Kallis a standard-bearer for a nation
There is always a certain sadness when exceptional sportsmen call time on their career. Our interest in them lies not just in the aesthetics but in both character and personality; in physical and mental strength; in the ability to win. Few are given every gift. In cricket, Sir Garfield Sobers has been the stand out. Roger Federer, Diego Maradona and Severiano Ballesteros are three from other sports so blessed.
Jacques Kallis wanted to play in the World Cup next year but he has run out of time. The reason for his retirement from Test cricket was simple enough; he didn't have the mental energy for it anymore. The brain had rebelled against the demands of the contest. Test match innings are a triumph of the mind. Bowling is a talent wholly attached to discipline. Catching at slip is a matter of concentration. Kallis still had the legs but the heart and head had wandered elsewhere. He broke the news to Graeme Smith while the pair of them stood at slip during the series against India last Christmas. Smith was eager for him to hang on for the Australians but he said there was nothing left to give. Friends suggested he drop down the order and barely bowl. He told them they were missing the point. Either you are up for it or you are not. Hanging on is a betrayal.
He thought he had a World Cup left in him. It grates, not just with Kallis but with every South African who has touched upon bat and ball, that World Cup failures are associated with the C word. Some sportsmen lose, others choke. Or, as a well know golfer once said about a putt that went astray, "I threw up on myself." It appears that the South Africa cricket team does much the same, which is odd given that South African people have both courage and commitment in the many challenges they face. Kallis is furious that his team should be the subject of such opinion and remains certain that the talent and attitude exists to win the tournament in Australia. Initially, he felt his experience and all-round skills would add value to the sum of the parts. But he has found out that being a part-time cricketer is a mug's game. Thus, the career of an exceptional player has finally come to an end. After making 13,289 runs and taking 292 wickets in Test match cricket along with 11,579 runs and 273 wickets in one-day cricket, they will have to go and win the cup without him.
The Kallis statistics broke no argument. They are exquisite. And remember that batting on South African pitches provides a sterner test than those in most other countries. In the early 1990's, that shrewd old fox Robin Jackman said that the next great South African batsmen was about to make his debut for Western Province. Jackman was coaching in Cape Town and had first seen "the little oke" at Wynberg Boys High, alma mater of one Allan Lamb. Jackman was struck by a pure technique and commanding presence, aspects of his game that were to remain at the core of his longevity and success.
If figures are the go-to, only Sobers can compare. Sir Walter Hammond shares with both of them the unusual distinction of a Test match batting average above 55 that exceeds a bowling average by 20 or better. Only two men have batting averages above 40 and bowling averages below 33. Kallis is one but neither Sobers nor Hammond are with him. (I'll let you work out the other. It's a good 'un.)
In an age of extravagance, Kallis played the game pragmatically. He preserved his wicket in the way of the great defenders and yet had a range of strokes that allowed him control of pretty much any attack. His hugely strong upper body brought immense physical strength to his bowling, as batsmen uniformly spoke of a "heavy ball" and the relentless application of a tactic. He possessed two of the jewels of the great game, a beautiful cover-drive from either foot and a perfect late outswinger. He held 200 Test match catches, most at slip. A quirky but revealing stat is that only Adam Gilchrist, with 107, has hit more Test match sixes. All this hardly seems fair.
What he lacked was Sobers' flair. There were times when Kallis appeared lost in his own world, strangely unable to alter the pattern of play through inspiration. He operated within a risk-averse strategy, while Sobers regarded a gamble as part of the daily routine. Because of this, Sobers was greatly loved while Kallis was highly regarded. Sobers emptied bars, Kallis guaranteed no change should you happen to drift off. Sobers had a fluent, animal grace; Kallis a latent power and foreboding sense of permanence.
There have been five more unarguably great allrounders. Each caught the eye for different reasons. Sir Richard Hadlee applied a surgical precision; Sir Ian Botham paraded an absence of self-doubt that won many an unpromising situation; Kapil Dev played with an athletically free spirit, Imran Khan with a lion's sense of occasion and Keith Miller brought an unbridled pleasure to those lucky enough to witness either the man or his talent at first hand. Mike Procter may well have been among them had fate not turned against him.
Kallis retires as another one of those truly great cricketers. Whether or not he is the finest all-round player ever is irrelevant and, anyway, comparisons can be odious and lead to contempt. What we know is that he adorned the game we love. He made South Africans proud and he made the rest of the world stand up and take notice. He played at the highest level for 18 years, which is a testament to desire and fitness every bit as much as it is to the skills that make him irreplaceable. He was the beating heart of many fine teams, the reference point for many an opponent and a standard-bearer for a sports loving nation through its period of extraordinary reconciliation and change. Bravo Jacques, the game will be poorer without you.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK