South Africa lose their ultimate luxury

Over the past two decades, Jacques Kallis' world-class batting and energetic bowling allowed South Africa enviable depth in both departments

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Jacques Kallis maintained impossibly high standards over the course of a 18-year career to end up as an all-time great  •  Getty Images

Jacques Kallis maintained impossibly high standards over the course of a 18-year career to end up as an all-time great  •  Getty Images

Nobody even noticed Jacques Kallis earlier today. He walked down the stairs at the back of the change-rooms at Kingsmead, as he may have done 18 years ago, with casual indifference. He had a sandwich in one hand, an energy drink in the other, a jaunt in his step and a faraway look in his eyes. If he was hiding any nerves, reservations or second thoughts, you would never have known.
An hour later his plan to retire from Test cricket within a week was made public.
It was announced with no fuss, frills or fanfare but via a prepared statement. Graeme Smith's twitter message confirmed it was a decision that was made a few days ago. No doubt Kallis would have spent much longer thinking about exactly when, where and how he wanted to leave Test cricket. He could choose that because he picked his moment correctly.
Timing has been the hallmark of Kallis' career - from his cover drives to the way he paces an innings to the fact that at the age of 38, he can still bowl above 140kph. His is not a headline-poaching style of play but a patient, persistent one that appeals to those who prefer fine dining to fast food.
That was evident as early as his seventh Test, when he scored a match-saving century at the MCG. His innings then displayed as much about his ability to occupy the crease and wear an attack down - he spent three minutes short of six hours and faced 279 balls for his 101 - as it did about his strength of mind. When Australia couldn't bowl Kallis out, they tried to sledge him out but he was resolute in ignoring their verbals. In frustration, they resorted to asking him if he was deaf.
Kallis looked a run machine starting up that day and he hasn't slowed down for 18 years. In that time, he never went more than 13 Tests without scoring a hundred with the biggest gap between his 29th and 30th ton. Twice in his career, Kallis scored five centuries in successive Tests, the first time in the summer of 2003-4 with four against West Indies and one in New Zealand and the second in 2007 with three in Pakistan, including two in the same match, and two against New Zealand.
He racked up centuries everywhere except Sri Lanka. As the runs piled up, and the reputation for being for a silent genius grew, one milestone remained elusive. It took Kallis 143 Tests before he reached a double-hundred, a duration of time which he said never really bothered him but had obviously become a sticking point for some supporters.
Kallis was eventually promised lifetime membership to the Leopard Creek golf estate by businessman Johann Rupert if he achieved a double hundred. Kallis needed no further motivation. With golf being his second love and Mark Boucher egging him on, he celebrated joining the two-ton club against India in Centurion with a golf swing.
His friendship with Boucher is the most human side to Kallis outsiders have seen because everyone understands what it's like to have a best mate. Their shared love for the outdoors and golf and their business in a wine label has made them both more accessible to the average cricket fan. Boucher remains the more approachable one, Kallis the more aloof but when they are together, Kallis' personality sometimes peeps through.
The perception of Kallis as distant may have been driven by necessity. An outlandishly outstanding player, it may simply have been his way of coping with his success. Kallis is not simply a batsman. He is a cricketer in every sense of the word.
His bowling is one of the less talked about but more celebrated parts of his game. He stands eight wickets away from 300 and performances with the ball have illustrated his worth as a team man. A Kallis bouncer is often a partnership breaker. He has accounted for some of the best batsmen in the world, including Adam Gilchrist, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ricky Ponting six times each.
Kallis had the measure of Ponting as recently as Adelaide last year. He felled the former Australian captain with a delivery Ponting said left him "embarrassed" and prompted his retirement. Ironically, a year later, Kallis has been left looking out of sorts by playing late to deliveries that swing into him and being caught on the pad.
Even though his reaction time may have slowed, he still reaches speeds most would he envious of. He bowls much less now than he used to but still provides an extra bowling option which, coaches have said, makes them feel they are playing with 12 men instead of 11.
His slip catching is an asset too. With 199 grabs, there is very little that evades Kallis' bucket-like hands. It is also a testament to his concentration. Mike Young, the former fielding consultant, marvelled at Kallis and Smith's ability to stand in the slips, sometimes all day with nothing coming their way, and then instinctively pouch the only chance they get.
The only thing Kallis hasn't done for any great length of time is captain. He led South Africa only twice in Tests, both times against Australia. In March 2006, he was asked to do it in his 99th Test, when he stood in for an injured Smith. Then, Mickey Arthur admitted it was only a stop-gap because South Africa did not want to overburden their best player with additional responsibility like other teams sometimes do.
On the second occasion, Kallis stepped in again. Smith was injured again but Ashwell Prince was due to lead but refused because he was not permitted to bat in his preferred position. Kallis took over and scored one of three centuries in a match South Africa won by an innings and 20 runs.
The match also was, especially in the early stages of Kallis' career, a rare victory over the all-conquering Australians. In the latter phases, Kallis was involved in series wins across the cricketing world, including back-to-back triumphs in England and Australia. He regards those, particularly the most recent, as being part of the two most special years of his career.
In that time, South Africa have gone to No.1 in the world with Kallis playing an important role. His all-round ability and AB de Villiers' wicket-keeping allowed South Africa to lengthen their line-up to seven batsmen and field four bowlers, with Kallis acting as the fifth. It was also in that time that the signs Kallis would not be around forever started to sound.
Wear and tear peeped through in New Zealand in March last year. Kallis had to be left out of the Wellington Test after suffering a stiff neck. That was also where South Africa had their first taste of what missing him would mean. Rather than simply replace him, they had to alter the composition of their XI to cover for both his batting and bowling absence. JP Duminy and Marchant de Lange were brought in, forcing South Africa to sacrifice a specialist spinner.
After that series, Kallis was injured in three of the next four series South Africa played. In England last year, a sore lower back immobilised him for a day at Leeds. He could not bowl and spent time off the field as a result but was still able to bat in position. Later in the year, in Australia, he suffered a hamstring injury which left him unable to bowl after 3.3 overs and he was forced to bat at No. 7. He recovered in time for the next match.
He played both home matches against New Zealand injury free but had to sit out of the third Test against Pakistan at Centurion because of a calf injury picked up at an optional training session. Kyle Abbott featured in his place but again, South Africa had to confront reality without him. Faf du Plessis was moved into Kallis' position at No. 4 and will likely slot into there in future.
What became clear that day was that the luxury of a two-in-one player would not always be there. With few seam-bowling all-rounders around, South Africa may have to rethink their strategy next year. Kallis will not be around then.
Many have asked why Kallis did not stay on to play Australia at home - a series that has all the makings of a classic - and retire at his home ground, which is also the venue of the final Test, Newlands. Only Kallis knows the answer to that. Chances are he could feel he would not be able to contribute to the standard he expects of himself in that contest. Kallis is stern on himself and demands peak performance. That he could step away when he knew his body could no longer cope with Test cricket, is the greatest testament to his commitment to South African cricket.
He also knows he may not make it to the 2015 World Cup and if the look in his eyes at Kingsmead on Christmas Day could reveal anything, it would be that he is at peace with that too.
Kallis knows he will be just fine. He has his scholarship foundation, a wonderful initiative to educate promising cricketers at top institutions, to keep him busy and golf to keep his sporting skills sharp. He said once that on retirement he would also be able to digest all the numbers that have been thrown at him over the years and enjoy them, including the debate on whether or not he is a better allrounder than Sobers.
South African cricket will be fine too, because of the 18 years of service Kallis gave. On his back was built much of the current success and through his inspiration the next generation can be expected to thrive.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent