March 7, 2012

What about Kallis?

Lara, Tendulkar and Ponting may all stake their claims, but when picking your top batsman of this century, you overlook South Africa's finest at your peril

With his customary erudite insight, Ian Chappell recently analysed the titanic triumverate generally held to be the three finest batsmen of this young century: Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar. Lara, he attested with a defiant lack of patriotism, pressed his buttons most insistently, most notably the penchant for lofty scores, the deftness against spin and that Sinatraesque determination to do it his way and his way alone. So far, so unarguable.

Lara probably presses even more of my own buttons. Of all the batsmen I have had the privilege to watch he was the most ravishing (strictly in the consensual, non-sexual sense): a constant source of wide-eyed wonder. That flamboyant, predatory curlicue of a backlift proclaimed that any stroke, anything, was within his compass. That unbeaten Aussie-stunning 153 in Bridgetown in 1999 remains the finest exposition of batsmanship I have ever witnessed.

Given the poverty of the supporting cast, furthermore, the burden he bore would have crippled a lesser mortal. Consider the following (and for the purposes of this analysis, let's just say that Test averages are the be-all and end-all). Tendulkar averages 55.44, best of the trinity; three of his contemporary countrymen have amassed at least 7000 runs at 46 or better; five totted up 14 centuries or more. Ponting averages precisely two runs fewer than Tendulkar; no fewer than five colleagues have racked up at least 4500 runs at 49 or better, as well as 15-plus hundreds. Lara averaged 53.17; his most consistent team-mates were Shivnarine Chanderpaul (44.60) and Carl Hooper (40.04), who combined for 26 centuries - fully eight fewer than Lara accumulated.

What, then, of the lustre of the bowlers? All three titans had to contend with Muttiah Muralitharan, Test cricket's most prolific wicket-snaffler, Shaun Pollock (eighth), Wasim Akram (ninth), Makhaya Ntini (12th), Waqar Younis (15th), Allan Donald (20th) and Darren Gough (46th), at or near their peak. True, Tendulkar and Ponting had a fair few tussles with Courtney Walsh (fifth) and Curtly Ambrose (11th), both of whom were frequently in Lara's corner. Unlike Tendulkar, however, Lara was obliged to tackle Anil Kumble (third), Harbhajan Singh (tenth) and Javagal Srinath (44th); unlike Ponting, he had to face Shane Warne (second) and Glenn McGrath (fourth), not to mention Brett Lee (22nd), Jason Gillespie (33rd) and Stuart MacGill (55th). Between the retirements of Walsh and Lara, the West Indies' most formidable pie-chucker was Pedro Collins, the all-time No. 142. And for all that he oversaw a drastic depression in Caribbean well being, Lara improved his output as captain, averaging 57.83, unlike Ponting (51.51) and Tendulkar (51.35).

Ponting, though, has been the one for seizing initiatives: nothing Lara or Tendulkar produced when nerves jangled most comes close to that contemptuous 140 at Jo'burg in the 2003 World Cup final. Nor, across all formats, can either match that 64.18 average and 31 centuries when toss has been lost and match won. Then there was that eight-year purple patch from the start of 1999 to the end of 2006, when Ponting piled up 8114 Test runs at 65. To take the most illuminating comparison, over his eight-year stretch as the world's unchallenged No. 1, from the start of the post-Packer era to the end of 1986, Viv Richards averaged 52. Even allowing for pitch-friendly inflation, that's a considerable gap. Vivi's proudest eight-year run, from 1976 to 1983, saw him average 60; given that he and Ponting both had the planet's best attack behind them, you'd say those streaks were equal.

Lara also showed it was possible to scale distant early peaks and still improve with age. He may have endured a recession far longer and deeper than Ponting or Tendulkar ever experienced (his overall average shrank from 60.96 to 45.63 between 1995 and 2001), but then came that startling second wind.

In his final 50 Tests Lara averaged 61.82 and collected 19 of his 34 hundreds. Eight came in his last 35 knocks, all against good-to-powerful attacks, including two doubles and three more scores of 150-plus. His last 15 Tests yielded 1425 runs at 50.89, including 216 in his penultimate outing. Over the past 12 months, by contrast, Tendulkar averages a whisper over 37; over the past two years, notwithstanding that recent rampage against India, Ponting 39.44. It's the lack of obvious successors that has kept them in the side, together, in Tendulkar's case, with that matchless box-office appeal.

