July 25, 2012

Kallis, Steyn, and why the X-factor matters

As events at The Oval showed, greatness is the ability to bend and shape events by will, to dictate history rather than be dictated to by it

If class truly is permanent and form really is but temporary, what can we say of greatness? That it's another word for class? That there's a word even more time-and-tide-proof than permanent? We can certainly say without the slightest fear of contradiction that there was an appreciable and remarkable dollop of it on show at The Oval. Hints, betrayals and denials of it as well as stone-cold, enshrined-for-all-cricketing-time confirmation. But let's start with a couple of insights from one who knows.

The Olde Cock Tavern is one of those ancient haunts once beloved of Fleet Street's most fearless and feckless. The last Thursday in June found a gaggle of hacks assembled there to break bread with Ed Moses, one of the greatest of all Olympians and honoured guest of the Sports Journalists' Association of Great Britain. Once the formalities had been done and dusted, the interrogation began. What ensued was mostly gentle, very occasionally provocative, unfailingly polite and deferential.

What, I enquired by way of a gentle, polite and deferential opening half-volley, had been the chief motivation for this arch-competitor, the chap who not only won the Olympic 400 metres hurdles in 1976 and 1984 sans chemical assistance (and would almost certainly have done so in 1980 had the US not boycotted the Moscow Games) but strung together an unbeaten streak of 107 consecutive finals and 122 races all told?

Measured but affable, the response was disarmingly straightforward: height and, as his aura grew to such extraordinary heights, a constantly reinvigorating dread of defeat. "I was five-foot-eight, one of the smaller boys at school. Too small for football, too small for basketball. No one picked me."

Later he recalled an eerie out-of-body experience during the 1984 Olympic final in LA: "There were 100,000 in the stadium but after the third hurdle everything went quiet, bar the sound of feet landing, step patterns and legs brushing hurdles." Not only did he possess every last milligram of the focus required by all those who seek sporting greatness, he could even eliminate the crowd from the equation. And when mind can defeat matter, as it must when your every move is being watched and scrutinised, anything is possible.

It is that capacity to block out all extraneous thoughts that separates the indisputable greats from the nearlys and almosts and not-a-chancers. South Africa currently boast three of the first and one poised to complete the transition, and at The Oval they all had their game face on when it mattered. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn underscored in the most indelible of red ink why they have the Moses touch. For this triumvirate, more conspicuously than for most sportsfolk, the motivation does indeed appear to be that dread of defeat - or, more positively, the need for victory, as opposed to merely the desire.

In trumping them, moreover, Hashim Amla confirmed that he, too, possesses that other prime prerequisite of those pursuing posterity: unshakeable faith in one's own strengths. The most obvious symbol of this has been his faith in his own faith - hence his continued refusal to compromise by bearing the Castle Lager logo* on his uniform. And while he may be a sublime artist, he's also a sound scientist and sure-footed strategist who knows how to reduce error, pace an innings and conduct a partnership of substance - witness how he spent 47 balls moving from 46 to 56, then inched from 54 to 70 while Smith surged from 37 to 84. Style and steel seldom find such harmony. Think Lara, ponder VVS: he may well have it in him to outdo both.

By contrast, sadly, Kennington appeared to reveal all too much about Ravi Bopara's shortcomings, for what is talent without appropriate application? Two self-engendered dismissals - whether attributable to inferior shot selection (first dig) or execution (second) - should be considered the perfect riposte to the columnist who recently picked him at first-drop for an all-British Asian 2015 England XI scribbled on the obituaries page of the Times. But then, assessing putative greatness is rarely straightforward.

Within 18 months of Smith launching his reign by caning England with double-tons in consecutive Tests, he was presiding over a team that had lost three successive final Tests, and four out of five; not one of those stumbles resulted in a rubber won. Then came twin thrashings by Australia full of personal non-contributions. It also took him just 17 months to slither from an average muscling towards 80 to below 52. How many forecast then where he stands today?

