West Indies cricket January 29, 2013

A look at the Kallis-Sobers debate

The Jacques Kallis versus Garfield Sobers comparison and evaluation is guaranteed to draw sharply contrasting reactions from most cricket fans

In today's post, I want to continue on a thread commenced in my last post by considering, in light of the visual appearance of cricket, a contemporary debate about the game's greatest allrounder.

The Jacques Kallis versus Garfield Sobers comparison and evaluation is guaranteed to draw sharply contrasting reactions from most cricket fans. For some, Sir Garry remains peerless; for yet others, Kallis' staggering statistical feats, his batting at No.3, his catching, his value to South African cricket, his contributions to their rise to the top demand recognition and proper assessment.

Kallis will always come off second best in this argument. This is not because I think he is any less of a cricketer than Sir Garry. It's not because I think he is a 'boring bat' who does not perform well in clutch situations, who does not have the strokes Sir Garry had, who took too long to score his first double-hundred, or whatever your favourite canard about Kallis is. Rather, it is because I suspect the dominant imagery of Sir Garry will always swamp that of Kallis.

When we think of Kallis, we think of a burly, muscular, almost impossibly broad-chested man, sometimes clad in helmet and all the clumsy accoutrements of the modern batsman, sometimes running into bowl with a utilitarian action that is surprising precisely because we do not associate the pace he generates with it. Kallis seems heavy, not graceful, functional, not effortless in both his batting and bowling. He perhaps comes closest to gracefulness in his deft catching at slip.

In contrast, when we think of Sir Garry, we think of a slim, lissome cricketer, wearing full sleeve shirts, with sleeves rolled up in classic displays of insouciance, sometimes bare-headed, sometimes wearing a West Indies cap, collars high, moving lightly on his feet, driving the cricket ball with loose-limbed grace, his bat describing vivid arcs of motion that showcase his power and timing.

Let's face it: Garry Sobers just looked better than Jacques Kallis, and always will. His feats are frozen in time, in classic black-and-white photographs; Kallis has been subjected to the unflattering focus of hundreds of hours of live television coverage. Sir Garry is always wearing classic creams and flannels and team sweaters; Kallis has worn the ugly uniforms of one-day international cricket and the IPL. Sir Garry is one smooth operator; Kallis is stodgy in comparison.

I do not intend to denigrate Kallis in any way. He is the most amazing all-round cricketer around these days, and I still cannot believe he has done all he has while batting at No. 3. I merely mean to indicate that when cricket fans compare Kallis to Sobers they have the visual aspects of the two, front and centre. Many fans will say that statistics do not tell the full story and then go on to fill it out by talking of clutch situations and entertainment value. Part of that entertainment value is how the cricketer looks, how much pleasure he provides to our hungry gaze.

Sir Garry was, to put it as bluntly as possible, a beautiful cricketer: he moved with economy and style, he batted with gay abandon in his best moments, he bowled in several styles, with each bowling action a pleasure to look at, he held catches effortlessly, and through it all, he handed out a few sartorial lessons too. If you wanted a hero, he was your man in all the relevant ways.

Kallis can be a hero too, but of another kind; he will feature in paeans to diligence and effort and patience. He is admirable too, but in another dimension. And because so much of our relationship to the game and our assessment of its exponents is tinged with our aesthetic response to them, Kallis will not appeal to us in quite the same way, even when we can do little else but doff our hats to him for his wonderful cricketing abilities and match-winning ways.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here