January 2, 2014

Can Kallis really be called an allrounder?

Jacques Kallis was among the greatest of batsmen who could bowl, but he doesn't belong to the pantheon of legendary allrounders like Sobers, Imran and Botham

Kallis never assumed the responsibility for South Africa's bowling that Imran, Sobers and Botham did for their teams © AFP

I have argued previously that Jacques Kallis is not a Test allrounder because that is not what South Africa wanted him to be. South Africa did not use him as an allrounder. They used him as a batsman who could bowl. The cricket world, by and large, seems to disagree. I'm curious as to why that is, because an allrounder is a player who is good enough to make the team as a specialist batsman, or as a specialist bowler, and is used in both those roles.

We are far more willing to accept modest bowlers as allrounders than we are modest batsmen. A batsman who averages 30 and bowls well immediately becomes a "bowling allrounder". Ian Botham and Imran Khan have been categorised in this way. A bowler who bowls at a decent speed is categorised as an allrounder far more readily, like Shane Watson over Shane Warne. Bowlers who can deliver a few overs each day, maybe bowl to an established partnership, are considered bowlers far more readily than are lower-order batsmen who can figure in a stand with a set batsman and make 25 on their own, especially if these bowlers bowl seam-up and can deliver the ball upwards of 130kph.

The gold standard for an allrounder in the era of the four great allrounders - Hadlee, Kapil, Botham and Imran - was the double - 3000 runs and 300 wickets. This was difficult to achieve, given that most Test players in that era played just over 100 Tests. Bowlers played closer to 80. The three great, genuine allrounders - Botham, Imran and Sobers - fell away towards the end of their careers. They took on less responsibility, especially on the bowling side.

Ian Botham played Tests from 1977 to 1992, but played only 29 Tests in the last seven years of that span, scoring his runs at 25 and taking his wickets at 37. In the first eight years, in 73 Tests, he made 4159 runs at 36.5 (with 13 hundreds from 125 innings) and took 312 wickets at 26.2, bowling 39 overs per match. He was a regular match-winner for England with bat and ball.

Imran Khan played from 1971 to 1992, but played most of his 88 Tests from 1977 to 1990. In 77 Tests during this period, he made 3437 runs at 39.05 and took 342 wickets at 21.61, bowling 38 overs per Test. His record over 48 Tests as captain is arguably the single greatest all-round record in all of Test cricket.

Garry Sobers was picked for West Indies as a teenager in 1954. His primary role was that of a spin bowler. He batted deep in the tail. Unlike Botham and Imran, Sobers didn't focus on one style of bowling. He could bowl fingerspin, wristspin and pace. He dominated several series with both bat and ball, especially in the 1960s. He was arguably the greatest left-hand batsman in the game. As a bowler, he performed two contrasting roles. Under Frank Worrell, he took 58 wickets at 28 in 15 Tests from 1960 to 1963. He bowled 47 overs per Test in all three styles in a strong West Indian attack with Wes Hall at his peak. As captain, Sobers presided over an ageing Hall and a period of transition in the late 1960s and early 1970s when West Indies didn't have much bowling apart from Sobers and Gibbs. Sobers bowled 46 overs per match in those 39 Tests, taking 117 wickets at 34.

Sobers the bowler was not quite in the class of Imran or Botham when it came to taking wickets. But in terms of the all-round responsibility he took on, he was easily in their class. He dominated multiple series with bat and ball: 424 runs and 23 wickets against India in 1961-62, 322 runs and 20 wickets in England in 1963, and, in what is arguably the greatest all-round performance in a single series, 722 runs, 20 wickets and ten catches in England in 1966. Add to this 497 runs and 18 wickets in Australia in 1968-69 and 342 runs and 14 wickets in three Tests in India in 1966-67. By his own reckoning in Twenty Years At The Top, Sobers could bowl at Joel Garner's pace. In the 1960s, Sobers averaged 93 runs and 3.3 wickets per Test.

Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee did not consider themselves allrounders, repeatedly stating that they were bowlers who could bat, much like Shaun Pollock.

The difference between Kallis and the three great genuine allrounders lies not just in the numbers but in a singular fact that the numbers make abundantly clear. Kallis took 292 wickets in 166 Tests. He bowled on average 20 overs per Test. At his bowling peak, under Pollock's captaincy, from 2000 to 2003, Kallis averaged 24 overs per Test. For the most part, he bowled about 12 overs per innings and 20 overs per Test. Compared to Imran, Botham and Sobers, Kallis was marginal to South Africa's bowling plans. He did not assume the same bowling responsibility that those three great allrounders did for their teams. Imran and Botham were bowlers of a different class too.

Some commentators, including ex-players, have claimed that Kallis' record as a bowler is about as good as that of Brett Lee or Zaheer Khan. This type of remark just goes to show how flippant much of the ex-player-commentariat is. There is as much distance between Kallis' record as a bowler and that of Zaheer or Lee as there is between Lee's and Zaheer's records and those of Dale Steyn or Allan Donald.

Had Kallis taken on a workload similar to those of Botham or Imran or Zaheer or Lee, would he have lasted 18 years as an international cricketer? Probably not. At this juncture, you might make the tired point about the workloads of contemporary cricketers. Ninety-three Tests over 20 years and 166 over 18 years certainly suggests this at first glance. But I put it to you that contemporary bowlers travel more comfortably and play less cricket compared to top players since the Second World War. Here's a sample that proves this claim. I include all cricket classed as first-class (including Tests), List A (including ODIs) and T20s (including IPL, county and internationals).

Bowlers' workloads over the years © Kartikeya Date

Contemporary bowlers bowl less than their counterparts from the 1960s and 1980s. There is more money in cricket now, travel is more comfortable, and today's players play a larger share of T20 and ODI cricket. Steyn, for example, has played about an equal number of first-class, 50-over and 20-over games. The overs per match start declining as the share of limited-overs games increases. The overs-per-year measure provides a better picture of the workload, in my view. Lee's record is peculiar. He made his debut during the 1994-95 season. He played his last first-class game in July 2009. He also never played county cricket.

An analysis of GPS data shows that Mitchell Johnson covered 23 kilometres during the first day of the MCG Test, including in it 144 sprints. Johnson bowled 20 overs that day. The length of his run-up is not unusual. He's a better fielder than most. It was a slow-scoring day with only 226 runs scored in 89 overs. The MCG is larger than the average Test ground. Keep all that in mind when you use this priceless data point and apply it to the guys who bowled 700-plus overs per year on average during their careers - probably close to 1000 a year during their peak years.

The reason Kallis does not belong in the elite group of allrounders is because he was never a bowler in the same way that Imran or Botham or Sobers were bowlers. To use a baseball analogy, those three were starting pitchers, much like Wasim Akram and Steyn and Malcolm Marshall and Donald. Kallis, at best, was a middle reliever. To call Kallis an allrounder alongside Botham, Imran or Sobers is to make a category error.

Why do we make this category error more readily in the case of bowlers? Or rather, why do we expect less from bowlers than we do from batsmen? Would we, for example, be willing to regard Kallis' 292 wickets in 166 Tests the way we might Warne's 3154 runs in 145 Tests? Had Warne been a batsman, he would have made about 7500 to 9000 runs if he scored at the rate of Botham or Imran, and about 11,500 if he scored at the rate of Kallis. Specialist middle-order Test batsmen average between 70-80 runs per Test. So he scored between one-third and one-fourth the runs a specialist batsman should have made. Applying the same standard to Kallis, at Zaheer's rate (90 Tests, 302 wickets, despite bowling in India, where spinners bowl most of the overs), he should have taken somewhere between 550 and 575 wickets. He ended up with about half that. At the rate of Imran or Botham, he would have somewhere between 675-725 wickets. Perhaps Warne as an example is a stretch. Warne never made a Test hundred, while Kallis has taken five five wicket-hauls.

How about Pollock? Pollock is considered a bowler who would bat. He rarely batted above No. 8 in the South African order. He made 3781 runs in 108 Tests. That's about as good an effort with the bat as Kallis' effort with the ball. Perhaps even better, at least in terms of what a specialist might achieve. But no one considers Pollock a genuine, all-time-great allrounder, one who belongs alongside Sobers, Imran and Botham.

So why do we have one standard for Kallis - the batsman who could bowl - and another for Pollock, the bowler who could bat? If we are honest, genuine allrounders are the rarest category in Test cricket. For the most part, Test cricket is made up of specialists - batsmen and bowlers - and some of these specialists have secondary skills, like Kallis and Pollock.

Fast bowlers are often damned with faint praise. "He runs in all day," we hear. Fast bowling is perhaps the most difficult art in sport. Where batting is the art of managing split-seconds, fast bowling is the art of managing inches. As a sporting art that combines explosive power, sustained concentration and precision, fast bowling has few equals.

If we paid attention to the talents required to bowl fast, perhaps we wouldn't equate Kallis' record to Lee's, or ignore the difference between bowling 20 overs and bowling 40 in a game, or ignore the immense difference between taking the responsibility of being the team's strike bowler (of which there are usually only two, occasionally three, in any XI) and that of being a change bowler.

That we consider Kallis an allrounder shows the extent to which we misunderstand both his cricket, in specific, and fast bowling, in general. Kallis was no Test allrounder. He was perhaps the greatest among that more common category of Test players - batsmen who can bowl. I think he limited his bowling in favour of batting. Test cricket is richer for it.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here