January 27, 2011

A question of greatness

Defining it is no easy task, since greatness can be reliant on time, place, context and memory. But it's time to acknowledge that Kallis has earned the mantle

Great. Whether followed by "shot", "catch", "player" or "match", has any word suffered more grievously at the hands of the lamentable modern penchant for hyperbole? With the possible exception of "fantastic" and "tragic", I seriously doubt it. What was once merely "excellent" or "terrific" or "tremendous" or merely "very good indeed" is now described, unthinkingly yet unblinkingly, as "great". We could blame the radio and TV commentators, whose job is to fill endless hours and who lack the relative luxury of time afforded print or even online journalists, and hence choose their words less judiciously, but that would be too easy, too superficial, too unfair. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all guilty.

How, then, do we define greatness? Grandeur, sublimity, glory, nobility, illustriousness, renown, eminence, majesty - these are just a handful of the 52 alternatives proffered by my Collins Paperback Thesaurus. No fewer than 34 of those listed are qualitative descriptions, as opposed to quantitative. None, though, quite captures the word's lasting, even permanent, nature and stature. The best, most accurate, alternative would seem, therefore, to be "immortality". Or is it?

Greatness, arguably, can be temporary, reliant on time, place, context and folk memory - think Andrew Flintoff. Yet true greatness/immortality reaches down the generations, transcending time and defying trends. As such, there is no higher accomplishment, nor compliment. But how can we be sure that what strikes us as "great" now will endure in the memory and exert a similarly unrelenting grip on the imaginations of our sons and daughters, let alone those of their sons and daughters? As with all subjective judgements, beauty above all, can "greatness" be confined to the beholder's own perception and era? And is that greatness a lesser greatness? Does there have to be at least a modicum of unanimity? Questions, questions, unanswerable questions. Not that that stops us from trying to answer them. Nowhere, moreover, is this thirst to memorialise greater than in sport, where statistics, records and feats serve as guidance, even dictators.

One obvious way to ascertain the degree to which people are remembered, and the extent of their impact, is how we refer to them. Think Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare and Columbus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Mandela and Gandhi - regardless of one's nationality, none of these worthies requires a forename for instant identification. Indeed, in some cases - Leonardo, Ludwig Van, Wolfgang Amadeus, Mahatma - the forename alone is sufficient. To students of cricket, the same applies to Grace, Hobbs, Bradman, Headley and Hutton, Miller, Worrell, Sobers and Gavaskar. Not solely because of their statistical achievements and the number of times they are mentioned in Wisden, but because of the virtues they embody: innovation, courage, determination, flair, beauty, leadership and, above all, heroism.

IT GETS TRICKIER, OF COURSE, when we try to assess those of our own time. From those of more recent vintage we could easily cite another mighty array of plinth-worthy pantheon-dwellers: The Richardses (BA and IVA); Wasim and Waqar; Lillee and Chappell (G); Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall and Holding; Imran, Kapil, Hadlee and Botham; Miandad, Lloyd and Greenidge. Yet formidable and unforgettable as they all undoubtedly were, do they resonate with us as much as they do because of their proximity? Distance, surely, is imperative.

Sure, sheer weight of numbers and video evidence virtually guarantees these icons varying portions of immortality, but then, for them, opportunity knocked that much louder and more insistently. Previous generations might just as easily trumpet the likes of Trumper, SF Barnes, Grimmett, O'Reilly, Larwood, Lindwall, Mankad, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Compton and Trueman and declare them to be vastly superior, safe in the knowledge that they could hardly be convincingly contradicted. And what of the likes of Mike Procter, Vintcent van der Bijl and the Pollock brethren, men remembered with awe by those who saw and played with them, but denied wider wonder by political circumstance?

One obvious way to ascertain the degree to which people are remembered is how we refer to them. Think Beethoven, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Mandela and Gandhi -none of these worthies requires a forename for instant identification

Of the cricketers who have entranced and enchanted us during the course of this young century, four have left an impression deep and abiding enough to survive the passing of the decades and sustain memories even for those who will simply have to take our (and Wisden's) word for it: call them the Magnificent Quartet - Lara, Muralitharan, Tendulkar and Warne. Yes, this is partly because of the toweringly imperishable numbers with which they will forever be associated, but also because of the way they played, the obstacles they overcame and the millions they inspired, whether to watch or take up the game. By our biographies and columns and blogs and DVD collections shall they be immortalised.

To these names can be added a second tier of aspiring immortals: Donald, Dravid, Gilchrist, Kallis, Kumble, McGrath, Pollock (S), Ponting and Sehwag. Men whose attainments brook little or no argument but who perhaps lack nothing more definable than the magical aura of the aforementioned foursome. A century hence, which of them, if any, will still be recalled with the same reverence? If, in 1911, you had asked that question of George Lohmann, Johnny Briggs, George Giffen, "The Demon" Spofforth and Aubrey Faulkner, the notion that not one of them would have been included in a future Hall of Fame would have been greeted with a look of effrontery and a sharp blast of derision.

NONE OF THIS SECONDARY GROUP of contemporary idols divides opinion quite like Jacques Kallis. Which is decidedly curious, given that his figures - 23,000-plus runs, more than 500 wickets and nearly 300 catches in internationals - are much the weightiest and most compelling of anyone who has ever graced the game. During a rain delay in Sunday's final one-dayer between South Africa and India, one commentator touted him as one of the greatest batsmen of all time, whereupon another retorted that he was, at the very least, one of the greatest cricketers. What a strange sense of priorities. Then again, if there's one thing Jacques Kallis is accustomed to, it is faint praise.

Two factors have long obstructed what ought to be a serene passage to greatness. One, that, by most learned estimations, his most memorable-cum-valuable innings occurred as long ago as his seventh Test, at the MCG in 1997, when a precociously mature six-hour 101 kept McGrath and Warne at bay, halting Australia's seemingly inexorable march to victory. Cape Town beheld his finest match with the bat earlier this month when, in a contest wherein no team-mate reached 60 and only Tendulkar could be said to have combated the vicissitudes of the pitch with remotely the same masterly aplomb, he was last out for 161 in the first innings and unbeaten for 109 in the second. Unfortunately, in terms of posterity, the fact that these sublime stints resulted in neither victory nor heroic resistance is likely to deplete their memorableness.

The other factor is his facelessness. No stroke, delivery or even performance instantly conjures him up. More tellingly, has any other globally renowned sportsman ever been quite so anonymous? Not, certainly, since the advent of television and universal celebrity. Not for Kallis the hubristic trappings of a My Early Life (he plainly learned from Graeme Hick on that score). Hell, there hasn't been a ghosted autobiography, an authorised biography, nor even a critical hard-covered analysis of his deeds. This should not be taken as criticism but simply as a reflection of the reluctance to give him his due. That he has kept himself so resolutely to himself is to be admired - fervently so - but it hasn't helped his cause, stifling affection, without which the mantle of greatness never sits comfortably.

So let's set the record straight once and for all. The stats, for once, tell the absolute truth: Jacques Henry Kallis, humble, unaffected, undemonstrative, unyielding Jacques Henry Kallis, is one of the most exemplary competitive artists ever to pull on a pair of flannels. Uniquely, future generations will value him more than we do. And if that's not a definition of greatness, I give up.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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