IF GREATNESS CAN BE DEFINED as the ability to rise above the pack, to convert the unusual into the routine and the unlikely into the matter-of-fact, to do the necessary when it matters most, it can be more instructively rationalised as the capacity to bend and shape events by will, to dictate history rather than be dictated to by it. Kallis and Steyn accomplish this one way, Smith another.

Kallis, who can do everything with authority bar keep wicket (though you wouldn't necessarily bet against him doing better than de Villiers), is, on figures if not versatility, the most consistently and durably prolific allrounder the international game has ever seen; Steyn is the pre-eminent paceman of the past decade, one where wickets have seldom if ever attracted a higher price or extracted a sterner toll; yet that has still failed signally to stop him posting a strike rate that would have chuffed even that prince of diffidence SF Barnes. One has licence to dominate, the other to enthral and ill. Both have skill and intent to burn.

South Africa romped home not just because their key men so vividly demonstrated the difference between those who have savoured greatness, recognise its permanence and know how it means more than mere class, and those still attempting to cross the bridge from mere excellence

Smith has achieved greatness despite the despites. Despite a technique that defies most if not all tenets of the average textbook, despite being saddled with the captaincy at a tender 22, and despite, as Telford Vice put it, being " tasked with rebuilding South Africans' faith in the integrity of game itself" following the H***** C***** betrayal, he has proved himself, over and over again, as both opener par excellence (over the past 10 years none has exceeded his Test hauls of 7938 runs, 25 hundreds and 30 half-montys) and leader supreme (doubtless has those ever-alert eyes set on becoming the first to orchestrate 50 wins). As attested by the fact that he has captained his country nearly twice as many times as Mark Taylor, the next most successful opener-captain, nobody has borne those twin burdens with such indomitable resolve.

Yet while none of their number has quite reached the summit of unqualified greatness - in itself, perhaps, the secret to a resurgence that could yet see them become the first act to reside at No. 1 in the 33rpm, 45 and 78 charts simultaneously - England have more budding greats in their camp: Jimmy Anderson, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Andrew Strauss and Graeme Swann are all on course to break long-standing national records, and who knows how many surprises Jonathan Trott has still to spring, or how good Steven Finn could be.

That only Prior came close to cutting the mustard in south London may say something unpalatable about English over-confidence or unflattering about those - myself among them - who are finding it increasingly hard to recall a better team of Poms in any sport since 1966. Would it be reasonable, therefore, to state that, when it mattered, they allowed themselves to be bent and mis-shapen? No, because that would diminish the merits of South Africa's strident quartet and the way they imposed their will, the way greatness has always imposed its will and always will. You'd still need a sizeable pair of blinkers to neglect the X-factor.

It is difficult not to conclude that Mark Boucher's sight-threatening eye injury was even more important to the tourists than the first encounter of a crucial if pitifully and shamefully short series. After his devoted wicketkeeper had been felled by that evil bail at Taunton, Smith expressed the hope that South Africa would "play with him in our hearts and minds", not just on this tour but "for many years". You could see it most obviously when Kallis pointed to his right eye after reaching his century, but also when Steyn lost his rag with Gary Kirsten, and when Smith himself, eyes ablaze, read the riot act after his team took the field for the final session on day one. Whatever he said, the response was all but immediate; every man jack shifted up a gear.

Defying most predictions, however misguided, South Africa romped home on Monday afternoon not just because their key men so vividly demonstrated the difference between those who know how to eliminate the crowd, who have savoured greatness, recognise its permanence and know how it means more than mere class, and those still attempting to cross the bridge from mere excellence. They also did so because they're running out of time to bring their nation's cricket to fulfilment, and because, perhaps above all, Boucher gave them a cause beyond themselves.

