Is Kallis the greatest of them all?
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