The Leading Cricketer in the World

Jacques Kallis

Peter Roebuck

2007: the year Kallis cut loose © Getty Images

Jacques Kallis was the cricketer of the year. Plenty of other players performed mighty deeds, but the South African surpassed himself, and his performances in Pakistan set him apart. He has assisted in the rise of his team and the reassurance of a country that invests in sport. No one has been better placed to show sceptics that it is still possible to reach the heights, and that the dream has not died. It was an awesome responsibility, and until 2007 the outcome was unclear. Now Kallis has emerged as the first indisputably great African cricketer of the post-apartheid era.

Along the way Kallis has survived the pain of a boyhood world torn apart. A child of hierarchy, steeped in the glib assumptions of his time, he was thrust into a troubling and confronting world and might easily have allowed disillusion to eat into hope. Suddenly teams were not chosen from a small group of players united in their stoicism and bound by common purpose. Nor was selection put in the hands of a bunch of retired and respected white players. It has been his fate to take guard in a time of turmoil.

Nor were the political and social upheavals the only challenges Kallis faced as he built his career. An admired captain turned to the dark side and took comrades with him. Kallis could have followed Hansie Cronje, could have immersed himself in cynicism and other deaths of the mind. Plenty of apples were offered, yet he remained intact. Sachin Tendulkar was the same. Some men have the power to make or break a sporting nation. Kallis held his nerve. In 2007 Kallis went a step further. Hitherto his importance had been to show that a well-raised white boy could attain excellence in a game associated with the old dispensation and now undertaking substantial structural change.

It was a task he set about with predictable resolution, protecting his wicket as his community protected their homes. Distancing himself from anything except the next ball and the next match, he concentrated on his game. He did not so much reflect his times as deflect them.

For a long time it seemed that Kallis might remain a cricketer of high accomplishment unprepared to leap into the unknown. His record spoke of a batsman with a superb technique, patient and resourceful, a bowler blessed with pace and movement, and a reliable catcher at slip. In short, he was a fine cricketer, one of the best in the world. Yet it was not quite his destiny, and he knew it. Batting was his particular gift. He yearned for recognition and set about piling on the runs at his own pace. It was no small matter to score as many runs as he did under the pressures, self-imposed and collective, that accompanied him on his journey. But still it was not quite enough.

Kallis will look back on 2007 as the year he cut loose, the year he dared to dominate a match and even a series, after his omission from the World Twenty20. It was the year things changed in South African sport. Despite all the sound and fury, the country decided to return to winning ways. The right to stage the soccer World Cup had already been secured. Trust had been put in the new nation. Then South Africa sincerely sought the rugby World Cup again, finding an intelligent coach, an enlightened young captain and two fast black wingers. The feat was achieved, whereupon President Mbeki was held aloft. It is one thing to liberate a country, quite another to free the soul.

Much the same elevation could be seen in Kallis's batting in 2007. Ridding himself of previous fears, he went on the attack, changing tempo at the crease, responding to the needs of the side, allowing himself to lift the ball, expecting himself to dictate. Suddenly he was playing a match and not a game. Nor did he panic when a bomb exploded during the tour. Pakistan could not contain him. A boy from an enclave had become a man of the world. Everyone in South Africa these days talks about transformation. But it is not entirely a question of numbers. Rather it is a matter of belonging, a question of striking a balance between justice for the common man and opportunity for the blessed whose gifts take the world beyond the banal.

Kallis has never been prepared to settle for second best. But he was not sure that his country shared his outlook. Incompetence was tolerated when it advanced a cause, or seemed to do so. Excellence flees when it hears talk of that sort, or withdraws into its shell. It requires a certain obsession, cannot abide sweet and empty words from outsiders unaware of the sacrifices demanded by sporting conquest.

Kallis attacked in 2007 and took his team with him. South Africa played some impressive cricket and he was at the heart of it, a man at ease with himself in a country more at ease with itself. It was the year he came to understand that greatness cannot be attained till the chains have been broken, the year he swept all before him.

2007: 9 Tests: 1,210 runs @ 86.42; 20 wickets @ 25.75. 27 ODI: 987 runs @ 58.05; 19 wickets @ 35.05. 1 T20I: 4 runs @ 4.00.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack