December 15, 2012

Jacques Kallis, MVP

One man stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to nominating cricket's most valuable current player

In 1997, on my first trip to South Africa, I was driving with some friends from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, along the so-called Garden Route. At one stage, our driver, who was also our guide, told us that if we were willing to take a detour of a couple of hundred kilometres, he would show us the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas. This (and not, as some mistakenly think, the Cape of Good Hope) is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.

We accepted the offer, so our guide drove off the highway into a country road that passed through undistinguished scenery. Then the ocean appeared, the water a striking aquamarine blue. We disembarked at a small, deserted, beach. We stood silently, watching the waters flow and part. A ship appeared on the horizon, disappearing almost as soon as it had come.

As we got back into the car, we saw a sign showing the way to "the southernmost café in Africa". The sign appealed, because of what it signified - a one-of-a-kind place - and because we had been several hours on the road and were famished. We drove on to the café. As we got to it, three huge, smiling white men came out of it and walked down the road. They were large - very large - their muscles well exhibited by the t-shirts and shorts they wore, their skins a bright pink, the smiles on their faces denoting the recent consumption of a good meal, and perhaps of a cheery temperament as well.

The signs were promising, but in the end only our driver-cum-guide had a proper lunch. The rest of us were vegetarian, and - this being South Africa - the dishes on offer were wildebeest, warthog and buffalo. Bread and chips and a cold Coke was what we Madrasi sakaharis had to be content with.

I always remember that trip to Cape Agulhas when I watch Jacques Kallis come out to bat on the telly. He looks like those men I saw outside the southernmost café in Africa - big, broad, and silent, and not unsmiling. By all accounts he has an equable, even cheery, temperament. He has not been known to slag off an opponent, question an umpire, or bitch about a team-mate. He must be one of the nicest cricketers in the game today - and also one of the greatest, if not the greatest.

In his book Masters of Cricket, Jack Fingleton wrote, "the longer I live, I am pleased to say, the less nationalistic I become. The outcome of a match is interesting but not, on the scales of time, of any great moment. What IS important is whether a particular contest gives to posterity a challenge that is accepted and won, or yields in classical technique an innings or a bowling effort that makes the game richer, so that the devotee can say years afterwards, with joy in his voice, "I saw that performance."'

I am a Hindu, so my pantheon was capacious to begin with. From the time I was a boy my gods have been firangis as well as desis. One of my few regrets as a cricket watcher is that I have never watched the South African Test team play live, at the ground. I have seen almost all the great moderns in the flesh - Wasim, Waqar, Imran, Miandad, Inzamam; Lloyd, Kallicharran, Richards, Greenidge, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Lara; Botham, Knott, Gooch; Ponting, Warne, Steve Waugh, Border, McGrath, Gilchrist; Martin Crowe; Andy Flower. Two I never seen bowl or bat before me are Allan Donald and Kallis. But thanks to the magnificent work of generations of (anonymous) cameramen, I have been able to watch plenty of them on the box.

When Kallis made his international debut he was principally an off-side player. I remember one of his first one-dayers, when he came in with four or five wickets down, with South Africa needing about 40 off eight overs. He played a series of dazzling back-foot drives behind and past point and got them home.

A few years later I saw him strike a more brutal note, as he powered his side to a win in a Champions Trophy semi-final against Sri Lanka, being played in Bangladesh. That diet of wildebeest and warthog was put to good effect as the great Muralitharan was hit for a series of sixes (five in all, I recall) over midwicket.

Those elegant drives past point, and those muscular hoicks to leg, have been less in evidence in recent years. Assigned the role of innings-builder, Kallis has relied more on leg glides and off-drives to make his runs. He remains a very accomplished batsman indeed, and a very prolific one. As of now he seems the only man with any chance of overhauling Sachin Tendulkar's record of most Test centuries.

One is tempted to see Kallis as being to Tendulkar what Wally Hammond was to Don Bradman

At home, if my son is with me when Kallis walks out to bat, one of us says to the other: "Here comes MVP." This is our term, borrowed from baseball, that fits Kallis better than it does any cricketer since the peerless Garry Sobers. For the last ten years now, Kallis has been one of the three or four best batsmen in the game. He has scored almost 13,000 runs in Test cricket, with 44 centuries. But he also has the small matter of 282 wickets and 192 catches to his credit. Jacques Henry Kallis is, without question, world cricket's Most Valuable Player.

When he began his career, Kallis swung the ball prodigiously, both in and out. I remember a series in England where he was given the new ball, with Donald coming on first change, after his young protégé. Later, as he became older and his body filled in, Kallis slowed down and lost the ability to move the ball late and dangerously. But he remains a very effective bowler, able to contain batsmen on the go, and able also to break partnerships.

Kallis is also a cracking good fielder. He normally fields at second slip, where the edges come really fast in any case, and faster than normal if the bowler is named Donald, Ntini or Steyn. How many times have I - and you - seen an edge fly fast towards Kallis, the pace and pressure of the ball pushing him backwards, from where he rises, smiling, the ball in his hands, the white floppy hat still in place.

In 2000, when South Africa last played a Test in my home town, I was away, on work. More recently Kallis played a season or two for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. I live down the road from the Chinnaswamy Stadium, but my detestation for T20 overcame my admiration for Kallis, so I never got to see him play.

The last two decades will go down in cricket as the Age of Tendulkar. His devastating strokeplay, his ability to transform a match (Test or one-day) within minutes, his precocious and enduring genius and his citizenship of a country composed of a billion and more cricket fanatics means that Sachin defines his times more effectively - and more dramatically - than any other contemporary cricketer. But Kallis remains for me the Most Valuable Player in the game.

One is tempted to see Kallis as being to Tendulkar what Wally Hammond was to Don Bradman. In any other epoch Hammond would have been the greatest cricketer of his time. Even so, he may have been a "more valuable" player than Bradman - for apart from his superb batsmanship, he was a great slip fielder and a most effective medium-pace bowler as well.

Kallis has all of Hammond 's cricketing gifts - and he seems to be a much finer fellow too. At my age I have few ambitions left, in cricket or in life in general. Here is one: that I may yet see Kallis play in a Test match in Bangalore.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books