an interesting instance in your book, about how you and your family held on to each other dearly while crossing a torrential river in one of your childhood camping trips. Would you say that such instances taught you vital lessons on togetherness that helped you carry forward the same values and hold on to your marriage and kids during those tumultuous times?
Absolutely. In fact that's where the symbolisation of the roots aspect in the book is really strong.  I grew up with the faith that my parents gave me, seeing their strong marriage and being the close-knit family we were. 

Deriving strength from that, it certainly did help me tide over those tumultuous times in my marriage. I wanted to instill those same values and faith for my own family and children going forward.  So we inculcated small things like family holidays and dining together, which kept our ties strong in the long run.

You see, it's very easy to lead independent lives especially when you have a partner who is travelling frequently and hardly ever comes home. When you begin to lead separate lives, that's the sign that your marriage is heading towards a disaster. 

So you need to establish aspects that are important to your family and draw those boundaries to ensure that your marriage is intact.

Being a cricketer's wife must have come with its share of disheartening moments. One such instance was the mishap in 1999 ICC World cup match against Australia in the semi-finals, which ended in a draw and ousted SA from the finals.  You had mentioned how fans made some hurting remarks against Gary and he was even dropped after that in one of the series. How did you deal with this particular episode as a partner?
The life of an international sportsperson comes with its share of highs and lows as well.  That particular phase was a tough one as the South African team had worked very hard and were in great form. It was probably one of their best chances of lifting the cup so it was disappointing and disheartening for them.

But after a point, you realise and tell yourself that it's just a game and someone's got to lose. At the end of the day you do have a family to go home to.  So it's important to keep that perspective. As a partner you just have to keep giving them unconditional support, encouragement and keep believing in them even through their lean patches.

During your touring tenure, you had established some long-lasting friendships and acquainted yourself with wives of other cricketers like Bertha (late Hansie Cronje's wife) being one of them. Did the episode of Hansie Cronje, where 'his other life' came under public scrutiny, shake your faith in relationships and cricket as a sport?
I think it shook my faith in cricket a little bit. We were oblivious to what was going on and suddenly this ugly incident sort of gave us a wake-up call to this other world of murky elements. It left a really bitter taste in our lives. 

I had written in my book that it's sometimes dangerous to put people on too much of a high pedestal as they tend to forget they are human. But having said that, Hansie was a very close friend and he was caught at a very susceptible time.  You tend to get disappointed with a friend after such instances but forgiveness is a part of relationships and life goes on.

I wrote that particular chapter as a sort of atonement. I wanted readers to realize that Hansie was trying to pull back the strings post that incident and get back to normalcy. Not many people knew or realized that after that particular incident, Hansie did go through tremendous remorse and repentance. 

He was humbled and trying to rebuild his life back together. Just when he was doing so, we lost him forever in a plane crash. It was a real tragedy for all of us.

After life returned to normalcy post Gary's retirement, he was appointed as the coach of the Indian cricket team, which saw your family travel extensively in the subcontinent and live a large part of your days here. What were your and the children's challenges in adapting to a lifestyle, especially in a country where Cricket is considered a religion?
I think the biggest challenge was bringing my two children along when they were actually quite young, still. I was initially scared about their health as they may not necessarily possess the immunity, not having grown up in India. Food was another issue as both of them were not used to the taste of Indian curry. Every meal time became a sort of challenge but we found ways to accommodate them. However, the hardest part was the time apart from Gary.

Despite being with him, I still couldn't be with Gary all the time.  Travelling in long flights and within India was also a challenge but we somehow made it work. I had no idea that cricket was such a big thing in this country and I certainly wasn't prepared for that.  I remember that we would always have tight security around us especially while entering airports as we would be thronged by the crowds. It was initially scary, especially with my two children, but as I slowly learned to adjust, I began to enjoy my stay here and India became my second home.

Team India winning the world cup in 2011 under Gary's mentorship was a fairy-tale ending. What were your feelings at that juncture, seeing Gary being carried by the winning team?
It was probably the most overwhelming and ecstatic feeling. Gary had ensured that he created a very positive environment for the team which came through and was seen on the field. In fact we would watch every game, wearing our Indian jerseys, waving the Indian flags and that's what we became during the entire tenure of the world cup. 

That night was just unbelievable with celebrations in full swing. After the final match, families went up to the changing room and stayed there till 1 am posing for photographs. We then came back to the hotel where the celebrations continued.  It was sort of a mixed feeling for us  - happy as Team India won but sad as it was our last evening with the team and had to say goodbye.

Cricketers / sports-persons are usually the ones to pen down their autobiography.  Your book is the first in the category of being the autobiography of a cricketer's wife who is also an accomplished journalist. So what can readers across the world, especially in India expect from your book?
Well for Indian readers especially, I hope that they get a glimpse of our love for India and what it really means for us. I hope to add value to the lives of Indian people through my learnings as an individual.  We were given a lot of warmth and learnt a lot here. So Chai Tea & Ginger Beer is a sort of an ode to the hospitality we received during our stay here. 

For other readers, I hope that they get a glimpse behind the scenes of what Team India is all about and also be able to see the human side of sports personalities. Every single person who is put on a high pedestal has a story and it's important that people realize that we are all the same, going through similar feelings, emotions and thoughts. Most importantly, I really hope that readers find it an enjoyable read.

Lastly, what are your plans? What can we expect next from Deborah Kirsten? Any more books in the pipeline?
I would definitely like to write another book but I am not sure when it would come out. It was quite a hard journey coming out with Chai Tea & Ginger Beer especially with the young children still being in their formative stages. But let's see. I certainly hope to write more on India sometime.

(See: Excerpt from Chai, Tea & Ginger Beer)