The fighter in Kepler Wessels will never die
The former South African captain and Australian batsman is using the qualities that defined him as a cricketer to help him in his next life challenge … all while trying to outgrow them
Port Elizabeth, 2014. It is far too early for Kepler Wessels to be awake, but the jetlag after flying from Australia has hit again. He rises from his bed silently, deciding to do the same thing he does every time he seeks focus in his life. He climbs into his car, and drives to the gym.
"It was the middle of winter," he remembers. "Pitch black outside."
As he approaches one of the city's less salubrious thoroughfares, his nerves jangle. The darkness and the quiet make him uncomfortable. At the last moment, he chooses to detour around the block. It is a serious mistake. On the back street, just metres ahead, an old car tyre wobbles drunkenly onto the street. A second later, it bursts into flames. Wessels slams on the brakes. His eyes dart left as he detects more motion; four men, each carrying a rock the size of a bowling ball, are walking steadily towards him.
"And bang – they just let rip," he says. "It was like gunshots hitting the car."
The front windscreen and side windows shatter, but the rock aimed directly at his head skims off the roof of the car. Amid the mayhem, he stays calm, the byproduct of a life spent making instinctive, split-second decisions under duress. He swings the steering wheel towards his attackers, and pushes his foot on the accelerator. He yanks the wheel again – hard – a vicious swerve around the blazing tire, and he is gone.
"If the rock that came through my front windscreen hit me," he says, "and they managed to stop me, I was dead."
He drives on into the empty road ahead, shaken and afraid.
Moments later, a feeling of relief courses through his body. He has lived to fight another day.
Kepler Wessels is training within the walls of a quiet old building on a straight, flat street in Brisbane. The gym is a virtual relic compared with the many sleek new fitness centres in the revamped suburb of Teneriffe. Three small steps off the footpath, a set of glass doors is framed by a red-brick façade that melds into the attached dwellings either side. Through the doors, past the punching bags, and beyond the wrestling mats, Wessels sits on a bench. His face is lined with the creases of age and toil. His nose is pushed a little to one side, and his dark eyes look out at the world critically from under a protruding brow. Beside him is an elevated boxing ring. Sitting across from him, on another bench, is a Sudanese-Australian man. He is muscular, lean and all of 25. They sweat.
"He's good," says the younger man, nodding toward his sparring partner. "He's got the old-school, technical boxing skills."
Wessels' right knee aches from the long-term effects of six surgeries. But it is the prospect of a seventh that is troubling him most. He had an accident a year ago. He was doing commentary work in Dunedin when he slipped and fell. Immediately he knew he was in trouble, because as fresh as the pain was, the feeling was familiar. This was the knee he had diligently rebuilt through years of work in the gym. Now he had ripped the anterior cruciate ligament – an injury that typically requires a knee reconstruction and a nine-month recovery.
But there is little typical about Wessels. Instead of following the regular course, he battled on, desperate to avoid the reconstruction and the inertia he knew would follow. For three months after the fall, he struggled to sleep. Then a highly-regarded surgeon in Brisbane validated his stubbornness, telling him: hang tough for as long as you can, because when you do go under the knife, it will be for a full knee replacement. Wessels has taken the news as a stay of execution, convincing his mind to ignore what his body keeps telling him. It is a daily internal struggle, for which there might not be a winner.
"I must admit, some days I just think, I have to go and get it done," he says. "I mean, I can't run – at all."
The operation is common for people his age, the general long-term prognosis good. But for a man who does the things Wessels does – lives as he does – a resumption of normality is more of an unknown. Deep down, he accepts surgery is only a matter of time. But for now, he is doing what he can to keep it at bay. Because walking away from life as he knows it strikes fear into his soul.
"Everyone tells me I won't be able to do what I'm doing now," he says. "That's what scares me."
Wessels climbs back into the ring for another round with his young counterpart, the briefest of breaks over. He is 60, but age has done nothing to dull the drive that pushed him to play 40 Tests across two separate international careers. His seven-days-a-week fitness regimen is far removed from the workouts of most middle-aged men: four jiu jitsu sessions with a karate world champion; weights and cardio training; and regular mixed martial arts and boxing sessions with fighters born after he retired from Test cricket.
