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January 15, 2012

South Africa cricket

Is Kallis the greatest of them all?

Michael Jeh
Jacques Kallis is thrilled with his second double-century, South Africa v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 2nd day, January 4, 2012
He bats, he bowls, he catches ... and he does it all with proficiency  © Getty Images
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As someone who loves just about everything about South Africa, whenever the conversation turns to anything remotely resembling Africa, I'm all ears. I love the bushveld, the people who forge uncompromising and hard lives in that terrain and the attitude of the modern South Africans who have afforded me understated warmth and friendship. My experiences of its rainbow people make me far from a neutral in writing this article - let me state upfront that I'm one of South Africa's most vocal tourist ambassadors. So, loyalties declared, here's my thesis: is Jacques Kallis the King?

This piece was prompted by a conversation I had last night with some of my best mates, Australians all of them, skilled cricketers who have played at a very high level and not usually prone to handing out accolades lightly. It all started with the predictable conversation about whether the great Indian batsmen of the current era were past their prime or not, and it then morphed into equally predictable comparisons between Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. Being knowledgeable cricketers themselves, this debate, pleasantly interrupted by the peeling of giant prawns, was an intelligent and mature discussion, free from the usual jingoistic limitations that can sometimes spoil these moments.

All the great batsmen mentioned above are exactly that - no real argument as to their calibre. We added Kumar Sangakkara to that list, along with honourable mentions for the likes of Matthew Hayden, Mahela Jayawardene, Steve Waugh, Kevin Petersen and numerous others who are clearly fine players but just out of that exclusive bracket mentioned in the previous paragraph. When we tried to actually pick our most valuable player from among those batsmen, I was delighted to hear a strong consensus pushing for Kallis as the greatest of them all.

It's almost heresy to have this sort of debate and even mention anyone but Tendulkar as the top man. I'm a great admirer of the Little Master, on and off the field, so it's more a compliment to Kallis than a slight to Tendulkar that we even considered Kallis in the same breath. We just came to the conclusion that in all aspects of the game, Kallis is the most under-rated cricketer to have ever played the game.

The comparisons naturally turned to Sir Garfield Sobers. None of us could remember watching him play, so we were relying on legend and folklore passed down from our fathers. Again, a bit like Tendulkar, it is apparently a crime against cricket to compare any allrounder against Sobers but, fuelled by prawns and oysters, we were prepared to crunch the numbers. And we still stuck to our estimation that Kallis should be remembered amongst the top two or three cricketers to have ever played the game.

His batting average, over a long career, is as good as it gets, barring The Don of course. It is his all-round game though that puts his achievements into context. When you add 20000-odd international runs, 500-odd wickets and over 300 catches (most of them in the slips), you really get a sense of Kallis' mental strength. For most of his career, he has carried South Africa's batting. Tendulkar has done it to some extent but he had some great allies all through his career, from Mohammad Azharuddin to Sourav Ganguly to Virender Sehwag, Dravid and VVS Laxman. Ponting's genius, too, is undisputed but most of his career has been alongside other prolific and dominant batsmen, as well as a bowling unit that frequently ensured he was playing from a position of strength. Make no mistake - Ponting's innings often set up those situations so it is not meant as a criticism, merely an acknowledgement of his era in the baggy green. Brian Lara was arguably the one who had to carry more than even Kallis' burden singlehandedly and his place among the cricketing gods is secure but crucially, he didn't bowl.

It's the bowling workload that clinched it for Kallis, in our opinions. Operating in the 135-140kph range for much of his career, concentrating hard at second slip in between and then batting at number three must have been an amazing burden on his mental and physical state. To his credit, he has rarely had an extended period out of the game through injury. His durability alone makes him worthy of the tag of "greatest cricketer of all time".

His detractors will point to a relatively low scoring-rate and the perception that he may not have changed the course of a game with a breathtaking assault on a bowling attack, in the way that Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting have. Fair point, but this was also a man who contributed with the ball. His impact on a game of cricket may have been more subtle but no less valuable only because it was a slow-burn fuse.

Comparing him to Sobers' Test record, the stats alone make it hard to split them apart. I could not determine Sobers' strike-rate but despite the romantic memories of yesteryear, I wonder if he scored much quicker than in the modern era. He would probably have scored quicker than Kallis' strike-rate of 45, but how much quicker? In terms of hundreds and fifties, Kallis has scored 96 in 150 Tests, at a rate close to 66%. In other words, he makes a score 50 or more in two out of three Tests that he plays in. Sobers has a similar rate, perhaps slightly lower. In 93 Tests, he got to 50 or more on 56 occasions. Not a whole lot separating them here.

On the bowling front, Kallis' strike-rate is significantly higher than Sobers, 68 compared to 91. Kallis is also a shade ahead on average: 32 versus 34. Their catching records are equally impressive, more than one catch per Test. So Kallis loses nothing in comparison on a purely statistical basis.

You could argue that Sobers played in an era when there was a lot less cricket played, therefore opposition teams were a lot fresher. Fair point but that argument works both ways. Sobers himself would have been less fatigued. You could argue that as a batsman, Sobers played in an era before the third umpire replays were in operation, therefore, if umpires honoured the tradition that benefit of the doubt goes to the batsman, he might have escaped the odd close decision that Kallis did not survive. The standard of fielding is generally accepted to be much higher in the modern game but that is probably balanced out by the smaller boundaries and better cricket bats that Kallis has enjoyed. You can reverse those arguments when talking about their bowling records.

A few hundred prawns the wiser, we moved on to more important topics like which one of us had behaved more disgracefully on past cricket tours and which one of us was the worst player among our group of friends. I won the latter category with some ease - there was no need to debate that one for too long. This was not so much about demoting any other cricketers' achievements but to elevate Kallis to the highest possible plane, to recognise him as one of the very greatest cricketers to have ever played the game. For neutral Australian cricket fans to unequivocally endorse this fact, says it all really. For us, last night, Kallis was indeed king.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by Mayur on (February 24, 2012, 8:27 GMT)

Kallis is a 'Great Player' allround, but Sachin is the 'Gratest ODI Player' ever. He has got not only runs abut also wickets under his belt when he use to bowl. And when we talk about Sachin, he is the Gratest Batsman after Sir Don. Kallis should be placed even below Lara, Ponting and Dravid when we talk about batting alone.

Posted by Regi Baptiste on (February 22, 2012, 19:21 GMT)

In terms of the general term, 'best cricketer', which means combining a player's batting, bowling and fielding ability in 'TEST CRICKET' (since the Don and others did not play ODIs), I think that Kallis has all rights to be compared with anyone who have played the game. However, the writer has gone too far to think that he is better than Sobers. The reason being that Sobers had too many dimensions to his bowling ability and he mastered them all. Kallis is only a fast medium bowler. I also saw Sobers bat - Kallis is no match for him. Sobers was also awesome as a fieldsman. I would give Sobers the edge as 'the best cricketer of all time' by a wide margin. In terms of batsmanship alone, Ian Chappell's article ('Who is the Pick of the Modern Grets') of very recent memory was a 'bull's eye' shot: As Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay) was to boxing, so was Brian Lara to batting. Let's not allow raw quantitative figures to fool us. I think what puts Lara in a class above his modern contemporaries is that he never consciously got too hooked up on issues such as averages, etc,. He played the game for the enjoyment of the paying public; however, if he wanted to do something special (like breaking the world batting record twice), he just went out and did effortlessly, like Mohammed Ali. He does not wilt under pressure to do 'awesome things') as the lesser mortals have sleepless nights trying to do, and still can't do it after multiple tries. That's what puts him in an unmatchable class by himself. His personal negatives should not take away from his peerless skills -the reason that the purists don't want to give him his full due!

Posted by khan786 on (February 10, 2012, 17:50 GMT)

Why we are comparing an allrounder with batsman?he is a fine allrounder but not as good as sobers and comparing him with likes of tendulkar,lara and ponting as a batsman is just not fair,people are saying that sachin scores his runs on flat pitches?does he not score runs overseas...kallis scored his runs in difficult conditions? Are those conditions difficult for someone who started playing his cricket in those conditions obviously in home condition every player should score runs if he doesn't where he will score?some people are saying that saching is not a great batsman does he himself says he is a great batsman?no people who watch him says...if don bradman says he see himself in sachin than this is the biggest compliment for a batsman...a batsman at the age of seventeen who can face likes of akram and waqar younis at their peak and smack likes of legend spinner abdul qadir does not reqire any certificate of greatness. ..class of a batsman can be seen in 1 stroke.just enjoy cricket.

