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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 19, 2012, 13:44 GMT

    Wonderful writing Ramachandra Guha. I completely agree with you. Jacques Kallis is the worlds most valuable cricketer of current time if not all time.

  • Ajay on December 17, 2012, 23:17 GMT

    I completely agree with the author and I am an Indian fan. I read somewhere, the respect of those that I respect is what matters more. And Kallis has earned praise from pretty much every classy cricketer. I would refrain from drawing comparisons, but I remember commenting in another article about Sobers - that Kallis is probably the greatest all-rounder ever. The author confirms that notion too, and besides everything else - Kallis deserves commendation for his consistency, durability and utmost professionalism. He truly is an MVP

  • SANDEEP on December 17, 2012, 18:29 GMT

    @Balaji Kumar: Mr.Balaji,please .get your facts correct about "Sachin Tendulkar",Sachin has majority of his cricket abroad and also scored most of his runs there only and scored majority of hundreds abroad not in india........Got it........

  • Dummy4 on December 17, 2012, 18:27 GMT

    Absolutely no doubt.. Kallis is the greatest Player in the game right now! Even of he were just a batsmen, I would rate him higher than Tendulkar or Ponting! Add to that the wickets and catches, no two ways to the debate! I have been a huge Kallis fan for the ever since I understood the game in and out, 15 years back, aged 8 then! He still remains and will always be my favorite! His attitude is comparable to Dravid, my second favorite cricketer! If Kallis does play as many tests as Tendulkar, I'm pretty sure he'll better him the runs, centuries department! Its just a matter of how much SA play in a year! and yes, he would have done that in way tougher batting conditions than what Tendulkar has faced! In any case there is no way Tendulkar can achieve what Kalis had done with ball and in the field!

  • Yogesh on December 17, 2012, 3:12 GMT

    To all my fellow Indian supporters on here who have their blinders on and refuse to acknowledge facts - Kallis is a WAY better player than Tendulkar or Ponting, the other two greats from his era. In fact, he is two world class players rolled into one. He would walk into any team as a specialist batsman. And almost any team as a specialist bowler. In fact, if he were Indian, they would be raving about him as the most effective pace bowler they have ever had! Thanks to him, the Proteas have been able to effectively play with 12 players instead of 11. Sorry, guys, but Kallis has done everything that Tendulkar and Ponting have, with the small additional matter of 282 wickets and 192 catches, which is way more than they have!

  • Dummy4 on December 16, 2012, 21:26 GMT

    @Ntokozo ZamaBlaze: Can't agree more. I am an Indian supporter but I have been constantly frustrated at the level of praises and 'hero worship' perpetrated at an average player like Tendulkar. Sure, he has all the records but more so due to starting at tender age of 16 and playing most of his cricket in India on the flattest of pitches. Even then, he never had many match winning innings for India compared to the likes of Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis etc. And now, he's making himself look like a clown without retiring and blocking a probable young man's career. Kallis is a hero, a modern legend and as you say, a '3 in 1' utility cricketer. Life for SA will be tough once he leaves the team. A guy like Tendulkar is disposable, but Kallis isn't. Enough said.

  • Joshua on December 16, 2012, 19:37 GMT

    "He was awesome. When he got out I went up to him and told him it was the greatest batting in a series I've ever experienced, for or against." Brian Lara on Jacques Kallis's amazing run-spree in the just-concluded series Jan 31, 2004

    Just ignore the biased rubbish from people such as Ian Chappel etc. Lara's opinion (and also Tendulkar"s) is good enough for me. Kallis is the finest total cricketer of all time. Let us honour him for that. (He probably also could have kept wicket as well!)

  • Yasser on December 16, 2012, 18:43 GMT

    My favorite writer on cricinfo wrote about my favorite cricketer in world cricket.

  • prateek on December 16, 2012, 15:10 GMT

    I respect the author very much (he's an accomplished historian) but while talking of Tendulkar, the bias of an Indian fan might have crept in. But given all of that, I'm surprised at the strong reaction and ire by some of the readers on 'comparing Tendulkar with Kallis', 'age of tendulkar', etc, etc. Both are greats and so is Ponting, and one great finding a mention when talking about the other is perfectly fine.

    @Bollo: As far as "age ..." comment is concerned, the author is talking about players and not the teams. but that is debatable, no doubt. Tendulkar and Indian Team going through a rough phase at present doesn't mean that anything in their praise is unjustified.

    There is one line in the article which equally applies to Tendulkar too: "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."

  • Mohammad on December 16, 2012, 15:09 GMT

    Kallis has always been a lot better player than everybody else, Tendulkar is the finest batsman of this age but Kallis outclasses him in all other respects afterall cricket is not all about batting,or is it?

    Kallis is the Mr Cricketer no matter what indian sentimental people will say about Tendulkar.

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