Round the World March 16, 2004

Clear mind, clear focus, no distractions: how Kallis does it

Neil Manthorp looks at the reasons for Jacques Kallis's phenomenal run of success



A centurion at Centurion: Jacques Kallis celebrates the fourth of his his hundreds in consecutive Tests © Getty Images

Is there a secret to Jacques Kallis and his current run of form? Is there a magic ingredient? The answer is mostly "no", although there is just one part of his life that qualifies for a "yes". And that part is, well, his life.

Cricket is a strange enough game without over-analysing its smallest parts, so analogies and similes are useful for most of us. Staying within sport, any golfer will understand how difficult it is to hit the ball without being relaxed. And that's just the first shot. Keen golfers will no doubt have experienced the sensation of playing a game when all was not well in day-to-day life. Suddenly a difficult game becomes impossible.

Outside of sport, businessmen have the same problems. It can be difficult to close a deal, make a sale or design a building when you think your children might not be seeing enough of you, or mixing with the wrong crowd, or you're sleeping with your secretary.

Distractions are the bane of our lives, but it's not easy to rid ourselves of them. Sometimes the very act of looking into the mirror of our lives is the hardest thing of all.

But when Henry Kallis finally succumbed to cancer in the middle of June last year, Jacques was facing the biggest distraction he had ever known: the loss of his father. If he could deal with that, he could deal with anything.

Kallis confronted the loneliness of bereavement and chose to face all the other, much smaller problems in his life. Who he was as a public figure, what he wanted to be and how he was perceived. And what he wanted from his private life.

He sought the professional advice of an old friend, Paddy Upton, the former South African team fitness coach. Upton has reinvented himself and now boasts a PhD in sports psychology, and practises in something he calls "executive coaching".

If that all sounds like pretentious mumbo-jumbo, then it probably is. Put more simply, Kallis examined his approach to life, his relationships with friends, colleagues and the general public, and made sure he was being honest, sincere and fair. Having done that, he reasoned, he couldn't blame himself if things went wrong or if he was resented - by anyone.

It is an ongoing process, but having started it, Kallis finally found the game of cricket as simple as it really is. The bowler delivers the ball and you (a) stop it hitting your stumps, and (b) try to hit it. Clear mind, clear focus, no distractions. Simple.

When Kallis spoke to the media in Hamilton a few days ago, after his fifth century in as many Tests, there were a few grumbles that he "hadn't said much". But against the background of the process he had decided to put himself through, he said everything: "I'm just going about my business and thoroughly enjoying my cricket. It's an honour to be ranked amongst the greats of the game. You have to back yourself, because nobody else will - that's something I've taught myself over the years."

The death of his father, the end of a long-term relationship, and the battle of trying to set up a new home while never actually being in his home town are just a few of the issues, the distractions, which Jacques Kallis has confronted. The new, open, embracing, fearless Kallis has stopped putting issues to one side to be dealt with later.

Consequently, when he goes out to bat these days, he really does just see a bowler and a cricket ball. And fielders, of course, although they have been of little consequence lately. So has he changed much in his cricket? No. Has he changed much else? Not really, just his approach to life, that's all.

Neil Manthorp is a partner in South Africa's MWP Sport agency.