Jacques Kallis, born October 16, 1975, is recognised as the greatest all-rounder of the generation while as well as being one of the finest batsmen. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the magnificent career of this phenomenon of nature.
Jacque of all trades
He is a marvel of the modern game, a phenomenon like no other, a colossus of a figure whose influence is felt across every facet of cricket.
In some ways Jacques Kallis is a freak. The world has seldom seen anything like him. His status as a confirmed great is secure with the seal of universal approval. Not often does one see a sporting legend lend his name to sites while his graph is still soaring towards the stratosphere. But, the cricket field of his old school Wynberg Boys’ High was already renamed ‘Jacques Kallis Oval’ in 2009.
He is an all-rounder as few have been. He strides the world as one of the greatest batsmen of his era — a period that saw Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting lording over the twenty-two yards. And yet bowling is not a minor arrow in his quiver, but a weapon always potent and sometimes destructive. He can be fast, disconcertingly so, and can swing the ball a long way. In the slips, his hands are as fast and safe as any — and often he flies through the air swooping up travelling balls with ridiculous ease.
There is only one genius in the history of cricket who merits comparison. But, as we will demonstrate later, even when it comes to the versatility of Garry Sobers, there is at least one aspect that makes Kallis unique.
Slow climb to the top
For this phenomenon from Cape Town, it was a slow start in the international arena after rapid rise through the domestic circuit.
As a teenager, he played briefly for Netherfield Cricket Club in Northern England. He also turned out for the Old Edwardians where his potential as a fantastic all-rounder was duly noted.
In 1993-94, at the age of 18, he made his First-Class debut for Western Province. Two years down the line, in December 1995, he played his first Test against England — a rain affected match at Durban. He lasted just 12 balls, scoring a solitary run while batting at number six, and did not get a bowl. In fact, he hardly made an impression as a batsman in the series, but did his bit by picking up three for 29 in a nerve-racking Port Elizabeth Test.
Kallis did not really make heads turn for a while. It was two years before he scored his first Test hundred — a match-saving effort at Melbourne — and his batting average did not touch 40 till his 26th Test match. It was in November 2002, as late as his 63rd Test, that it finally trickled over past the 50 mark to establish him as a genuinely great batsman of the era. And since then it has stayed in the zone of greatness, more often than not creeping up into stratospheric regions.
But, before that epochal moment of 2002, his all-round brilliance had already been endorsed with a stamp of class. It started in 1998 in England, when he had scored 61 at Birmingham, sealed the Test for South Africa with four for 29 at Lord’s and followed it up with 132 at Manchester.
In the Wills International Cup held the same year in Dhaka, later renamed the ICC Champions Trophy, he hammered 113 from 100 balls against Sri Lanka in the semi-final and followed it by capturing five for 30 to demolish West Indies in the final.
And back home, he was one of the architects of the destruction of West Indies in 1998-99. At Cape Town, he was at his versatile best, scoring 110 and 88 and capturing two for 34 and five for 90. He thus became the second South African after the great Aubrey Faulkner to score a century and a fifty as well as claim five wickets in an innings in the same Test match.
Once he settled into the groove, he kept performing feats colossal enough to leave all speechless but for the nonchalant way he performed the miracles as if they were the most mundane of accomplishments.
In 2001-02, he batted 1,241 minutes between dismissals in Tests, amounting to 456 runs across four innings. Two years later, he scored 158, 177, 130*, 130* and 150* in five successive Tests, four against West Indies at home followed by one in Hamilton against the Kiwis. In between, he captured six for 54 against England to win the Headingley Test in 2003.
The fast and the slow
While such stupendous performances have propelled him to the top spot among all-time South African run-getters, and has left him on the verge of 300 Test wickets (he stands on 288 as I write) one of the perpetual peeves about his game has been his rather sluggish scoring rate.
Whenever comparisons with Sobers come up, as they inevitably do given such deeds of the willow and leather, one is faced with the contrasting approaches of the entertaining Sobers and the classical and correct Kallis.