"I think it's a bit stupid sometimes," he says of the sparring. "I'm not saying I'm going to get the better of these guys, but if I can make them work a little bit, then that's good."
He was introduced to boxing during his national service as an 18-year-old in South Africa, and later used the art to prepare himself for combat with West Indies teams of the 1980s and early 1990s. It became a key plank of his existence. At Brisbane's Railway Institute gym, where he fought a few amateur bouts in his 20s, he honed his reflexes and evasion skills. But there was more to it. The training built a warrior mentality he took to the crease.
"Boxing helped me because I knew, physically, I wasn't scared to get hit," he says. "My mind-set was that I'd rather get hit than get out."
The strategy worked. Of all the batsmen in his era to take on those Caribbean pace batteries, he was one of only five to make 500-plus runs at an average above 40. Another of that group, Allan Border, has known Wessels since they first played together for Queensland in the summer of 1980-81. The two remain friends.
"He hasn't changed too much – there's still that intensity," Border says. "The boxing and the training, it's just part of him. He loves it so much that he's not prepared to make concessions to age.
"So he just keeps hauling himself around in pain."
There are motives behind the pain that go back half a century. His father, a renowned surgeon in the Afrikaner community in Bloemfontein, set certain standards for his three children.
"Because we didn't want for anything (financially), we had a responsibility to really do our best, in whatever it was – academically, sport-wise," he remembers.
"I took that to the next level."
A young Kepler excelled in swimming until he suffered from nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys that ended those aspirations. He spent seven weeks in bed, endured three months of inactivity, and was advised to switch sports. By 16, he was the top-ranked tennis player in his age group in South Africa. He was also a brilliant young cricketer, playing well ahead of his years and excelling at Grey College, one of the country's elite schools.
"I wanted to be at the top level in whatever I was doing," he says.
More than four decades on, he still needs to push his limits. To discover what his best can be at 60. Through the undulations of life, it is the piece of advice that has stayed with him, forever relevant.
"I think I'll always have pride in performance," he says. "When I start thinking I'm useless, then …"
He doesn't finish his thought, perhaps because he doesn't know how it ends.
Kepler and his wife, Sally, have been together since 1979. Sally runs a psychology practice north of Brisbane and Kepler jokes that as "a lost cause" he is a bad advertisement for her business. His passion for the fighting crafts is not shared. "When it comes to all this combat stuff," he says, laughing, "she's like, 'you're crazy'." Yet there is a deep understanding; Sally knows her husband better than anyone, and the parts that make him up. When he opts out of their once-regular walks together because his knee is aching, or sleeps with a pillow between his legs to quell the pain, she worries about what lies ahead as much as he does. As a still-motivated professional, she also empathises with her husband. The word 'retirement' does not come easily to them.
"Kepler would really find that hard," she says when the subject is raised. "He loves his training. It makes him feel good, and it's good for his spirit. It's a big part of who he is."
She also knows what pushes him forward, past the pain and the disappointments and the frustrations.
"He's got a real drive to be better than he was yesterday," she says. "That's what it comes down to."
But that's also the problem. Wessels is starting to wonder if he can still improve. He focuses his energy on mastering jiu jitsu, on the elements that are less taxing on his body and based more on technique. Afterwards, the movements make his knee feel loose and comfortable; it's another justification for his relentless schedule.
"I think if I stopped, mentally I wouldn't be good," he says.
He tells a story about the last time he got knocked out, four years ago in Port Elizabeth. He was sparring with a young MMA fighter who had a bout approaching. The preparation had gathered intensity, and there was a sweaty overflow of testosterone in the air.
"We were going hard," he says. "I went to throw a bomb down the middle. But he's very good, this kid."
The youngster saw it coming. He evaded the punch and replied with an overhand right. Wessels walked straight into it. He woke up on the canvas nursing a broken nose, his left eye already swelling and the pain beginning to take hold.
"And I knew when I got home I was going to be in even more trouble," he says, grinning.
Sally was none the wiser for a week; the arrival of a new grandchild had proven the perfect distraction.
"I'm thinking 'beautiful, I've got away with this'," Kepler says. "Then she switched on the television."
There was Kepler at the cricket, casually explaining to viewers the origin of his black eye.
He laughs as he recounts the story, reveling in what he views as the lighter side of a sport he has seen bring out a darkness in people. He entered this world three years earlier, when Chris Bright, an MMA fighter in South Africa, asked him to join his stable as a boxing trainer. Wessels was skeptical at first. He had a long loyalty to the sweet science, and wasn't sure the two could co-exist in his life. But he was quickly drawn to the intensity of the action, and the depth of the skills.
"I used to think, 'these guys, if you whack them once, all their ground stuff will go out the window'," he says. "That was until the first time someone put me on my back."
Now he watches fighters work through a range of emotions in the weeks leading into a bout. He witnesses the mental effect of six hours of organised daily torture, and an eight-kilogram shed in the 48 hours before weigh-in. On fight nights, he has physically held down the arms of the youngest fighters in the tense final minutes before their bout, such is the violence with which they can shake.
"They go through different phases," he says. "They can get real dark."
He hears fighters question themselves: Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through it? And it is all strangely familiar to him. They are the questions he now asks himself, whenever he lets his mental guard drop, and invites the doubts to creep into his mind. His answer is the same as it has been for years, ever since his ravaged body began preventing an alternative.
"You just bite down on the mouthguard and move forward," he says. "That's how I operate now."
From high school days, he has been an outsider. Then it was as an Afrikaans-speaking kid at an English school. The Bloemfontein boy with the prominent nose and chin was an easy target. His cricket ability only stood him out for further scorn. Besides, his kind were only supposed to play rugby. He was constantly bullied. Mean-spirited peers trying to crush an unbreakable spirit. It had the opposite effect. As he built his reputation, he began breaking down barriers.
"Guys bouncing the shit out of you, telling you that you didn't belong – that fueled the passion inside," he says. "To break into cricket from the Afrikaans community, I was the first one really to do it. It wasn't easy."
Wessels learned that to be successful, he needed to shield himself from the slings and arrows. He was plenty tough, but he was also a young man seemingly forever on the periphery of someone else's world, and so the doubts and insecurities bounced around in his mind. He couldn't provide his opponents with a window into his private burdens. So he built a psychological wall.
Sally sees it still, in the dramatic contrast between the Kepler she loves and the one the world knows.
"He doesn't put that on … he became like that because he had a lot of hardships during his career," she says. "You look back on it nowadays, you could quite fairly say he was subjected to quite a lot of racial discrimination.
"So he found quite young that if he wanted to survive it, he had to be tough."
The evolution continued in Australia, where Wessels landed in Sydney and began working as a labourer. He played club cricket on the weekends and was sledged mercilessly. It was a new world to him, a place where the habits and the humour of the local men rubbed against his own. The friction was too much. So he gave himself an ultimatum, and chose the hard road.
"I had one of two choices," he says. "I either had to stand up to it, or I was going to have to do something else."
Border remembers the young Wessels as quiet and intense. By the time he debuted at Queensland, he had already played for Australia in World Series Cricket. The unknown South African signed by Kerry Packer had earned subtle nods of approval (though not acceptance) around the country when he scored 126 against a West Indies side boasting Roberts, Croft and Garner. He was ungainly with the bat, and introverted in the dressing room.
"There's a very serious side to the Afrikaners," Border says. "They're very strong characters, very respectful and pretty quiet.
"I think coming to Australia for Kepler was a bit of a culture shock. Just our irreverence, the taking-the-piss humour – he took a while to understand how all that worked. If someone was taking the piss out of him, initially he would take it personally, get a bit aggro about it.
"Eventually he realised it's just our way."
Soon enough he found his place in the Queensland dressing room. With his teammates, he started returning the ribbings. He remembers his seven seasons there as the most enjoyable of his career. He excelled with the bat to the point that he became one of Border's most trusted lieutenants in both the state and national teams. He also developed his skills as a pugilist, sparring with professional fighter Steve Aczel and taking on Australian Hall of Famer Hector Thompson in an exhibition at Brisbane's Festival Hall.
Yet even as he settled into the domestic cricket set-up, Wessels found reasons to keep his guard up. In the era, he was a cultural oddity of sorts – a non-Australian playing for Australia. His nationality also tethered him to Apartheid and all the politics associated with it. In his first radio interview in Australia, he asked the reporter to limit his questions to cricket. He agreed, before immediately asking about Apartheid live on air. When then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser refused to shake his hand at an Australia team reception in Canberra, his fears that he remained an outsider in the eyes of many from his adopted country were confirmed.
"I was a bit upset by that," he says. "I could understand it, but it was uncomfortable."
Owing largely to his heritage, Wessels was linked to the South Africa rebel tours of the mid-1980s. People in high places had put two and two together, and tallied five. When it came time to renew his contract, he was offered a pittance compared with what he had been earning, despite a golden home summer against West Indies. He felt disrespected. Twenty-four times he had worn the Baggy Green, yet he couldn't escape the thought that he was still being treated as an interloper. Worse still, people had questioned his loyalty.
"When I played for Australia, I fiercely wanted to win," he says. "I was proud to be playing for Australia."
That was the context in which Wessels returned to South Africa. As a consequence, he and Border fell out amid heated words. While any bitterness between them has long since been forgotten between friends, the choice still haunts him more than 30 years on.
"That decision has always stayed with me," he says. "It's something that doesn't sit comfortably.
"It's always a dilemma in my mind, still unresolved."
Later, Wessels captained his native country in the post-Apartheid era. His tenure was stressful and difficult given the political climate, as well as his own playing history. He led his nation with the same fierce intensity he had always known, but it was against the will of many in his homeland, who had wanted veteran Clive Rice installed as captain. It was another arduous period in his life, another time he found himself an outsider.
The wounds became scars, and revealed themselves in different ways. He advised against his son, Riki (who still plays with Nottinghamshire), from pursuing a cricket career, suggesting he focus on other sports in which he wouldn't have to deal with the baggage his surname carried.
"He knew what the slog was, and what it entailed," Riki says. "Ironically, coming from him, he was more just 'play sport and enjoy it – if something happens, it happens'."
Sally remembers Riki coming home from his first-ever grade match, when he was barely into his teens. He had been hurt by insults and bullying from men two and three times his age. Kepler's advice came in the form of the same ultimatum he had given himself decades earlier.
"He said, 'Listen mate, if you want to play in the big leagues, you have to suck it up – that's what's going to happen'," Sally says. "'So either deal with it or don't deal with it, but that's the way it is'."
The café is a bare-bones establishment fronting a Crossfit gym on the same straight, flat Brisbane street. From the seats outside, Wessels can see his gym, across the road and maybe 40 metres to his left. He orders a coffee with one eye on the clock. Another sparring session awaits. This time it is a series of short rounds with two other men, both half his age. One is preparing for a boxing bout. In another life, he considers, it might have been him. He sips his coffee.
"I think the mindset for it, I probably had," he says of the fighting life. "I definitely would've liked to have done it. But it's tough stuff. Short career."
Wessels insists he has mellowed with age. That he has found perspective and learned, as Sally puts it, "to not sweat the small stuff". As the distance has grown from his cricket career, a lightness he had forgotten existed has bloomed within. He is smiling and laughing more readily. It is a long way removed from the 25-year-old version of himself, for whom a poorly struck cover drive in the nets would be punished with another thousand balls. He doesn't allow himself to get "frantic" like he once did, though exercise as a stress reliever remains vital.
Watching his son play does not relieve the stress. Though he follows his career closely, he refuses to tune in when Riki is at the crease. He fears putting himself through the same anguish he felt when he lost his wicket as a player.
"I know all the things that can go wrong," he says by way of explanation. "Those first 20 runs are agonising."
Both men concede they are polar opposites. Ricky's optimism and happy-go-lucky attitude is reflected in his carefree batting style. Kepler, conversely, could cut a tortured figure at the crease, the product of an inner-desperation that at once crippled and made him. He is aware of his son's positivity, as well as his own anxiousness, and knows the latter can override the former. So he keeps his thoughts to himself. Nonetheless, Riki sometimes senses it in their conversations.