Between now and next Thursday morning, the Andocracy will be citing last November, when Smith's own side bowled Australia out for 47 in Cape Town then permitted the same opposition to chase down 300-plus in Jo'burg. They will also be ramming home the overriding message ad nauseam: one crushing defeat doth not a bad side make. What they must fear is that the Boucher Factor has the roots Smith believes and the longevity he craves.

12:08:22 GMT, July 25, 2012: The article originally stated that Amla pays a $500 fine for not sporting the Castle Lager logo, which is not true

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on July 27, 2012, 22:29 GMT

    @SamRoy - I think that the Ponting v Sachin thing is not as big deal. Punter had the greatest "form burst" ever for a batsmen post Bradman that last around 50 tests or 5yrs. At one point in time it looked like he'd average near 70 by the time he retired. Sachin has plowed along over time at a consistantly high level for a period much longer than Punter & rightly counts for a lot. IMO - Sachin is the better of the two in batting terms, IMO it's close as Punter had the dual responsibility of captaincy & lead batsmen, something Sachin didn't do well with. I rate Lara at times way beyond the pair of them, with Sachin slightly ahead overall. I do believe taht if Sachin plays on(lessor extent Punter too), he runs the risk of diminishing his legacy such that he won't be considered near either. Interestingly Kallis chips away & gets better with age, I think he is edged past Dravid & is pretty much ahead of Punter. Although comparitive match awareness is a negative (IMO) with Kallis.

  • Andrew on July 27, 2012, 22:23 GMT

    @_NEUTRAL_Fan_ - mate - Sobers was mostly a spinner & I compared Gibbs (as a spinner), against Sobers. I didn't compare Gibbs to Kallis. Just so that you understand WHY I included stats on the pacers you mentioned, it was to show that (whether they were good or not), their sample size is not a reasonable comparison. One of the pitches Tsotsobe bowled on was an absolute road where about 13 runs were scored off - for bairly 20 wickets. If a bowler has only played 5 games, including a road, he is hardly going to have flattering figures. His stats were better in the 5 games he played, than Kallis. I was talking subjectivity where you used the words "...he would have averaged around 28-29 with the ball, and picked up around 4 wickets per match." there is no justifiable basis for it, & I am uneasy about the whole arguement, as the more I prove my point - the more it appears I am sledging Kallis which is the last thing I wish to do. I'd call it a draw as we have immovable opposing opinions!

  • Dre on July 27, 2012, 21:02 GMT

    @Meety, look u'r "facts" n my "subjectivity" is being twisted n picked n green taped 2 suit u. Is this a courtroom? So what if Paul Harris is a spinner? U urself mentioned LANCE GIBBS. for a comparison of SR, scroll down n read ur own comment again. N so what if they only played 1 n 5 games? Cricket is part stats n part observation no? How many experts have said stats only tell part the story? Their stats aren't more impressive neither were their performance, on his day IF REQUIRED and perhaps if he was selected as a bowler alone...HE WASN't he would have taken more wickets. He looks more than capable. Besides similar to Paul Harris, he's often asked to play a holding role n their were times that he did better than Paul Harris in that regard. WHether or not Smith was using Paul Harris well is just as "SUBJECTIVE" I will call it a draw if we say we both have our opinions but I refuse to call it a draw in that u presented "facts" which @ times were well manipulated n contradicting.

  • Andrew on July 27, 2012, 13:58 GMT

    @_NEUTRAL_Fan_ - fair enuff re: captaincy skills, is was more tongue in cheek than anything, although captaining Pakistan is a skill set beyond what most mortals can achieve with any success. You ar using bowlers that either are fledgling or haven't had success. In regards McLauren - I assume you mean Ryan Mclaren, who only played 1 test & only bowled 13 overs. Tsotsobe only played 5 tests & in that period (5 of 8 games) Kallis's ave was around 45, although Tsotsobe took a lot more wickets in the games he played than Kallis. Only saying that as there are mitigating circumstances. I am not interested in Paul harris as he is a spinner & needs to be evaluated on a different set of principles & on top of that, Sth Africa (rightly or wrongly) have not had a good reputation amongst their captains of using spinners well since readmission. I accept you maybe a fan of Kallis (nothing wrong there), but I've backed all my arguements with facts, you are using subjectivity. Call it a draw?

