June 4, 2009

Kallis 2.0

Not long ago he was a Test specialist, but with a few minor mental adjustments he has transformed into a valuable Twenty20 player

Jacques Kallis is a fairly tranquil fellow. In a South African television advert he jogs serenely along the beach, each stride a long, leisurely leap, like a gazelle. Or, given Kallis' size, a herd of gazelle. Think about the way he steps onto a cricket field. No hurried sprint to the middle; more of a determined march. No squirming and wriggling at the crease; just a resolute, measured approach. In many ways, he is the epitome of traditional cricket as we know it. Or so we thought.

Meet the new Kallis: a man who is not afraid to brandish his bat like a bludgeoning weapon and bang in a barrage of fearsome bouncers.

So what has changed? Perhaps the lucrative jingle of his IPL salary sounded a warning that unless he put in a better performance in the second season, he may have to say goodbye to the glamour of the tournament. Or maybe the thought of missing a second World Twenty20 tournament was what reignited the fire in his belly.

Kallis doesn't attribute the change to either. Instead, he says, it is simply "a slight mindset change" that has transformed him. His Royal Challengers Bangalore coach, Ray Jennings, agrees and says some of Kallis' new-found 20-over form stems from his time in the 2009 IPL.

"All he needed was to find his niche in 20-over cricket. I got him to relax and back himself more. I have a very good relationship with Kallis. He understands exactly what I need from him and has responded magnificently to me. I think that made some of the difference as well."

What a difference it has been. Kallis was the top scorer for Bangalore, with 361 runs at an average of 27.76. He made three fifties in the tournament, two of those at crucial stages of his team's campaign. His unbeaten 58 against Delhi Daredevils in Johannesburg kept Bangalore in the competition, and set them up for a place in the final four. That innings stood out in the mind of South Africa's chairman of selectors, Mike Procter, who said, "In that match, when I saw the way Kallis batted, I just knew he would be there at the end of the innings. Throughout the tournament he scored quickly when he needed to, and contributed some bigger scores. It's evident how much he has learnt." That new-found knowledge is what earned him a place in South Africa's World Twenty20 squad.

It has been an arduous Twenty20 journey for Kallis, who played his first match in the format in 2005, and has played only four Twenty20 internationals since then. Under most circumstances he would be a shoo-in for a national team, but his experience of Twenty20 cricket has been markedly different. He was dumped from South Africa's squad for the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007, and he wasn't happy about it. In fact, he was so dissatisfied with his exclusion that he promptly resigned as vice-captain of the national team. The mini-tantrum didn't earn him any extra Twenty20 caps, though. In those four matches he notched up a paltry 43 runs.

The pressure to improve his strike-rate mounted on him like the Dirk Nannes delivery he shouldered arms to when the latter dismissed him for a duck in the IPL, and the swarm of young, athletic, quick-scoring, fast-thinking, ball-bashing cricketers was growing ever larger, threatening to keep Kallis out of South Africa's international Twenty20 set-up for good. But even that cauldron didn't prompt him to alter his game drastically. "I have never played to prove anything to anyone. I always play because I enjoy the challenge of the game."

Jennings believes Kallis' approach was correct, and that all he needed was some proper nurturing and the ability to capitalise on his experience and natural ability. "Quality players will remain quality players, no matter what, as long as they are handled properly," says Jennings. "A good team plays around its match-winners, and the important thing to realise is that Kallis is one of them. His strength is that he can bat or bowl anywhere. In fact the only weakness I can think of is that he can't keep wicket."

For Jennings, Kallis' exclusion from the national Twenty20 side was an aberration and a symptom of a flawed set-up. "Any system that can't find a place for Kallis has a problem."

But Mickey Arthur, coach of the South African team, offers an explanation, and even a justification for the omission. "In the past we didn't take 20-over cricket that seriously, and we saw it as an opportunity to rest key players," Arthur says. "So that's why Kallis rarely played. But as this format of the game has got bigger, we've started taking it more seriously, and winning games has become more important."

Does that mean there is now a permanent spot for Kallis in the national Twenty20 side? And if so, where exactly does he fit in? Jennings successfully used Kallis to open the batting, but Arthur says that may not fit in with the national side's structure. "We only have 20 overs and the challenge is to fit Kallis into that. With Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs to open the batting, he is probably best suited at No. 3."

Kallis himself doesn't seem to have too many qualms about where he bats, and the confidence Jennings spoke about comes through when Kallis speaks of his batting preferences: "I think I can bat in any position, but I have enjoyed opening." Despite the uncertainty over his position, he was used to open the batting in South Africa's warm-up match against Pakistan, where he scored 26 off 22 balls.

Arthur also sees Kallis playing a dual role for the team, and that involves being an essential part of the bowling attack. He says Kallis' bowling style can be used anywhere, depending on the composition of the attack on that particular day. "If we are going to go with a spinner or two, then we could use him to open the bowling, but if we are going with a more pace-dominated attack, then we will use him as first or second change."

Kallis displays similar self-assurance when he speaks of his bowling; he seems to have worked out his strategy for bowling in Twenty20s. "I don't mind if I bowl all my overs at once, or if my spell is broken up, but one thing I want to make sure I do is have variation. That's the only way to stay one step ahead of the batsman in 20-over cricket."

JP Duminy believes Kallis' new-found form will have positive effects on the rest of team. "He is one of the world's best, and the fact that he has made a comeback of sorts in 20-over cricket can only be a good thing. If he is performing well, that will give the team a lot of confidence going into the tournament."

Even though Kallis is enjoying being part of the Twenty20 circus, he's not going to be robbed of his unhurried pleasures just yet. He still prefers that long jog on the beach to the mad dash along the pier, and in so doing he's made no secret of where his first cricketing love lies. "I do enjoy this form of the game. However, 99% of cricketers will tell you that Test cricket is still where they want to be judged, and is still the ultimate challenge."

Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg