December 30, 2013

Kallis' legacy ranks with the best

He had seven phases to his Test career, and at the end of them he is fit to rank alongside the very greatest

Jacques Kallis: absolute dedication, supreme belief, utter skill, devout hard work Neil Lane / © ESPNcricinfo

To never see Jacques Kallis again in a Test match will take a while to comprehend, especially since he has stroked another fine century. Fittingly, he will depart the Test arena in the most perfect way - on top of his game and in complete command. It will be a wonderful final memory for all those who have had the privilege to watch him, and especially worked with him. Many superlatives will be attributed to him over the coming days, and rightly so. Kallis broke many barriers and stood alone as the modern age's all-round Adonis, handsomely gifted with a god-given talent.

His record is simply sensational. Therefore it is worth assessment, and makes for fascinating analysis. For a career that has lasted 18 years, it's noteworthy to highlight seven periods: four difficult ones and three irrepressible ones.

As a 20-year-old, Kallis appeared overawed, his first five Tests reaping an average of just 8. Two years in, in his seventh match, he registered his first Test century, at the MCG, to boost a shaky confidence.

It was slow progress. By the end of his first 20 Tests, his return was only two centuries and an average of just about 32, still short of his first 1000 runs. His bowling was keeping him going as a useful contributor - after 25 Tests he had 42 wickets at about 39 apiece. While the potential for bigger brighter horizons were never in doubt, the question was when would it transfer into something significant. The Rainbow Nation needed a transformation. It received it in rugby in 1995 from Nelson Mandela, and from Francois Pienaar when he lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy. The national summer sport needed an injection of the same antidote, and the effort would be led by Jacques Kallis.

Many players have been discarded after such sluggish starts, yet for Kallis there was an all-round component and a growing belief in what might come. Over the next phase, from his 21st Test onwards, the first of three unbelievable run sprees, he emerged as a truly great player of his time.

Maybe it was those initial six Tests that shaped the Kallis way, the removal of risk and the utter devotion to technique and mental preparation. Maybe those early failures instilled a fierce desire to not fail like that again, and when in, to cash in huge. Maybe it would set the gear he would choose to bat in: assured, calm, and safe as a bank.

Cash in he did. In his next 78 Tests, he banked a little under 7000 runs at about 64, scoring 22 centuries. By the time he had reached 98 Tests, his average was a massive 57 almost, with 24 hundreds rubber-stamping his appetite for big scores. Additionally, he had captured nearly 200 Test wickets at 31 to support a claim that he was closing in on the superhuman Garry Sobers, perennially regarded the greatest of all allrounders.

This rich vein of form was cleverly constructed and magnificently compiled. Kallis played in a way that was systematic and controlled; he never blinked an eyelid, his heart rate seemed to hardly go up. It was like he was robotically programmed to conquer the world and dismantle all attacks, retaining all function and power no matter the challenges. What he did was machine-like.

Kallis played with a consistent routine, mentally and technically. His stance simple, body side-on, then a slight back-foot step and a tiny opening of the front foot to set his balance, while his hands positioned the bat, pointing just past off stump at a controlled height. Everything he did was measured and correct. The result being sure footwork, steady balance and a smooth, fluent flow through the stroke. Straight and late. Unhurried. As was his mind.

Yet he very rarely, in this first period of complete dominance, played an innings of sheer, outrageous splendour or irresistible force or abandon, or even gorged himself on a massive double or more (his highest was 189); he just batted in a gear that was methodically safe. If there was any slight criticism, it was the perception that he couldn't change the course of a game in a hurry, couldn't move out of his favourite gear and accelerate a match in his team's favour quickly enough.

As Kallis approached his ton of Tests, he stalled for the first time in a long time, his second tough phase. He somehow managed to not score a hundred in the next nine matches, his average dropping a few notches. The odd doubt came and went, yet he kept the difficult period short when he lurched back into action with twin tons in his 108th Test, against Pakistan in Karachi in 2007. From there he posted six centuries in 11 matches. In the second surge of his career he was simply unstoppable, again. Then he struck a new distraction - the Indian Premier League.

I had the privilege of working with him at Bangalore in 2008, when the IPL began. However, it was clear he was exhausted and spent due to six consecutive Tests and a lot of batting in a short period in sapping conditions. The adrenaline needed for the IPL, with the constant travel and attention, let alone the new way of playing, took even more of a toll on him.

I found Jacques to be a true gent. He was humble and civil in all he did. He never complained, and was happy to ignore the temptation to find an excuse. He was the model pro, someone you could work with. And very easy to sit with and converse on life, cricket and stuff. It was neat to hang with the man for a short period.

Kallis played in a way that was systematic and controlled; he never blinked an eyelid, his heart rate seemed to hardly go up. It was like he was robotically programmed to conquer the world and dismantle all attacks, retaining all function and power no matter the challenges

After IPL 1, Kallis hit a third rough little patch and struggled for another 12 Tests, with no reward, no pleasure on any front, with only four fifties in 19 innings. By the start of 2010, Kallis had shrugged off his run-scoring hiatus and found another gear; in fact he found a few. Interestingly, the IPL forced him to play more expansively, and once he had recharged his batteries and hunger, he went on to an extraordinary run of scores. This time he seemed armed with a new wisdom on expanding his game. We witnessed a turbo-charged century-maker finding a new, more urgent, execution. Actually he went utterly ballistic. All bowlers were nailed by this new stupendous swordsman. The Jacques blade was on fire.

From Tests 131 to 156, in 44 innings over an aggressively sustained period, he stroked and slaughtered another 14 centuries. The third, and final, wind of his mighty career was astronomical. It caused a ripple effect all around the world as the call came out that the supremo himself, Sobers, had been matched once and for all. Kallis was no longer a modern-day marvel, he was an all-time universal master, free to sit among the gods.

On 156 Tests, with 44 sublime hundreds alongside, his astonishing ratio of a hundred every 3.5 Tests or one every six innings, was sufficient to conquer Tendulkar, Ponting and Dravid (but alas not quite Sir Don). That says it all. All of this while taking close to 300 Test wickets and 200 Test catches to boot. Mind-boggling.

After November 2012, Kallis stumbled, a sign that age and exhaustion had caught up. His form dropped - no hundreds and only three fifties in 15 innings - mirroring his opening 15 innings of 18 years ago, when it all began. Until Durban this week. When he conjured up one more masterpiece, his 45th century, and rubber-stamped his true class.

Eighteen years of Jacques Kallis; absolute dedication, supreme belief, utter skill, devout hard work, phenomenal concentration. Add to that his composure in the dressing room and his consistency of endeavour everywhere he went. He has fashioned a legacy that will live in the top echelon forever. He will sit alongside Sobers as the finest all-round cricketer who played the game.

All in all, he has taken on a gigantic number of challenges, and there will be no doubt all around the world when it is said that Kallis learned a great deal from them and conquered them all, one by one, with the precision of any of the greatest performers.

South Africa will bid farewell to their greatest Test player with enormous gratitude.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand