January 8, 2014

Never another like Kallis

It's hard to see anyone maintaining such discipline, efficiency, focus and fitness for close to two decades

Never again will the world's best cricketer be a batsman-slash-fast bowler-slash-stoic © Getty Images

Has this game of ours ever suffered such a prolonged outbreak of mourning? Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting, Kallis, Yousuf, Laxman, Boucher (wk), Lee, Swann, Ntini, Muralitharan: a team composed of Test retirees this middle-aged decade makes depressing reading. A makeshift opening duo, true, and a tad light on pace; then again, McGrath, Pollock, Vaas, Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard all quit the five-day fray between 2007 and 2009. Granted, Chris Rogers could wind up as the new Mike Hussey, but since India's selectors now seem irretrievably allergic to Virender Sehwag, the sense of grievous and irreparable loss hardly recedes.

Nor, for that matter, is there too much petrol left in the collective tank of this half-decent XI: Graeme Smith, Gayle, Sangakkara (wk), Jayawardene, Pietersen, Younis, Chanderpaul, Johnson, Ajmal, Steyn and Anderson. All the more reason to wonder, as Gideon Haigh did in the Times last week, whether a game whose aspirants can now fulfil their ambitions less taxingly can possibly maintain its capacity "to make, rather than merely to sell".

But before we get too tearfully fearful about ever seeing their likes again, consider the following XI, all of whose members hung up their whites between December 1990 and the end of 1993: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Miandad, Gower (wk - for the fun of it), Border, Botham, Imran, Kapil, Marshall and Qadir. And between 1984 and 1987? Gavaskar, Wright, Greg Chappell, Zaheer, Lloyd, Marsh (wk), Holding, Lillee, Garner, Thomson, Willis. Between 2000 and 2003? Anwar, Mark Waugh, De Silva, Azharuddin, Andy Flower, Healy (wk), Wasim, Waqar, Donald, Ambrose and Walsh.

Nor should this be regarded as an exclusively modern trend. Rewind to the years spanning 1953 and 1957 and it is hard to argue that this combo would be significantly inferior to the aforementioned: Morris, Hutton, Headley, Hassett, Compton, Miller, Gomez, Tallon (wk), Wardle, Bedser and Johnston.

Who, furthermore, is to say with any vestige of certainty that the following XI will not bid adieu in a similarly emotional and adulatory rush between 2020 and 2023 - Cook, Amla, Clarke, Taylor, Bell, De Villiers (wk), Shakib, Ashwin, Philander, Broad and Morkel? Or that they won't be emulated, if not eclipsed, come the end of the 2020s by one numbering Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Stokes, Williamson, Dominic Hendricks (wk), Gazi, Boult, Junaid and Chathura Peiris? Among the chief assets of spectator sport, after all, is its capacity for renewal and regeneration. Then again, quite why we should expect anything less of those steeped in the art of competition is utterly beyond me.

But another Jacques Henry Kallis? Really? Not in the conventional sense of an allrounder - as Kartikeya Date stressed in his recent blog here, Kallis was a batsman who bowled, not a man equally or even similarly productive in both guises - but as a truly modern allrounder, as liable to neutralise and/or obliterate opponents over five days as 50 overs or 20? Doubts are rabidly unconfined.

Let's deal quickly - if not lightly - with the bottom line. To average more with the bat in Tests than all bar one of one's illustrious peers is affirmation enough (despite debuting half a decade after Kallis, Kumar Sangakkara surely counts as a peer); to lead them all across three formats (combined average just south of 50) supplies icing of the lushest sort. To throw in 577 international wickets, enough to penetrate the all-time top 20 of another category altogether, defies credulity. We could go on and on, but a lily of this lustre surely has no need of gilding.

While others have entertained as regally as Sobers, will anyone ever again endure as productively as Kallis?

Which brings us, inevitably and not a little painfully, to The Sobers Question. Having witnessed both in their prime, I have no doubt whatsoever that a) Garry Sobers and Kallis, the only two Test players ever to have amassed 6000 runs and 200 wickets, were the finest flannelled fools I've ever seen, and b) however odious comparisons may be, I have no intention of resisting them.

I am no less obstinately adamant that Sobers, infinitely more the showman, scored vastly higher on the thrill-o-meter. True, his pomp coincided with impressionable boyhood rather than been-there-seen-that adulthood, but whereas both men subverted the mindset of their times, they did so with contrasting philosophies: Kallis prospered through attrition, drawing on a bottomless well of patience and persistently winning the mind games; Sobers grabbed matches by force of personality and scruff of neck, shaking so hard they had no option but to change course.

