Last January, when Jacques Kallis was averaging 166 in a series against India, Kevin Pietersen tweeted that Kallis 'must be the best player ever'. You wot KP? The tweet drew some obvious jibes, but it didn't generate much consideration as to its truth. Because, you know, Jacques Kallis just isn't, is he?
It's facile - not to mention impossible - to offer an answer to that, about Kallis or anyone else. But it is worth thinking about why the question seems so unlikely, because it sort of strikes at the heart of what we think greatness in cricket looks like. Billy Beane - him again - called it 'the tyranny of what you see'.
Kallis has gone past 12,000 Test runs, just the fourth man to do so. He has more than Lara now, is 500-odd behind Ponting, and he is scoring at least as heavily as Dravid and Tendulkar, so who knows where he'll end up. That series against India was his sixth in which he'd averaged more than 100; Bangladesh and Zimbabwe couldn't get him out, so in two more he finished averageless, or rather, beyond average.
In the era of batting giants, Kallis has been the most consistent. For his first 22 Tests he barely averaged 30. In the years since he has topped 60. He is the most successful Test batsman this century. He is also the best second innings player around - he averages five runs more than anyone else, and of players who have made more than 2,500 second innings runs, he has the best average not just of his era, but ever.
That last stat may raise a smirk; Jacques loves a red inker, the world knows that. The suspicion that he bats for himself might never be extinguished, yet that is what the best do. They need the icy chip of ego in their hearts that tells them they are no use in the pavilion. But Kallis cannot be bracketed with Boycott or other ruthless accumulators; his technique has the depth to make him an essential Twenty20 cricketer, too, and even in that form, he seems to have an innate inner pace that attunes itself to the rhythms of the game he's playing.
When Bob Woolmer needed a batsman to pose for the photographs in his matchless book on playing the game, The Art And Science Of Cricket, he chose Kallis. His technique is utterly orthodox, and more than that, it makes the argument for orthodoxy. He can do pretty much anything, and he can bat in all circumstances. His first innings 50 against Australia in the Test just concluded came off 36 balls, a knock that ran against type, but the ball was swinging, the field was up, the outfield slicker than an ice-rink. Kallis barely took a backlift and he creamed it through the covers again and again, the ball ringing from his bat. With Amla doing the same at the other end, it was almost symphonic.
But forget his batting: Kallis the bowler has 270 Test wickets, more than Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Dale Steyn, Bishen Bedi, Andy Roberts and Jeff Thomson. If he was English, he would have more wickets than anyone currently playing, and would be fifth on the all-time list behind Underwood, Trueman, Willis and Botham.
As an all-rounder, he has a batting average that dwarfs Flintoff's, along with 46 more wickets at the same price. Hadlee, Botham, Imran and Kapil have outbowled him, but Kallis has 10 more hundreds than all of them put together. And Sobers? Well Sobers can match that average, but nothing else. Kallis has sustained it for another 4,000 runs, has scored 14 more centuries and has 35 more wickets at cheaper cost.
So what is it about Jacques that leaves him so ill-considered by the wider world? Botham, Imran and Kapil lifted their countries, raised them up. They have been loved. Hadlee may not have been, but he was deeply admired, and feared too. Flintoff inspired an uncomplicated affection. Kallis has been less overtly heroic. The South African methods of winning have been to grind relentlessly from a position of advantage. Kallis is not a victory from the jaws of defeat merchant; the greatest deeds of Botham, Imran and Kapil had a context that Kallis's often don't.
Then there is his sheer consistency. Failure has never dogged him, no-one's asked him to captain a rag-bag outfit. He doesn't bear Sachin's burden of expectation, he wasn't asked to manage his country's decline like Ponting. His life lacks the epic curve of Boycott's. Instead he has his machine-like grace. There is an impression that his relentless excellence allows him to dictate to South Africa how he plays, and he is, of course, undroppable, so his story lacks jeopardy.
Most of all, as Billy Beane observed, aesthetics hold sway. He has the physique of a mobile fridge. Aside from when he's bowling or in his pads, it's impossible to imagine him running. His hair transplant has been comically successful - its current style is the most Botham-esque thing about him. His physicality just adds to the air of superiority his technique gives him. He's never an underdog in the way that the smaller Tendulkar or Lara were against some bowlers, and for all the classical brilliance of his batting, it doesn't quite have the sudden, illogical and otherworldly lurches into genius that Lara or Sehwag or even Pietersen can provide.
Yet this is the tyranny that clouds judgement. Kallis's genius is empirical, provable. He may be hard to love, but he's pretty easy to pick. KP may not be right, but he had a point.
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