  • Dre on July 27, 2012, 13:13 GMT

    @Meety fair enough let's leave Bang n Zim out of it, NZ, W.I. , Sri Lanka and Ind....thats about 4 teams I am sure would love to select Kallis as a bowler alone and he has better career stats as a bowler than Paul Harris as I mentioned before. I would go as far as to say he looks n performs better than Tsotsobe and Mc Lauren BOTH who have been selected as specialist bowlers for SA in recent times. And about the captaincy thing, well guess what, only 1 player at a time is required to be captain but I'm sure all teams would love to have 11 guys who can field well. The 3 basic n most important parts of cricket r batting, bowling n fielding, so u know what the "never heard of Kallis' captaincy skills" is not very important at all.

  • Dummy4 on July 27, 2012, 6:03 GMT

    So many greats in their squad...!

  • Andrew on July 27, 2012, 2:59 GMT

    @_NEUTRAL_Fan - your arguement could almost be summarised as - if Kallis was eligible to be selected for bangladesh - he therfore can be qualified as a dual specialist, which is IMO setting the bar a bit low! In regards Botham & Khan's batting averages, you have twisted my arguement. I asked modern bowlers comparable to Kallis - as Kallis is a modern cricketer. The FAIR question from you is name great batsmen of the 80s that had averages comparable to Khan & Botham. Despite that, your question is not valid as my original question was to see how it could be proved that Kallis could be selected as a specialist bowler as it has never happenned, whereas Khan was selected as a specialist batsmen & bowler. Botham was originally selected as a bowler, & was the fastest player to achieve the allrounder's "holy grail" of 1,000 runs & 100 wickets. Clearly in comparison - Kallis is a better batsmen by a long way - irrespective of what era.

  • Andrew on July 27, 2012, 2:42 GMT

    @Xolile - "...and I've never heard persons praise Khan for his outstanding fielding..." just as I've never heard anyone praising Kallis for his captaincy ability! I haven't minded the first part of discussion but all your comments on (July 26 2012, 18:50 PM GMT) - are dissappointingly weak. There is plenty of evidence he got to bowl at the tail. In fact 38% of his wickets are positions #7 to #11, also he has maintained 20 overs a match thru out his career until the last 2 seasons. Your last 2 sentences is total supposition. There is nothing in his career stats (except games against Zim & Bang), that would suggest he'd have a an ave around 29 or take 4 wickets a match. Kallis is & has been a great asset for Safrica, but to make up stuff like that cheapens his actual achievements. It is a luxury for captains to have Kallis as a bowling option nestled in the top 6 in the batting order. But to say he'd be 20% better when his 1st inn stats are ave 39.4 & S/R 79.9 is a massive stretch!

  • Shalin on July 26, 2012, 19:55 GMT

    @naphy23: it was Diepenaar who got out early in that game.

  • Deon on July 26, 2012, 18:50 GMT

    @Meety - I would like to add three further points to my previous comment: (e) Kallis seldom bowled at the tail, because the prevailing wisdom in SA cricket is to let the fastest, meanest bowlers loose at that stage of the innings; (f) Kallis' career started earlier because of his batting abilitily; at that point in time his bolwing skills were not fully developed yet; and (g) Kallis' career is ending later because of his phenomenal batting ability; given that he is a fast bowler (>140kmh), he is currently not quite as sharp as at this peak; his declining bowling average supports this observation. All in all, if Kallis were picked as to bat at No11 and open the bowling, he would have averaged around 28-29 with the ball, and picked up around 4 wickets per match. That's better than all but the very best of modern day bowlers.

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