Kallis or Sobers?

Being Jacques Kallis can't be bad. Only the saintly would not envy his skill, his versatility, his discipline, his focus, his bank account. Many of us simply wish we shared that ability to run for five consecutive minutes without falling over, seizing up or throwing up. However, among those for whom the game is about the revelling rather than the living, who value style as much as - if not more than - substance, being Jacques Kallis also means personifying achievement at its driest, most colourless, most soulless. Or so runs accepted wisdom.

It was Derrida, the philosopher Jacques, who made the following observation, one that should have the cricketing Jacques nodding his head in sombre, knowing assent: "No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn't understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language." Kallis' most grievous sin has been to tamper with his own language, the language of sport, and in particular its definition of a hero.

Until the past year, his 13th in senior South African colours, he had been the hero as a non-perspiring non-inspiration. As recently as last July, the main collective goals at the start of his career - a first Test series win in Australia, a first in England since isolation, a World Cup final, membership of the planet's finest five-day XI - all remained stubbornly present and robustly correct. Moreover, there had always been a hint of selfishness, embodied by the resistance to changes of gear, especially in ODIs, a refusal to adapt that immaculately grooved, almost robotic, technique from the lure of statistical posterity to the needs of the we and the now. Hell, he hadn't even hit a double-century. Even Jason Gillespie had managed that.

Yet in terms of the barest essentials (net average, i.e. batting average minus bowling average), his Test figures as an allrounder were even better than Garry Sobers'. Which made him, by popular definition, if not recognition, the greatest professional cricketer there has ever been. And that was the greatest heresy of all. How could the Great Garfield possibly be trumped by a character so… characterless? More to the point, how could anyone tamper so fearlessly with received wisdom?

Then came 2008, an annus mirabilis that saw South Africa achieve three of those four elusive goals, a burst of fulfilment to which, improbably, Kallis the bowler contributed more than Kallis the batsman. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers had come of age, Dale Steyn was leading a pacy brat pack: now Kallis was wanted rather than needed. The king was now a knight.

That he remained a batsman to reckon with, nonetheless, was emphasised in Perth, where he played a critical if largely unsung role in South Africa's massive chase. Taking guard at 172 for 2, following Graeme Smith's departure for 108, he saw Amla depart three overs later. True, he'd made a steadying, invaluable 63 in the first dig, only his fifth 50-plus score in Australia, but was that kangaroo hoodoo, the one that had haunted and circumscribed his entire career, preventing it from being given its due, about to reassert itself? Not now. Not this time. Certainly not against this attack. By the time he was next to go, for 57, a historic victory was barely 100 away.

The only other time he had reached 50 in each innings against chaps in baggy green caps, at the SCG in January 2006, South Africa had been walloped by eight wickets. Here was sweet revenge. Here too, at last, was self-affirmation, a counter-punch to those who pigeonholed him - whenever the going got roughest - as brittle, a bottler. How apt that today's imperishable first should also have been at the expense of the opponents who have done most to keep him mortal.

IF EVER A SPORTING CAREER has been defined by substance rather than style, Kallis' has. The first man to emulate Don Bradman's streak of hundreds in five successive Tests (and he came within 15 runs of doing it again), no international cricketer has ever attained such a consistent level of productivity with bat and ball, let alone across two such contrasting disciplines as one- and five-day cricket, let alone while remaining so resolutely unhuggable and, yes, anonymous.

Great batsmanship is measured not by the weight of runs but by the indelibility of the impression those numbers leave, the instant internal replays they ignite, numbers inextricably linked to their author's name. Bradman and Sobers both had their 254, but otherwise the links are clear. Bradman also had his 309, his 334 and his 452; Sobers his 365 not out; Tendulkar now has his 103 not out as well as his 136; Lara owns patents on 153 not out, 277, 400 not out and 501 not out. But what of Kallis? You might make a case for 2007's masterly double of 155 and 100 not out in Karachi. Or the couple of six-hour hundreds against Australia in 2006, a precociously stoical maiden ton in Melbourne, and another exemplary lone hand in Kolkata in 2004. That only the Karachi effort resulted in victory, is only part of the problem; as worthy as those feats were, none of those numbers conjure up the name "Kallis".

What do we know about him? Not much. He's very pally with the gregarious Mark Boucher, but private and unassuming is both the public image and party line. Maybe that's why you can't find an autobiography out there in Amazonland? Has any modern sporting colossus ever reached the latter stages of his career without such a dubious distinction?

His website (www.kallis.co.za, note, not jacquesthelad.com or even jacqueskallis.com) informs us that he runs the Jacques Kallis Scholarship Foundation, whose stated aim is "to provide talented young cricketers from various backgrounds with the opportunity to reach their full sporting and academic potential". It also reveals that he adores chicken pasta and Jack Daniel's, is partial to driving Opels and on fairways, wears Armani and Adidas, denies reading newspapers, and admires Lance Armstrong (albeit probably not quite as much as he does the actress Neve Campbell).

His perfect dinner guests? That would be Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Ms Campbell and another fetching thespian, Denise Richards. Considerably more revealing is his "most valuable contribution to a team cause", namely the match-saving century at the MCG in 1997, his very first Test ton. Even now. And then there are the "Morals that I live by", namely "Control, Focus, Implement and Honesty". Of which only the last can be considered a moral. But maybe he has the balance just right. Save yourself for the crease then walk away, as far and fast as you can.

So let's forget philosophies and aesthetics and artistic impressions. Let's do it his way, the Kallis Way. Let's crunch all those numbers and boil them all down to one definitive, inarguable stat, devoid of ifs, buts or context.

Try this for starters. Of the other 46 batsmen who, up to January's end, had amassed 10,000 runs in internationals, none could match his average of 49.11. Not Brian, not Ricky, not Viv. And no, not even Sachin. Never mind that Kallis averages 45% less in defeat in Tests than he does in victory (34.10 to 62.46): that's only a shade worse than Tendulkar, and Bradman himself swooned by 67%. And don't bother either, please, with all that rot about making such hay at the kindly expense of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe: they've only conceded four of his 46 hundreds.

Now try this one. No bowler who has laboured through 4000 overs in internationals, nor taken as many as 450 wickets, has also racked up 10,000 runs, much less 20,000. And if you're still not convinced, you're probably the type who insists there's no difference between LPs and CDs.

AND SO TO THAT KNOTTY SOBERS PROBLEM. That there is one at all may strike most as preposterous. There's only one Garfield St Aubyn Sobers, right? Kallis shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath, right? Nobody should. Kallis doesn't bowl orthodox spin at Test level, much less chinamen, right? (True, he did put in two overs worth of leggies against New Zealand in 1999, on a glued pitch at Eden Park, but then, as Neil Manthorp reported, this did include "one delivery that bounced twice before reaching the batsman and another that bounced onto the upper tier of the main grandstand".)

Cheese and chalk, right? Black adventurer blessed with impossibly supple wrists versus white pragmatist with biceps on his insteps - no contest, right? Yet by any objective measure of achievement, this pair, as allrounders, as masters of all the essential cricketing crafts bar minding stumps, stand shoulder to shoulder on the sport's Mount Olympus. In fact, they have done for quite some time, much as we might like to pretend otherwise.

Quite simply, in terms of measurable achievement, the only two men to collect 6000 runs and 200 wickets in Tests, in the categories wherein they can be appropriately and gainfully compared, are too close to separate (Sobers, remember, played in but a single ODI). Indeed, their similarities and mutualities are far more numerous than a superficial pigeonholing might stipulate.

Both took time to adjust from teenage over-achievement (both, eerily, reached 50 twice in their first 18 Test innings), failed to convince as leaders or strategists, reigned long as their team's go-to batsman, then suffered gnawing declines (over his final 28 Tests, Sobers' batting average drifted from 63.77 to 57.78; in his last 18 prior to proceedings in Johannesburg, Kallis' had ebbed from 58.20 to 54.57, and he'd gone 16 innings since his last century, his worst trot since 2002). Both, furthermore, kept their bowling average pretty much constant, with Kallis' 2.91 runs better (31.12 to 34.03). The net difference? Precisely 0.32 of a run, in Sobers' favour. You'd have trouble getting a wafer-thin mint into that gap.

On a broader level, moreover, both failed to meet the needs of the collective quite as regularly as they might. As Manthorp mused: "Just as South African fans long to see a more ruthless Kallis with a deadlier, match-winning instinct, there were times (though not as many) when West Indian fans would have enjoyed a shade more solid, dependable reliability."

