December 29, 2013

Goodbye to two old-school players

Jacques Kallis and Graeme Swann are very different off the field, but they contributed to their teams in similar, impressive fashions

In the last few days the game has lost what even the most demanding northern England league cricket supporter would describe as "a couple of good 'uns".

The abrupt retirement and ensuing Twitter controversy told us much about the quirky personality of England's highly successful offspinner, Graeme Swann. On the field he was as traditional as they come: an old-school offie who relied on curve and drop from a hard-spun delivery and a simple "straight one", all delivered with a pleasingly clean action in an era where most offspinners lean heavily on the style of Paul Simon's "One-Trick Pony" - "a herky-jerky motion".

Off the field, so I'm told, Swann was an inveterate stirrer with his Twitter observations and eccentric originality, which produced his Ashes celebration "sprinkler dance".

In an era of bland interviews and highly controlled sporting media conferences, Swann will be missed as much for his originality of thought as he will be for his highly efficient offspin.

Just days after Swann's controversial retirement, the game lost the calm and clinical efficiency of the most successful allrounder in Test history, when South Africa's Jacques Kallis pronounced his departure with all the fanfare of an airline announcement. Kallis left the game in the same way he graced it; with no fuss, no controversy, and a lot of dignity. In years to come, as they gaze upon the cold, hard statistics, young cricket fans will wonder what the old-timers were gushing about when they said Garry Sobers is the best cricketer of all time.

Kallis' record is phenomenal. There is no one, not even the highly gifted Sobers, who can match him for statistical all-round efficiency. In Test cricket alone he averaged in the mid-fifties with the bat, bowled at a lively pace to capture nearly 300 victims, and completed 200 catches. Most cricketers would leave the game smugly satisfied with any one of those achievements to their name.

Kallis played with such clinical efficiency that his statistical success crept up on you like a father playing hide-and-seek with his kids. His batting, full of aesthetically pleasing cover drives and powerful pull shots, relied on technical efficiency and consistency rather than headline-grabbing starring roles. Whereas Sobers made news with six sixes in a first-class over, Kallis was a postscript in a match report: "Oh, and incidentally Kallis made a sound century, batting all day to dig his team out of a deep hole."

Kallis never took control of a game when he batted but there was a period in the mid-2000s when it looked like he had mastered it. Even during this period of high-scoring consistency, he was as low-profile as the average MI5 agent. The only information you could glean about the man was what you found in the scorebooks.

However, Kallis' influence in the South African dressing room was far greater than what his glitteringly ample record shows. He was as old-time as cricketers come; enjoying a beer after stumps and readily available if a younger team-mate needed advice or counselling.

By all reports he was a team-mate to be valued, but the only time this was revealed publicly was when his good friend Mark Boucher suffered a career-ending eye injury. Kallis then offered a rare public insight into his feelings but quickly reverted to type by allowing his bat to speak volumes; his first Test innings after Boucher's injury was a clinically constructed century dedicated to his close pal.

Swann and Kallis might be poles apart in personality but in one thing they were closely allied - as cricketers they were distinctly old-school. Swann eschewed a funky action and gimmicky deliveries, relying purely on good old-fashioned guile and guts to bamboozle his opponents. In an era of intense media scrutiny, Kallis defied the odds to become cricket's statistical superstar while remaining a virtual unknown.

Apart from being distinctly old-school, they have one other thing in common - the game will sorely miss them both.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

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