Posted by AAAtif on (February 6, 2012, 5:01 GMT)

Cmon, i like cover drives by Kallis, straight drives by Tendulkar, on-drives by dravid, pull shots by ponting and use of feet by Lara. love them all.

Posted by rickytherocket on (January 25, 2012, 11:25 GMT)

As several have already mentioned, it is extremely difficult to compare players from different eras. In my opinion, there is no point in expanding on that.

Kallis is very good at what he does. He is an excellent top order batsman, an accomplished containing bowler and a fantastic slip fielder - that's his job. He is not in the team as an opening bowler or big hitter. And he's been doing it consistantly for over 15 years.

It seems most people do not rate him because he is not as entertaining as the likes of Ponting and Tendulkar. There can be no doubting that, however it doesn't make him any less of a great player... just less flamboyant.

His batting records alone prove that he should be mentioned in the same breath as the Pontings, Laras, Tendulkars etc. But if his statistics alone don't convince you, perhaps the best way to view it is by asking which current player would add more overall value to your team.

Posted by internationalcricketblog.wordpress.com on (January 17, 2012, 15:13 GMT)

To compare Sobers to Kallis is just impossible - they played in different eras etc. I will say that Kallis is the best player of the past twenty-odd years - Statistically he is just as good as SRT, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting etc in terms of his batting, add his bowling to that and he is on another level. To those saying that we had lots of quality players and that he didn't win matches: Sure we had lots of quality bowlers, but until the recent appearance of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, he would pretty much hold a weak batting line up together single-handedly. Gary Kirsten was the only other quality, reliable batsman we had. Grame Smith blows hot and cold, Herschelle Gibbs was swashbuckling but unreliable, the rest were pretty much fillers.

Posted by Murali A Varma on (January 17, 2012, 7:28 GMT)

Very nice article. I had a similar sort of conversation with some friends recently, but we drifted off into Nadal vs. Federer vs. Djokovic. Before that, we also came to the conclusion that Kallis is one of the best cricketers ever. I especially like your 'most under-rated cricketer' term. It does take an insane amount of concentration to bat with such class, bowl at 135 kph and stand with bucket hands at 2nd slip. He too deserves success in the World Cup. Stop choking South Africa!

Posted by RJ on (January 17, 2012, 6:20 GMT)

Although I am a die hard sachin and dravid fan, I do agree about Kallis being highly underrated...please also consider Kallis' record in India especially against spinners...where the best batsmen have failed...plus he has won and saved numerous tests for South Africa...and his ODI average is also fantastic...

further, one should also consider how responsibly he has always played for his team and on his field conduct and sportsman spirit

It is also the fact that he has not been spoken about too often in the often which could be due to following reasons: - he maintains a low profile - he is not indian, english or aussie

Posted by Geoff Plumridge on (January 17, 2012, 6:16 GMT)

Nope. A bloke called Sobers.

Posted by Meety on (January 17, 2012, 5:38 GMT)

Kallis (IMO) is the most prolific of the bat & ball allrounders, (for mine Gilly is the statistical greatest allrounder). For mine, Kallis's bowling is relatively weak as a test player, (very good/great as an ODI). His batting is IMO inched past Punter & Dravid in the last couple of years & is basically within a whisker of Lara & Sachin. Kallis's batting is statistically very strong, but some statistical quirks are that 1) 1,000 runs against Bangladesh & Zim at an ave of around 125, 2) 38 wickets against Bangladesh & Zimbabwe at less than 15 runs per wicket. IMO, Kallis is a superb slipsman, one of the all time greats, but I just don't rate his bowling highly in tests. Sobers was far better as a bowler. I would rate Botham & Khan ahead of him in terms of allrounders that I've seen. I think historically Miller & Sobers are the two best ever, which has been pretty much proven statistically on this site not too long ago! Credit where its due, Kallis seems to get better with age!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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