So, who is the more rounded allrounder? Let's dig deeper. Let's examine match- and series-winning capabilities. Both have combined a century and a five-for twice (Ian Botham, the leader in this category, did so five times). Sobers plundered 250 runs and 20 wickets in a series three times (equal top with Botham) to Kallis' one, but then five-Test rubbers, a decided scarcity now, were the norm in the sixties and common in the eighties: Sobers played in 16, Botham 13, plus four that ran to six chapters; with next winter's encounter with England now trimmed to four, Kallis may well not add to his seven.

No universally accepted means of ranking allrounders has ever been nailed down, a curious void for a game so in thrall to statistical convention. Net average still seems the most valid and easily comprehensible method, and on that score, Sobers (23.75 to Kallis' 23.45 at the outset of this match) gets the nod by a nose hair; six months ago, though, Kallis had a near-10% lead. On the other hand, if we alter the parameters to suit the times, the contrast is starker. Why not subtract bowling strike-rate from batting average and call it Productivity Rate? Too many minuses. Even so, those numbers do say something. While none of the 51 men to have completed the 1000 runs-100 wickets double in Tests boasts a negative difference of under 20, Kallis (less than -12 to Imran Khan's -16-and-a-bit) is much the closest to parity.

On balance, net average remains the least contentious formula, and Kallis may yet have the final word. Whatever else, it is certainly a measure of his and Sobers's overwhelming superiority as a duopoly that only 12 of the other 49 players who have gathered 1000 runs and 100 wickets have recorded positive net averages, among whom Imran (14.88) and Keith Miller (14) are alone in attaining double figures. That top four feels about right, too.

But distinguish we must, and the chief non-aesthetic, non-spiritual difference between Sobers and Kallis is that the latter's load has been far heavier. Sobers averaged just over four-and-a-half Tests per year, Kallis almost 10. He also averages more than 20 ODIs per annum. Throw in the greater proliferation of tours, the interminable air miles and those constant flits between time-cricket and overs-cricket, and between daylight and floodlight, and it does not seem unreasonable to propose that, even though you might as well compare Dylan and McCartney, Kallis' consistency has been even more admirable.

THE NEXT TARGET is an eyelid away - two more wickets and he will be the first to couple 20,000 runs and 500 wickets in internationals. And now, helpfully, another gauntlet is lying at his feet. Fresh challenges don't come too thickly for those in the closing furlongs of a sporting career, but Kallis has a couple of unfamiliar battles on his hands. One is to persuade the selectors that his right to Test selection remains automatic and divine; that they cannot live without him. Even more helpfully, being overlooked for Twenty20 duty irks far more than you might imagine. If he can somehow muster the wherewithal to meet those challenges, who knows what he might yet be capable of?

Some, though, will still cling, come what may, to the view that, no matter how staggering the stats, they could never be enough for him to make the leap from admiree to affectionee. Ever.

Jimmy Connors is the only practitioner of the competitive arts I can think of who pulled off that particular stroke of sorcery, and that was only because tennis crowds forgave his brattish, strutting arrogance as he faded, warming to the fallibility and the humanity rather than the invincibility. He may not have been much cop, but at least he kept turning up, kept grunting, kept trying. Even as canny a manipulator as Steve Waugh failed to make that leap. Yes, he possessed both the sense to quit while he was ahead and the steeliness to ensure he went out with a bang, but in so doing he denied himself the opportunity for redemption reserved solely for the visibly vulnerable. Outside Australia, he remains a subject of awe, not amour.

Yet Kallis, because he's still only 33, has a chance. As with Connors, this is partly because we have grown accustomed to his failures, have finally glimpsed the vulnerability, the humanity. But also because, like Connors, the only thing he has left to prove is that he is worthy of his audience's affections, that he can touch hearts.

Now Kallis is no longer the first name on the teamsheet, nor even the first batsman, will he - can he - finally shed those chains of responsibility? Can he give us, not the real Jacques (one suspects we know that one only too well), but a spanking new one? One freed and willing, at last, to let hair and guard down. One to whom surviving comes second, however marginally, to living. And, who knows, perhaps even revelling. Encouragingly, he has one more art to master, namely the game's newest form. It could yet do the trick.