Injured Kallis out-thinks India
Jacques Kallis makes everything look smooth: be it batting, bowling or catching at slip. He has this cool air about him. A man who knows he is good at what he does, a man who knows he looks graceful when he does what he knows he is good at. Sometimes he can even give the impression that he is not even stretching himself to the fullest. It comes across the most when, at times, he gets off to a quick start, and then settles down into accumulation mode as opposed to domination. It is still a pleasure to watch him because he does things beautifully. The real joy, though, comes when you put him on a bad pitch, or in a pressure situation, asking him to stretch himself, to show you all he has got.
This Test did that. On the first day, he came in a crisis situation on a pitch where the ball seamed all over the place. He also got hit in the rib area, hard enough to put him out for two weeks, but was the last man out after having scored a century that we scarcely thought could be bettered. Today, with the batting crumbling, with four to five painkilling injections in his system, with the sun spewing out 35 degrees-celsius heat mercilessly, with puffs of dust when the ball landed in the rough, with the series on the line, Kallis showed us his first-innings effort could be bettered.
And as he did that, he didn't mind looking ungainly, as if stretching himself. He was in a fight, he wasn't going to run away from battle-scars. You hardly see him play the reverse-sweep; that's not a shot for a batsman who plays proper cricketing shots so well. Yet today that reverse-sweep stood out. Great batsmen do that. They play one calculated, precise shot to change entire games. One shot. Think Sachin Tendulkar's upper-cut off Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup.
If Tendulkar put Shoaib off his game with pure audacity, here Kallis got into the bowler and the captain's heads. It was all going well for them until then. The ball was turning appreciably, and bouncing alarmingly. The leg-side fields were there to make sure no easy singles could be taken when playing with the turn. They even removed the silly point to make him play against the break. And what did Kallis do? He reverse-swept - in a Test, no less. And it was not just any reverse-sweep; the wrists rolled on it to keep the ball along the ground all the way. Not for a second did you feel that he was in danger of getting out.
That shot rattled Harbhajan Singh and MS Dhoni. The man who went to collect the ball from the boundary didn't come back. We now had a fielder for a reverse-sweep. Kallis started toying with that fielder. He hit square of him, the fielder went squarer. He hit fine of him, the fielder went finer. It was a clever little mind-game from a hurting batsman, and India - perhaps surprised that he played that shot so well - lost that mind-game. Once he had played around with the fields and Harbhajan's lines, Kallis was free to score as he wanted to.
Except he was batting in mad pain, thanks to the bruising and contusing in the ribs area from the hit he took in the first innings. Mark Boucher, who added 103 priceless runs with Kallis, later said it was impossible to imagine what kind of pain his mate was going through. "I don't think anyone actually understands the kind of pain he is in at the moment," Boucher said. "I just spoke to the doctor, and he reckons it's like someone actually breaking their own rib. Just goes to show the character of the guy. Lot of people talk about this cricketer, that cricketer, but in my eyes, in my opinion, we have got probably one of the greatest cricketers that has ever lived in our own country. It'd be nice if people start realising that as well."
In that kind of physical pain, just his coming out to bat after Alviro Petersen fell in the second over of the day was a brave act. The collective relief around the Newlands could be felt as soon as they saw it was Kallis walking out to bat. King Kallis, as they call him.
Despite the pain, despite the pressure, despite the misbehaving bounce, Kallis managed to make things look smooth, at least he made batting look the easiest anyone has done in this Test. He still played beautiful on-drives and straight drives. Except for the times when the ball bounced and he had to hold onto his side to fight pain, he still was cool Kallis.
"I have not seen many people bat the way he batted today," Harbhajan, who took seven wickets today but couldn't find a way past Kallis, said. "I have not seen many who could take up the responsibility the way he did. It was difficult conditions on the first day. It was overcast, and the ball was doing a lot for the seamers, it was nipping around, and there was a lot of bounce and swing. He has got the technique to play in all conditions. I would rate him up there, very up. After Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis is the best player in the world."
Kallis' effort has all but made sure that South Africa won't lose the series. In the process, he must have surely aggravated the injury, which could keep him out for longer than the original two weeks expected. Other cricket can wait, though. There can be no bigger thrill than to almost single-handedly save your side a Test, and put them on the victory road. The same can be said of watching a man doing it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo