Saturday, 19 November 2011

Jacques Kallis: the love that dare not speak its name

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.

27 comments:

John Halliwell said...

After that stunning appraisal, OB, I now wonder if KP is far closer to the truth than I would ever have imagined. But no matter what the stats say: as good or better than Sobers? I still say 'Surely not?' but with less certainty than I would have mustered even one day ago.

Anonymous said...

Very informative article. Since I am a numbers guy, I like to make comparisons based on quantitative analysis. Based on the quantitative analysis criteria, it seems like Kallis might be the best all rounder we have had so far. Thanks for the wonderful article.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Kallis is that you can count on him to deliver his statistics... he will score 50+ runs and take a couple of wickets economically... nothing less but nothing more either... he walks into any team in the world... but, a match winner is the guy who has the ability to go against the odds... the best example is waht Afridi did the other day against SL... save the inings for your team and then destroy the otehre team... Botham did it many teams, so did Imran, so did Kapil... and that too in crucial matches like Worldcup finals, series deciders... I love Kallis, but we all know deep inside, that he is not that guy...
He is consistent... but so are bees and ants... great players are like eagles or sharks... there has to be an aura of unpredictability about them...

Karan said...

Lets not forget, he is 6th on all time list of catches. He is likely to end up in top 3 before too long. Given that he has played most of his career alongside Mr. Safe Hands Boucher its a commendable achievement to have that many catches!

Anonymous said...

nice article

Rohan said...

But there are other numbers you could look at, too, such as the ones here, if I may link one of my own posts.

Reverse Swept Radio said...

His stats can't be disputed.

BUT . . . cricketing greatness has always been at least a little bit connected with aesthetics. We want our batsman to score freely AND with style.

I think his rep is also dogged by a sense that this SA side should have achieved more (although Kallis certainly isn't responsible for that).

Tim Newman said...

Absolutely. Kallis would have been the first pick in any national side put together since shortly after his debut - including the great Aussie teams which played under Waugh and Ponting. Which other foreign player could have bounced Mark Waugh out of that side if they were eligible? Kallis could have, and he could have bounced any foreign player out. With Kallis playing, SA have enjoyed a decade and a half of not worrying about whether to play with 5 bowlers. They're going to seriously miss him when he's gone, as will I. Best cricketer ever? I can support that.

Anonymous said...

When comparing Kallis to Sobers one very important stat is always conveniently overlooked. His bowling SR was far superior. Its the one that that really puts dailight between himself and Sobers.

Anonymous said...

People talk about Kallis and say he lacks that aura of unpredictability, but how is that a bad thing? Sehwag is unpredictable only because of his frequency of failure. Kallis is not a matchwinner in that sense because he is too good. He doesn't perform exceptionally well in high-pressure situations simply because he performs exceptionally well in all situations.

Nuxxy said...

I am a huge Kallis fan, but even I wouldn't put him into Sobers class purely because Sobers was a cricket genius - someone who was brilliant without even having to try. For sheer range of what he could do on the field, I don't think anyone will ever top him. On the other hand, I agree that Kallis is vastly overrated. Two things people forget:
South Africa is one of the most difficult places in the world to bat (look as Sanga, Sachin, Sehwag in SA), yet Kallis has an outstanding home record;
and his bowling never reached potential because he has always been restricted to being the 4th bowler. South Africa has always had a strong pace bowling cabinet, but I don't think he would be any worse than Zaheer Khan, given the same chances.

Nuxxy said...

Bah - read that as "I agree that Kallis is vastly underrated."

Anonymous said...

I've been following his carrier since the late 90's and I have to say he has done wonders for SAcrictet. He is consistence and watching bat wow!! its amazing.I love him, he is the Nelson Mandela of SAcricket (for me)

diogenes said...

I think that for John Arlott, despite his immense admiration for Hobbs and Bradman, Phil Mead was probably his favourite batsman because of the number of times he had watched him, in his childhood, anchor the innings for Hampshire. Similarly, I imagine that for many people in the 60s and 70s, Boycott will always be the best, despite the claims of Richards B, Richards V, Chappell, Sobers etc. The sheer reliability of the man earned yoiur admiration. Such people pity the folks who choose the likes of Randall, Gower or George Gunn to be their heroes - so often destined for disappointment amidst the moments of genius.

It is a question of who captures your admiration as a child. For me, nothing will ever beat the sight of Sobers leaving the pavillion in his loose-limbed way, waving his bat around, shirt-collar turned up and then making batting look absurdly easy. Or else his casual, loping approach to the wicket before launching a devastating in-swinging yorker at high pace. Or the nonchalance with which he would scoop a catch from the tips of the grass off Gibbs at very close-in backward short leg. The way he had his inspirational matches - such as at Lords in 1970 for the Rest of the World against England. An overcast first morning - so he ran through the English top order, which included, from memory, 5 openers that day including poor old Alan Jones of Glamorgan. Then he came out to bat after Barlow, Richards, Pollock and co had made hardly any runs and cracked 180.

Kallis doesn't have that style but he is certainly one hell of a cricketer. Has he played as many match-turning innings as Sobers? But any team that was not selected by Gubby Allen would love to have Kallis available. On figures, Kallis might just edge it...but would you really prefer to watch Sobers in full cry or Kallis?

John Halliwell said...

Diogenes, your description of Sobers making his way to the middle certainly brought back memories. It was just like that at Old Trafford in 1969. England won the match by 10 wickets but just one moment stands out in my memory and it is of Sobers hitting a straight six over the Warwick Road site screen (a long hit), possibly off Snow, but might have been Brown. It was classical, effortless, all rhythm and glorious timing. I wish I could find film of it. It captured for me the genius that was Sobers. Perhaps we occasionally forget that, in addition to his swing bowling he also bowled high-class left arm wrist spin. He could do it all. Jacques is great, Sobers was greater.

srbharadwaj said...

Best piece on Kallis..he is a legend next only to Sobers.
Btw, OB you havent talked about his slip catching, he is on par with the likes of RD,Waugh,etc.. Stands in slip for both spinners and pace bowlers, and never seen him drop a catch..

diogenes said...

John

It would be really good to get a breakdown of how much Sobers bowled in each of his 3 styles. His quick bowling was certainly a thing of beauty but I never saw his wrist-spin because his shoulder tendons had got too painful. His orthodox spin was tidy but nothing great - I remember Boycott and Graveney saying that it never worried them but he got a fair few high quality wickets, including Knott a few times - and Knott was a very good player of spin.

The Old Batsman said...

Sobers was too early for me, so all I remember is the odd bit of murky film. But ti does drive at the heart of the argument - how highly do you judge aesthetics? It's that 'tyranny of what you see' - but then it's also what brings the game alive in your mind.

John Halliwell said...

Yes, Diogenes, that breakdown would be very interesting.

I have returned to Trevor Bailey’s biography of Sobers: ‘Sir Gary’ . In it Bailey states the following:

‘Gary’s second claim to being the greatest and most perfect of all-rounders is based on the fact that he was worth his place in a strong West Indies Xl purely as a bowler. Although his bowling never acquired the godlike quality of his batting I am inclined to think that in some respects it was even more remarkable, for he is the only person to rank as an international bowler in three entirely different styles.

To be good enough to bowl in two styles against international batsmen on plumb wickets is hard enough, but to master three is almost uncanny. Without his batting, Gary could have earned a place in Test cricket in any of his bowling forms. It is the supreme example of his genius’

The book is 35 years old. Trevor’s view of Kallis and the place of statistics in making judgements of relative greatness would have been very interesting.

diogenes said...

John...yes Sobers was picked by West Indies as a left arm orthodox spinner originally! The conundrum is the 57 tour of England where he started to bowl fast in the nets but the skipper, Gerry Alexander, did not let him do it in public....another fateful conjuncture of sport and politics

Anonymous said...

The problem with Kallis is the lack of magic, that stays is peoples memory for ever. Botham, Kapil, Imran, Hadlee, Akram, Flintoff, Chris Cairns and even Stuart Broad has it. They can change the game single-handedly in half an hour in a hopeless situation. Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Vettori etc can have great numbers, but they don't leave a lasting impression and that is the missing piece to not being perceived as great, IMHO.

Ragshas said...

In simple " to you all Typist ..Kallis is great no matter what you think.
and to tell about Kapill..who is he ??Only the idiot Dhotiz knoes him, and about sachin He plays only for himself.He's played for more than 2 decades and i know he now wants to play for himself ,so kallis he has been dropped and crtisized numerous times but with strength he has developed his game to the Best.i always get inspired seeing him Playing a GentelMans game ..Not the MoneyGame The Dhotiz are trying to Create.Greedy India Plays For money So please Don't include their name in greatest , where is Gavaskar Huh ..he is one of the greats ..FOrgot

diogenes said...

To be fair, Old Batsman, I did try to show that the heroes of your youth are not necessarily the aesthetically pleasing ones. To become great, George Headley severely restricted his strokes - as described by his number one fan, CLR James and various UK folk such as EM Wellings - who was very critical of his limited strokeplay, mainly through midwicket. It did not change James's view of Headley, in fact it confirmed him as a real great.

The Old Batsman said...

Agreed - to me, steve Waugh only got greater when he reduced his game to three scoring shots - the cover drive, the clip off his legs and the slog-sweep.

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I have always admire Jacques Kallies's career, I think he is the best all rounder that I have seen and I am serious about this