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Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis’s retirements leave a crater South Africa will take long time to fill

Jacques Kallis (left) and Graeme Smith... South African batting order will suddenly be poorer by 23,000 runs and 72 hundreds © Getty Images
Jacques Kallis (left) and Graeme Smith… South African batting order will suddenly be poorer by 23,000 runs and 72 hundreds © Getty Images

With the announcement of Graeme Smith’s retirement a few months after Jacques Kallis called it a day, the South African batting order will suddenly be poorer by 23,000 runs and 72 hundreds. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the effect of such sudden synchronised swansongs of batting pillars from a team and wonders how the likes AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla will deal with the loss.

They were the fundamental pillars of the line-up, the twin colonnades on which was built the magnificent edifice of modern South African batting. They played 283 Tests between them, scored over 23,000 runs with 72 hundreds and 96 fifties. Incidentally there were also 300 wickets, although somewhat less evenly shared — Jacques Kallis claimed 292 and Graeme Smith the remaining eight. The two also stood in the slips, often next to each other, and pouched 368 catches.

There were 105 Tests they played together, of which the Proteas won 54 and lost only 27. Smith and Kallis scored more than 17,000 runs in these matches. Smith led 97 of those, Kallis captured 181 wickets. Whichever way one looks at it, their contributions were colossal.

During this phase South Africa was blessed with a dazzling array of talented stroke-makers and sublime speedsters. And all of them rode on the foundation provided by these two bulwarks of the batting order. They became one of the superpowers in world cricket — the only team to seriously and consistently challenge the might of the Aussies, and then the most regular feature at the top of the world rankings.

And suddenly, within the space of three months, both these modern giants have departed, in a delayed chorus effect that sadly accentuates the enormity of the occasion. All those runs, centuries and fifties have suddenly been scooped away from the top order. Even among the versatile riches of the South African batting, there will remain a yawning gap. It will take some time to look at the batting card and get used to the two great names missing from the list.

Simultaneous retirements

Simultaneous retirements of bona fide greats imply long periods of rebuilding. One is reminded of the most celebrated swansongs of the past — when Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh called it a day in 1984. Later Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath decided to quit together in 2007.

Australia had struggled for long after the departure of the triumvirate in the 1980s. Allan Border had grappled with a team in transition for long before finally managing to turn the corner to emerge onto the lane of the world beaters.

Now, though, the loss is not distributed across the multiple departments of the game. Rarely have we seen the two greatest run-getters of a country retire in tandem. When such a twin loss hits the batting order, leaving it green and vulnerable in large patches, the damage tends to be more.

One of the most striking examples is the England tour of 1991, after which Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards hung up their giant boots. After that the West Indian batting was propped for long by the brilliance of Brian Lara, but never managed to recover those glory days.

In more recent times, we have seen Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman announce their retirements one after the other, ridding the Indian middle-order of some 32 years of experience. A year later, Sachin Tendulkar also called it a day, bringing the country to an emotional standstill. However, by then the batting was showing significant signs of collapsing under the weight of the great names, and, after a slight wobble, the young brigade have stepped up admirably since then.

Other occasions of batsmen of the stature of Kallis and Smith walking away in unison have been rare, especially given the amount of runs they have scored in Test cricket. However, if we look at the different eras, we can see quite a few similar examples of great names of the willow leaving together and stripping their batting order of glory and glamour. In some cases the team has rallied and restored equilibrium soon enough, in a few cases they have stuttered and struggled for a while.

Looking at Australia, we find that Don Bradman’s celebrated arrival along with the rise of the young Bill Ponsford managed to counter the departures of Charley Macartney and Warren Bardsley in 1926. At the same time, the august presence of the same Bradman allowed Australia to continue without missing a beat in 1934 when Bill Woodfull and Ponsford raised their glorious bats and walked out of the ground for the last time.

The Australians found it much harder to adjust in recent years, when a sequence of greats left the scene with each passing season. Damien Martyn deserted the team in 2006, Langer waved goodbye in 2007, Adam Gilchrist followed suit in 2008 and Matthew Hayden bludgeoned cricket balls in the international arena for the final time in 2009. It was around this time that greatness disappeared from the mighty bat of Ricky Ponting. Neither was the bowling helped by the departures of McGrath and Warne. By 2008, the Australians were no longer the dominant force they had been. They may have just about managed to recover their winning ways, but it still remains to be seen.

England have experienced a similar exodus of greats to enjoy the comforts of retired life on two occasions. Herbert Sutcliffe and Patsy Hendren both bid adieu in 1935. England surprisingly lost to South Africa at home and squandered a 2-0 advantage to lose the Ashes 3-2 in 1936-37. There were worthies aplenty in the side, including Wally Hammond and Maurice Leyland, but they did struggle for a while before Len Hutton and Denis Compton arrived in 1938.

England suffered another migration of batting greats when Hutton, Cyril Washbrook and Compton retired in rather quick succession in the second half of the decade of the 1950s. This time they did have Peter May and Colin Cowdrey in their line-up to rally around, but still lost 4-0 in the Ashes series of 1958-59.

The next star-studded farewell was in April 1974, when the combined genius of Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai played their last Test match at Port of Spain. Richards and Alvin Kallicharran stepped in and Clive Lloyd remained the exemplary guide. But, West Indies struggled to beat India 3-2 in the next series. After utilising Kanhai for one last time in their victorious World Cup campaign, the young team went to Australia and met with a 5-1 thrashing. It was not until they discovered the pace machinery in 1976 that West Indies started on their way to becoming the greatest team of the world. Sobers and Kanhai were too fabulous a duo, one would have been surprised if the side had managed to continue without a hitch.

As for South Africa, the closest they came to experiencing this sort of depletion in batting riches was when Dudley Nourse and Eric Rowan played their last Test match at The Oval in 1951. However, much of the work of these two admirable stalwarts over the years had been to establish South Africa as a decent team. After their retirements, Jack Cheetham’s leadership along with the consistency of Jackie McGlew and some excellent performances by Russell Endean ensured a reasonably good run for the team.

At the present moment, the South African batting does have it in them to emerge as the force of the future. In AB de Villiers they have the best batsman in the world, with Hashim Amla not far behind. There is talent aplenty in Quinton de Kok, and flashes of brilliance in Faf du Plessis.

But, they will without a doubt miss the two monumental contributors, the two men who sacrificed aesthetics for the functional in order to lay the foundations of South African success again and again.  The two men who excelled in preparing the base of the innings so that the rest of the batting could indulge in constructing the fanciful flights towards victories.

It remains to be seen whether the young throbbing heart and the energetic limbs and sinews of the side have it in them to grow the batting backbone which has suddenly disappeared.


Retirement of key batsmen in quick succession

Team Year Batsmen
Australia 1926 Warren Bardsley, Charlie Macartney
1934 Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford
2006-9 Damien Martyn, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden
England 1935 Herbert Sutcliffe, Patsy Hendren
1955-57 Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook, Denis Compton
India 2012-13 Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar
New Zealand 1995 Andrew Jones, Martin Crowe
South Africa 1951 Dudley Nourse, Eric Rowan
2013-14 Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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