Lara, moreover, timed his retirement with the astuteness that marked his business ventures. When he stopped playing Tests, after all, he was heading the all-time run-makers and held the records for highest and third-highest individual scores. True, it might have been nice for team-mates, board and supporters had he stayed around a bit longer, but better, far better, to leave 'em wanting more.

HANG ON, THOUGH: surely our trio should be a quartet? For all his feats and constancy, Jacques Kallis tends to slip under the radar when it comes to idolatry. The most obvious reasons are 1) South Africans have less passion for flannelled foolishness than Indians, Australians or Trinidadian-Tobagans, and 2) we never get to glimpse beneath that mask of immaculate professionalism. The continued absence of a hardbacked homage, even a ghosted Jacques the Lad-type autobiography, suggests there may not be all that much there, but many blanker personalities have lent their names to such potboilers. As a consequence, Kallis commands more awe than affection.

Statistically he loses nothing by comparison - quite the opposite. Over the past ten years he has averaged 63 in Tests. Up to the start of play in Dunedin, his past 50 five-dayers had brought 4320 runs at 58.37 and 17 hundreds. Granted, over his 150 Tests he has certainly enjoyed oodles of support - five team-mates have averaged over 45 and contributed more than a dozen centuries apiece - yet if he has been fortunate not to confront Donald, Ntini, Pollock, Morne Morkel or Dale Steyn, he is alone among our fearsome foursome in having tackled all five members of the 500 Club.

More than any of the aforementioned, even Lara, the winter of his career has seen Kallis flourish afresh. Having faltered from a career-high 58.20 to 54.37 between November 2007 and February 2009, his past six series have seen that overall mean rebound to 57.02, putting him back atop the active tree. In those 15 matches Kallis has stockpiled 1620 runs at 81, assisted by eight centuries, including his first two doubles. Tendulkar may have racked up more Test hundreds (12 in 73 innings) than anyone else aged 35-plus, but at 87.23 from 17 innings, Kallis averages more since joining that fraternity than anyone bar Bradman (105.72). Over the past two years, only AB de Villiers (89.13) has averaged more than his 83.35.

He also happens to be the ultimate modern allrounder, and not simply because of those 550 international wickets. After all, his average exceeds all three rivals in Tests, ODIs and T20s. Indeed, of those who have had six or more innings across all formats in the past two years , only de Villiers and Alastair Cook average more than Kallis' 60.28. That he has adapted so belligerently to the shortest form, confounding his critics, is perhaps the greatest tribute to his ability to meet a challenge. Witness, too, the response to that pair against Sri Lanka in Durban, his first in Tests, which he followed with a match-winning double-century in the very next encounter. Call him Ever-Ready; call him Duracell; just don't call him spent.

Two snapshots from last week's ODI in Napier. An early wicket appeared to give him no pleasure whatsoever. Then, having completed a fine catch toppling backwards, he confined any outward expression of joy to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it gap-toothed smile. Just another wicket. Just another catch. The Iceman cometh - and just keeps on cometh-ing. Basil D'Oliveira, another South African who knew a bit about self-restraint, recalled being chided by Peter May after letting his emotions get the better of him during a Test against West Indies: the message, deduced Dolly, was spot-on - "an angry bloke is half a man". Kallis learned that long ago.

His public persona is well-groomed. Sure, he got a little hot under the collar when South Africa's Test series against Australia last year was compressed into two instalments, but with a microphone shoved under his nose he comes across as polite, gentle, shy and almost insanely modest. Witness a brief YouTube interview in 2010 with Anusha Dandekar in which he claims, only half-chucklingly, that the secret of his success lies in being "a good barbecuer". Yet when Anusha asks him to cite the greatest cricketer of all - "besides Jacques Kallis of course" - he doesn't go all "aw shucks" and reel off a list of superiors but plumps unhesitatingly for Bradman, purely on figures. He knows that's how he, too, will be judged. Not by style or heroism or inspirational qualities but by the cold, hard, unmeltable currency of numbers. The words of that bonny 18th century Scotsman James Thomson might have been written with him in mind:

Pure was the temperate air, an even calm
Perpetual reigned, save what the zephyrs bland
Breathed o'er the blue expanse.

The jury remains out, and probably always will be, so let's be democratic out there. Aesthetic standard-bearer: Tendulkar. Sensual adventurer: Lara. Momentum-shifter: Ponting. Matter of life or death-er: Kallis.

15:00:45 GMT. Corrected to state that Kallis made a double-century in his Test after the pair in Durban

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