Even so, amid an era of unquestionably greater demands on body, mind and soul, one where allroundedness is a compliment more readily applied to wicketkeepers, it should be marvelled that Kallis, in terms of overall returns, so often stands ahead of Sobers, notably with the ball.

Check out the respective workloads. Sobers totted up *383 Test and other first-class appearances, 95 one-dayers of sundry hues, and a few dozen more in the grimly competitive Lancashire Leagues; Kallis clocked on for *257 Test and first-class outings, *421 ODIs and other List A fixtures, and *134 T20 contests in various dodgy uniforms. Nor did he conserve energy by cutting his run and floating up some spin, nor drop down to No. 6. Besides, if he was more averse to risk, given the more venomous attacks he had to confront, can we blame him? The keywords are consistency and constancy: the team man par excellence.

Yet if Kallis challenged our perception of what was possible after Sobers abdicated, why should it not be within the realms of foreseeability that someone will match, even surpass both? Right now, even if this inveterate Pom refuses to get carried away by the intoxicating promise of Ben Stokes, and accepts that Stuart Broad the batsman will never rise from part-time handyman to full-time usefulness, there are still three plausible candidates to couple 5000 Test runs with 500 wickets - Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Shakib Al-Hasan. That all are spinners is assuredly no coincidence: such are the demands on body and soul, it is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage their faster brethren undertaking as prolonged a quest for that particular grail as Kallis, let alone Botham, Imran, Kapil and Pollock.

Unfortunately - for us as well as him - the most compelling member of that aforementioned triumvirate has the disadvantage of representing Bangladesh. After all, since debuting in 2007, Shakib, the 25th man to harvest 2000 runs and 100 wickets at the highest level, has averaged fewer than five Tests per annum.

It is a measure of his potential, nonetheless, that only five others have achieved such a double while averaging 35-plus with the bat and less with the ball: This, though, is where we separate men from boys. However impressive you may find the differentials for Tony Greig (8.23), Keith Miller (+14) and Imran Khan (14.88), they pale next to those brandished by Kallis (22.71) and Sobers (23.74). But while South Africa could well have been a force without Kallis and West Indies without Sobers, the burden Shakib will have to bear for the next decade promises to be of largely Sisyphean proportions.

So, as the final arbiter of Kallis' uniqueness, let's settle for simplicity: a tidy number that, helpfully, has no need of decimals - nor, for that matter, a comparison with Sobers. Admittedly, Test cricket's first Man-of-the-Match award had yet to be made when the latter retired, but Kallis' tally of 22 nonetheless heads all comers. Next, on 19, comes Muttiah Muralitharan, who played 33 matches fewer and was named Man of the Series 11 times in 61 starts to Kallis' nine in 61. Subjective as such judgements invariably are, only a very small minority defy credibility. And just as no single cricketer has yet meant as much to his team as Muralitharan meant to Sri Lanka, Kallis was three times the cricketer.

Yet in many ways he defined what Huw Richards of the International New York Times dubbed "passive-aggressive" cricket, the same strategy that first hoisted then petarded England. Effective while the game was shifting away from viewing pace as the chief weapon, less so once David Warner and Faf du Plessis began ridiculing the assumption that alleged T20 specialists cannot adapt when tactics are determined by time.

In their different ways, Sobers and Kallis scaled the heights of versatility. The former, a professional with an amateur outlook, aimed to entertain; for all his remarkable late conversion to T20 destroyer, the latter's priority was to endure. But while others have entertained as regally as Sobers, will anyone ever again endure as productively as Kallis? Since this would mean maintaining discipline, efficiency, focus, fitness and occasional fabulousness for the best part of two decades, often in three formats, this is where doubts are gravest.

"Never again" is a big statement, a dangerously Churchillian statement. Made by the then British PM in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is a proclamation, given subsequent atrocities in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur and elsewhere, that really ought never to be uttered without an insurance policy that covers thoughtless misinformation. In this case, recklessness seems justified.

Never again will the world's best cricketer be a batsman-slash-fast bowler-slash-stoic. Never again will caution breed greatness. Never again will a sporting superstar enjoy the delights of a low profile. Never again will a national hero mean so little to the majority of the population. Never again, therefore, will we see another Jacques Kallis. Our children must judge whether this is a cue for undiluted mourning.

09:45:52 GMT, January 9, 2014: Figures corrected.

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

Comments