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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • paul on January 30, 2011, 13:09 GMT

    Stats in my view are THE defining evidence of being a great player/cricketer. Kallis may not have the swagger of a Vivian Richards or the aura of a Brian Lara or the messianic status of Tendulkar but run for run, wicket for wicket, and for fielding (catching) skills his stats are phenomenal!! Based on these he is unquestionably and by some distance the best all rounder of his (and possibly any other) era and undeniably one of the greatest cricketers of all time. I've watched a lot of cricket and cricketers over the decades and as far as technique, application, determination, adaptability, he is easily the finest white batsman I have ever seen. Ask any opposition whose wicket they prize most and they will invariably say Kallis more often than any other batsman....but don't take my word for it!! ask Anderson (Eng) and Harbajan Singh (Ind) two of the best exponents of their art and they'll tell you he is the best bastman they've ever bowled to!!

  • Amol on January 30, 2011, 12:00 GMT

    Thankfully, somebody did see Light. Thankfully, this article considers McGrath as something as an 'aspiring' immortal & not actually immortal. He was the most pretentious 'fast' bowler I have ever seen. Not bowling fast at all & always relying TOO MUCH on his illustrious team-mates to take catches. Also the reason my favorite: Alan 'The White Lightening' Donald is also an 'aspiring' immortal is only just because of the team's over-reliance on him in the 1990s thus taking toll on his stamina/health. Imagine if he had played a 100 tests & not just 72. He would have easily blown McGrath's record away by a mile. Donald running in was a frightening sight for the unlucky hapless batsmen & an entertaining one for the spectators as Donald smiled & teased the batsman after the the ball had been bowled. He was the GENUINE fast bowler's very definition & plus he had the stats to prove it. Unfortunately in his early days when he in county cricket in the late 80s, SA was in apartheid or else...

  • Amol on January 30, 2011, 11:35 GMT

    I hope Kallis blasts at least three centuries in the 3-Test series vs AUS in Sept. That may not give the same level of satisfaction that I would have obtained witnessing him spanking Warne or McGrath (Unfortunately he never did) but at least that would make his stat against AUS respectable. But against the current AUS bowling, line-up it's perfectly possible.

  • K. on January 30, 2011, 8:36 GMT

    @SCHULZ: Most batsmen generally do well at home. The stats you quote vs. various opponents include ones at "home". The acid test for a player is how he plays the best in their own BACKyards. Here's the stats for the big guns:Tendulkar: In India: 6547 @ 56.9 In Aus: 1522 @ 58.5 In Eng: 1302 @ 62

    Lara: In India: 198@ 33.0 In Aus: 1469 @ 41.97 In Eng: 1268 @ 48.8

    Ponting: In India: 662 @ 26.5 In Aus: 6851 @ 60.1 In Eng: 1421 @ 41.8

    Kallis: In India: 760 @ 58 In Aus: 915 @ 46 In Eng: 586 @ 29

    As can be seen Tendulkar has by far the best universal record....followed by a narrow margin (yes surprise) Kallis,who shows almost as good adaptability to different conditions as Lara and Ponting....But , Tendulkar is by far the most adaptable batsman...across Time (longevity), across conditions (pitches, countries) , and across bowlers (he has faced by far the most varied and best bowlers for over 2 decades).

  • Amol on January 30, 2011, 7:14 GMT

    Kallis may average 40-something TODAY against the AUS but eliminate the stats that he achieved against those bitter rivals from the 2008-2009 series just because that last series was the only series against AUS where he did not face the modern Bowling Greats (McGrath, Warne, even MacGill when it comes to spin) and check with what we are left with. On the Contrary just check how Sachin and Lara skewed the stats of those Bowling Greats.Therein lies our answer. But at the same time, Kallis' sheer amt of wickets in cricket give us a complete picture. My point: Sachin is the Greatest Batsman. Just check comments by Donald, Warne, Akram- the three personal greatest bowlers ever for me from past cricket or check views of the greatest metronomes ever - Pollock, McGrath. Kallis is complete cricket personified. He is real 'Mr. Cricket'. The only other guy worthy of this tag is the bowling all-rounder - Imran Khan and not Hussey. (I'm from Mumbai)

  • Bertus on January 30, 2011, 6:25 GMT

    I have to disagree on some people's opinions that Kallis isn't a great because there's no-one emulating him or little kids thinking they 'are' a little Kallis. Back home in SA he is held in a massive regard and coaches readily uses his batting technique as an example of solidity and class.

    South Africa has produced some great all-rounders over the years, like Procter, Pollock, Goddard and McMillan just to name a few. Kallis will top that list and he's also the reason South Africa will keep on producing great all-rounders.

  • Aditya on January 30, 2011, 2:03 GMT

    Kallis is indeed great, without using the term on him. But, if Sachin and Sir Don Bradman are often spoken in the same breath, then I would compare the other batting 'immortals' to Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Sehwag. By 'immortals', I refer to the other batsmen, who played with Bradman in the Australian Team. Kallis unfortunately belongs in a team, where there is no other outstanding talent, apart from Daryl Steyn, today, if we also take the greatness of Kallis into account. In a team game, one is neither greater nor less than one's team-mates. Hence, belonging to a team of not exceptional talent, Kallis is also perceived similarly. Although, perceptions do not ultimately matter. It does not matter, whether some are seen as great, and others as not, because basically perception differs from person to person.

  • Carl on January 29, 2011, 23:38 GMT

    Lastly (this is for the doubters). Tendulkar averages 42 V Pakistan and 42 V South Africa.

    Ponting 44 V England and 47 v India.

    Both those players are greats (Tendulkar the greatest of all) but even they don't average over 50 against everyone. Kallis is comparable with Ponting (at least) but has 270 wickets as well.

    As for entertainment. I'll take Kallis' consistency and the reassurance I have when he's batting any day of the week. There's only one this worse than boredom -losing. Kallis has saved a brittle SA batting line-up too many times to count. Something Ponting has only had to do lately...no...wait...he only averages 42 over the past 18 months...my bad...

  • Asif on January 29, 2011, 21:57 GMT

    Kallis has a great record, Soberesque, no doubt about that, but he is not an exciting player to watch (just my personal opinion), he is more of a solid technician rather a great entertainer and hence perhaps he does not get due recognition from cricket pundits and ex-greats alike

    And I absoutely agree with the following comments by crickifan and perhaps that is the difference. Greatness is not all about just numbers and stats

    'Rob I still think Kallis is in between that Very good and Great mark. He certainly don't fall in to that category because greatness depends on how a player influenced others to play cricket. I don't think any one will start playing cricket by looking at Kallis bowl or bat. Take Sachin, Lara, Viv, Imran Khan, Wasim etc they influenced the people watching the game in such a manner that the audiance will try to mimic or emulate them. Sorry I disagree with you in this regard'

  • paul on January 29, 2011, 21:57 GMT

    To continue with the batting discipline consider these averages!! He has achieved AND maintained a test match one of consistently around 55 for the last six to seven YEARS!!..markedly better than his contemporary rivals SRT, Punter, and Dravid..the last two of which are falling steadily.His cumulative ODI average is even better @ over 40 for the last TEN years!!! His first class stats are not exactly ordinary either @ nearly 56 per innings!! Just three currently "active" men have better figures two of which only just marginally. For a man who was once dropped by his own country from the T/20 format "because it didn't suit his game" then held the orange cap despite a supposedly and inferior strike rate!! as leading run scorer for much of last years IPL tournament, and his T20I average is significantly better than even the short game specialists. His World Cup stats a mere 51.27 place him ONLY!! fifth best in the all time list.

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