South Africa's manufacturing industry is still considered to be in a phase of development but there is one part of the country's production line that has always delivered: the assembly line that turns out allrounders. Multi-skilled cricketers have always been an asset and South Africa has produced them seemingly at will.
A baker's dozen are celebrated in a new work entitled Jacques Kallis and 12 other Great South African All-rounders. Ali Bacher and David Williams have compiled a chapter each on 13 players who they deem to be the best South African two-in-ones, while they also pay tribute to others who can lay claim to the title.
In the introduction a statistical analysis - with criteria including number of runs scored, wickets taken, and matches played - argues that, to date, there have only been 42 genuine allrounders in the history of Test cricket. Garry Sobers, who Bacher regards as the "greatest cricketer of all time", tops the list and is followed by Jacques Kallis. The rest include six South Africans, eight Australians, and ten Englishmen (among them Tony Greig, who features as one of the chosen 13 here, though he played his Test cricket for England).
Numbers continue to provide interesting nuggets: Aubrey Faulkner's 732 runs in the five-Test series against Australia in 1910-11 still stands as the record for the most runs by a South African in a series, and Trevor Goddard's economy of 1.64 makes him the most miserly bowler of all time in Test cricket (among those who have played more than ten Tests).
A lot of the text contains already known stories - Clive Rice's exploits for Transvaal, Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener's reverence for Malcolm Marshall, Kallis' initial resistance to T20 - and borrows heavily from Wisden reports in recounting performances.
The personal touch comes from Bacher, who either played with or against or as an administrator dealt with ten of the 13 players. Bacher interviewed the seven who are still alive and extracted interesting tales, particularly from Mike Proctor - like the one about how he hit Bacher on the head - and Brian McMillan, who once unsettled Allan Border by blowing him a kiss.
Those not around to provide anecdotes are remembered in touching ways: there are 17 jokes from Tiger Lance, and an account of a visit to St Augustine's Cricket Club to learn more about Basil d'Oliveira. Bacher was due to interview Greig but the scheduled appointment was on the day he passed away. However, before his death, Greig gave Bacher permission to tell the tale of why he spent so much time off the field in a match between Eastern Province and Transvaal at the Wanderers in November 1970.
Greig keeled over on the field and Bacher, who was playing in the game and is a doctor, issued him with a valium injection. At the time, Charles Fortune, the broadcaster, said Greig had suffered a sunstroke. Years later, it was revealed that Grieg had had an epileptic fit and hoped it would be made public to "give people with epilepsy a sense of what they can achieve". The book mentions a "fit" but does not go further.
In skirting clear of things apart from statistical analysis in this way, the writing becomes staid. For a cricket geek, it would be a perfect read but for those who interest extends to the context of the game, this may miss the spot, because the book's focus is narrow.
The book is also limited in its appeal since it encompasses only a certain section of South Africans. Given the country's apartheid history, thousands of non-white players were denied the opportunity to notch up feats worthy of being published in this book. Bacher recognised that the story would be incomplete without the inclusion of the best of the rest, so to speak, and commissioned Krish Reddy, a cricket historian based in KwaZulu-Natal, to choose players of colour who ought to get a mention.
Reddy picked Taliep Sallie, a legspinning allrounder, Gesant Abed, Cecil Abrahams, and Sulaiman Abed, all three seam-bowling allrounders. Not much is known about these men in mainstream cricket writing apart from some stray anecdotes: Clarrie Grimmett once remarked that Sallie would find a place in any international side, and Sulaiman had a successful stint at Lancashire. This book does not add much beyond that.
The four players receive less than five pages between them in the chapter that focuses on d'Oliveira. It was a noble idea to make room for them but the limited space offered to the quartet could easily be perceived as insulting. Alternatively, it may also open the door for some debate about the best way to record South Africa's divided cricketing history.
The main aim of this book is to spark a discussion about South Africa's best allrounder. The numbers and information contained may trigger a more robust conversation on the subject, and will leave some wanting to see if, when Kallis retires, his stats put him above Sobers. It's interesting that Sobers' own foreword to the book makes the point that, on occasion, comparisons between cricketers can be considered odious, and celebrating individuals for who they are may be more worthwhile.
Jacques Kallis and 12 other Great South African All-rounders
by Ali Bacher and David Wiliams
236 pages, R230