Stephen Gelb July 31, 2008

Kallis King

Kallis’ real problem is that he hasn’t ‘marketed’ himself well

I owe Fox a response to his observations on South Africa (with which I largely agree). But first I must pay tribute to Jacque Kallis. Recently I’ve been on a private little ‘Kallis watch’ as he approached 235 Test wickets, Sobers’ mark. His 3/31 yesterday took him to 236.

Kallis passed Sobers’ 8032 career runs ages ago, and now he’s above him on the wickets table. So Kallis is officially the top allrounder in cricket history.

I hope I have your attention now. Let’s discuss.

Sobers’ record was 93 tests, 160 innings (21 n.o.), 8032 runs at 57.78 with 26 hundreds, 30 fifties, best 365*. His 235 wickets were at 34.03 runs each, one every 91.9 balls (surprisingly high), best 6/73, 109 catches.

Kallis to date: 122 tests, 205 innings (33 n.o), 9681 runs at 56.28, 30 hundreds, 47 fifties, best 189*, SR 43.9. Plus 236 wickets at 31.25, strike-rate 66.8 balls, best 6/54, and 127 catches. After 93 tests, Kallis had slightly fewer runs than Sobers – 7337 – and a lot fewer wickets – 189, but averaged 56.87 and 31.6.

Strikingly similar records. On the crude test of all-round ability – batting average minus bowling average – Kallis just shades it, 25.03 to 23.75, but they’re both way above all other contenders. Over such long careers, the numbers surely don’t lie. Kallis is as good as Sobers was.

Yet this is never acknowledged – Kallis seems as unloved amongst fans and ‘fundis’ alike as Sobers is loved and revered. His failings are repeated so often they’ve taken on the status of ‘facts’.

a. Cheap runs against minnows: Excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Kallis’ average drops, but only to 53.6. But look at Sobers through the same lens: excluding India, Pakistan and New Zealand (the minnows of the time), he drops to 53.1. (Even Bradman suffers, averaging ‘only’ 89.8 against England, his only non-minnow opposition.)

b. Shirks his bowling duties: It beats me how people know that Kallis is reluctant to bowl – I’ve never heard anything like this over a stump mike or from a commentator. Somehow the idea took root. For the record, his 21.7 overs per test as 5th bowler doesn’t compare too badly with, say, Flintoff’s 31.3 overs as 3rd or 4th bowler – only 5 overs per innings fewer. And since Kallis has also been SA’s batting mainstay almost from day one, one could argue that bowling him a little less has shown (surprisingly) good resource management by South Africa. Perhaps that is why he was able to bowl 15 overs today at age nearly 33.

c. Bats for himself, not the team, and is slow/boring: I have often been frustrated watching Kallis, especially in ODIs, just wanting him to get on with it. Yet his ODI strike rate is over 70 and one feels he has carried South Africa to victory with a few balls to spare innumerable time. He has 29 ‘Man of the Match’ awards in 274 matches. Ricky Ponting’s strike rate is 80 with 28 ‘Man of the Match’ awards in 301 matches.

But this is the main point: Kallis is not Ponting or Lara or Sehwag. He is not Viv Richards or Barry Richards or indeed Garry Sobers. He came into the South African team when ‘90 for 5’ was our all-too-regular scoreline. In his seventh Test, he had to bat all day against a full-strength Australian attack in Melbourne to save the match. This is how his playing personality was shaped. Kallis took the approach of Rahul ‘The Wall’ Dravid, the path of Steve Waugh, not Mark – eliminating risk, protecting his wicket, allowing others to bat freely by being ‘Mr Reliable’. Calling this selfish is to misunderstand the interplay that cricket imposes between team needs and personal goals. Calling it slow or boring is to ignore one of cricket’s delights, the inch-by-inch battle for domination, as different from the Lara or Sehwag approach as trench warfare is from mounted charges, but no less enthralling. Criticising Kallis for not batting like Lara is like criticising Thelonius Monk for not playing piano like Duke Ellington – it is beside the point.

Kallis’ real problem is that he hasn’t ‘marketed’ himself well. Steve Waugh and Rahul Dravid are rightly revered for their role and contributions – but Kallis is Waugh together with Jason Gillespie in a single player, Dravid and Javagal Srinath rolled into one. He deserves his spot up there with Sobers.