January 7, 2011

Kallis is the Sobers of his generation

Before you pop a vein in outrage, consider the similarity in their numbers

Jacques Kallis' exploits over the last three weeks - or indeed over the last 15 years - must draw comparison with the best that have ever played the game. And it is tempting to put his all-round skills alongside the man who must be seen as the best to have played cricket. But can I? Will the Sobers generation descend on me with all the fury they can command? Will I be consigned to Azkaban? Will Bishan Bedi, Ian Chappell and the like walk away if I join them for dinner?

Assessments tend to display loyalty to their generation. And a generation that has passed on tends to become better with every passing day. RD Burman struggled in the second half of his career but now you wouldn't believe he ever composed an ordinary song. Imran Khan never made a mistake as a captain, Richie Benaud never had a bad commentary day, the Beatles only produced classics, and Che Guevara was the greatest revolutionary ever. So for a generation that regarded Sobers as king, will Kallis be no more than a chieftain?

Sadly generation loyalty also means that the giants of the past will be measured in numbers today. That would seem unfair and incorrect - can CK Nayudu or Keith Miller be ever measured thus? - but it is relevant to a more analytical, numbers-driven generation. To them a Sobers or a Gavaskar must stand the test of numbers; they earn respect not just because we say so but because their achievements are there in black and white. Everything must be measured. Increasingly numbers defeat words.

And so to the great Garry Sobers and to the great Jacques Kallis. One smooth, slim and lissome, the quintessential amateur who shunned thigh pads and might have shunned a helmet, who played with a smile and brought many to spectators, who could do things people knew and didn't. The other thick-set, solid, the modern-day professional, always focused, firm jaw and gritted teeth, and can do everything in the game.

For someone who finished in 1973 and for another who only began in 1995, their records are amazingly similar. From 93 Tests (and these are numbers serious cricket lovers know by heart) Sobers had 8032 runs at 57.78, 26 centuries, 235 wickets at 34.03 and 109 catches. Kallis has played one and a half times the number of Tests (145) and, hold your breath, has virtually an identical proportion of runs (11,947 at 57.43), centuries (40), and even catches (166)! He has fewer wickets by comparison but at a marginally better average (270 at 32.01).

Sobers batted largely from No. 6, which some might say is an easier number but affords fewer opportunities, while Kallis, amazingly for an allrounder, batted from No. 3 or 4, which meant he had more time but also often had to change bowling shoes for the half-spikes rather quickly

This similarity in numbers cannot be mere coincidence. Yes, there were variables. Sobers played first-class cricket all around the world in addition to his Test workload, but Kallis has played 307 one-day internationals too. Sobers batted largely from No. 6, which some might say is an easier number but affords fewer opportunities, while Kallis, amazingly for an allrounder, batted from No. 3 or 4, which meant he had more time but also often had to change bowling shoes for the half-spikes rather quickly.

The batting position is interesting. All the great allrounders, from Keith Miller to Sobers to Imran Khan to Ian Botham and Kapil Dev batted at No. 6 or lower, even though they were often better than those who batted above them. Certainly, excellent as Basil Butcher and Seymour Nurse were, Sobers was a better batsman. I often wonder if players like Sobers batted as low as they did out of respect for those who were in the side as batsmen alone. But Kallis was always a top-order player, and if he took fewer wickets for the number of games he played it was because he was always the fourth seamer, alongside wicket-takers like Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn.

You could argue that this is a great time to be a batsman, and you would argue well, but it cannot be held against players. Kallis averages 170 against Zimbabwe and has enjoyed playing against Bangladesh too, but those aggregates do not significantly skew his numbers (only 1000 out of almost 12,000 are against those two countries). He didn't enjoy playing Sri Lanka greatly (averaging 33) but amazingly neither did Sobers against New Zealand (averaging 24). And while Kallis didn't have to play one of the best bowling sides over the last 15 years, Sobers never had to face Hall, Griffith, himself and Gibbs in Test cricket.

So maybe it is time to put blasphemy aside, let two greats sit at the same table and acknowledge Kallis to be the Sobers of his generation. Now would that please everyone?

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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