"At times I feel like he's almost re-living his career through mine, which makes it quite tough for him," he says. "He feels the pain of me failing more than I probably do.
"He remembers what it was like for him."
Riki and his sister Rebecca, together with Sally, have been struck by a recent crack that has appeared in Kepler's wall. It comes in the form of three – and soon-to-be four – grandchildren. Against the smiles of his children's children, he is defenceless.
"He was tough with me at times, and even now he still can be," Riki says with a smile. "But whatever my kids do, no matter how badly they've behaved, he says they're allowed to. I don't know where that was when I was growing up."
Sally has always been privy to a genuine kindness in her husband. She knows the man behind the mask, who cannot cook to save himself but prides himself on making her the perfect cup of tea. She remembers his parents, both long since passed, as warm, musical people who danced and sang. They were people who couldn't walk past a stray animal without taking it in. The descriptions fly in the face of the public perception of her husband, but she knows the other side, and finds comfort in the traits handed down to him, as well as his older brother and sister, with whom he remains close.
Each December Sally and Kepler travel to England to visit Riki, his wife and their two children, Jackson and Gracie. Around the family, in cricket's northern off-season, Kepler feels less pressure. He allows himself to relax. They make a fuss of Gracie's birthday and celebrate Christmas as a family.
"If there's no cricket involved, he's a completely different person," Riki says. "He still gets up at six o'clock and goes to our local gym – he has to do that – but he's definitely a lot softer."
The gradual changes are an encouraging sign for both he and Sally as he moves towards a time when he will be more physically restricted. It is all beginning to remind him of the end of his cricket career. He was 41 when he accepted that his body could no longer handle the rigours of the first-class game. But he had a plan in place, because he knew without it, he would struggle to cope. Now the idea of downscaling his daily regimen is constantly floating around in his head. Already he finds himself frustrated when he is dominated by a younger counterpart in a sparring session. He tries to be philosophical about it. "It happens to us all," he says. "We're all going the one way." But another part of his brain wishes he could stop time. Or rewind it.
"He is very concerned about it," Sally says of the next phase in their life. "He always likes to have a challenge. I think he'll make sure he puts himself in a position to replace it with something useful; he's someone who can't just do nothing."
The wheels are already in motion. A month ago, Wessels stood in the corner for Chris Bright's final MMA bout, against an American in Cape Town. In the pounding madness of it all, he felt alive. He barked frantic instructions, and wiped sweat and spit and blood from his charge's face. The hands-on involvement sated his competitive appetite. In Brisbane later this month, he will do it again. If he cannot fight himself, this is perhaps the next best thing. It is not difficult to imagine him there, a wise head amid the maelstrom of adrenalin and violence, dishing out words of inspiration a la Mickey Goldmill in the Rocky movies.
"The old guy in the corner," he says, smiling. "That'd be nice."
His coffee cup is empty. He takes off his reading glasses, folds them away into their case. He still cannot see his future but the blurry outlines are slowly becoming clearer. He knows he will never retire to his couch, just as he knows he has wisdom to impart, just as he knows it is the fighting that draws him in. He understands how those young men feel, questioning their missions, arms shaking before they enter the ring. He sees himself in their struggles. Nobody, he says, is born brave. Somewhere along the line, it is a choice that is made. He made it himself. Now he can help others find the fighter inside.
"I don't believe anybody who says they're not a little bit scared when they step into the ring," he says. "It's definitely something you have to force yourself to do."
He won't accept that a knee replacement equates categorically to the end of the line. The outlook is bleak for a return to the sort of physical action his mind demands, but Riki's optimism is rubbing off. Today, Kepler is embracing the prospect of being an outsider.
"I'll see what I can do when the surgery is done," he says. "I don't know if anyone has tried to do what I want to do. So I'll have a go."
With that, he stands. He picks up his bag, walks out of the café, and crosses the street diagonally towards the gym.
His left leg swings a little more freely than his right.
His focus is fixed firmly on what lies ahead.