As Gideon Haigh put it, “Sobers [was] all prowling grace and feline elasticity, with his 360-degree bat swing and three-in-one bowling; Kallis all looming bulk and latent power, constructed like a work of neo-brutalist architecture. … Yet what they are just as much opposites of are their respective eras. Sobers was the most explosive cricketer of a more staid age, the more mercurial because of the orthodoxy and rigidity around him; Kallis is the most stoic and remorseless cricketer of an era more ostentatious and histrionic. … Sobers was a cavalier among roundheads; Kallis has steadily become a roundhead among cavaliers.”
Sobers waved his bat generating a spray of talent and invention that soaked the onlooker. Kallis’s batting is much more rooted to the copybook principles, the lack of expression on his face matching the absence of frills and flourish in the orthodoxy of his technique. The South African languishes at 46.08 when it comes to career strike rate, while the estimated figure for Sobers hovers in the range of 52-53. Yes, the strike rate of Sobers it is not that high either.
However, it is not correct to say Kallis lacks the ability to score quickly. In March 2005, with a club class Zimbabwe side engaged in sending down gifts to the batsmen and hoping for the best, Kallis struck his way to a half-century off 24 balls, the fastest in Test cricket in terms of deliveries.
Yes, his strike rate in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) has hovered in the early 70s, and it is on the slower side for the modern generation. It even cost him a place in the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup. His response was to score heavily in the Tests that followed, 155 and 100 not out at Karachi, 59 and 107 not out at Lahore and then coming back and hammering 186 and Johannesburg and 131 at Centurion against New Zealand, managing five hundreds in four Test matches.
In fact, even late in his career he continued to evolve his game. After a miserable first season for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008, he hit 361 in 15 games in the second edition in South Africa the following year. Of course, he continued to shine in the more established formats of the game, going past 10,000 runs in both Tests and ODIs between the two editions of the hit and giggle circus.
The many-faceted numbers
Understandably, his bowling is used sparingly as he advances towards the cricketing old age. From 2009-10, he has sent down less than 10 overs an innings, capturing 30 wickets in 32 Tests at an average of almost 45. If that made him look slightly more human, his bat quickly waved away any pretence of the commonplace with an amazing career-autumn of 2856 runs at 60.76 with 13 hundreds and a penchant for scoring quicker than his normal rate. This phase saw him blasting centuries in places as distant and diverse as Nagpur, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Dunedin, The Oval, Brisbane, along with two in Centurion and five in Cape Town. The Newlands tons included his Test highest of 224 against Sri Lanka and the second feat of a brace of centuries in the same Test against India.
In spite of the almost superhuman toil throughout his career, he has been derailed by very few injuries. Christopher Martin-Jenkins attributed this to his bowling action, sideways on, left arm leading, with full turn of his frame and surging follow-through, much like Alec Bedser of yore. He was fast enough to make Sourav Ganguly fend off his face to gully at Bloemfontein in 2001. He is still capable of letting one through at full tilt. But, his efforts have been more geared to perfecting his role as the seasoned run-machine.
Kallis has been helped in his multiple roles by the ability to manage the rigours of body and mind. He tends to switch off between the deliveries to remain fresh and focused. He regulates his training assiduously, keeping sessions intensive and short, not exerting with elaborate preparation but treating every ball bowled or faced as if it was in an international game.
Kallis stands at over 13,000 runs and nearly 300 wickets from 162 Tests (the ongoing Test at UAE is his 163rd). He is within striking distance of Tendulkar’s record of 51 centuries. He has 44, and if he manages another wonderful year as in 2010-11 the gap can be considerably shortened. The uncertain amount of cricket left in him at the Test level left makes it a little more difficult to eclipse the record for the highest aggregate of runs, but with the imminent retirement of Tendulkar he will lead the field by miles among the active players.
Garfield Sobers, the man he is so often compared to, did end up with the record aggregate of 8032 runs and finished second at the time with 26 centuries behind Don Bradman’s 29. This brings us to the discussion about these two supreme all-rounders. How does Kallis fare when compared to the great Garry Sobers?
Sobers was the undisputed king of batting of his era, with only Graeme Pollock’s short career and, to some extent, Ken Barrington approaching anything like his numbers and consistency. Kallis has shared the peak with more men, but can strongly claim to have been the best since 2000.
Sobers and Kallis with the bat
With the ball, Sobers could operate in three different styles — which marks him as the more versatile of the two. However, Kallis does enjoy a better average and strike rate with the only way he bowled.
While Sobers held his own during a period that saw Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and Lance Gibbs bowling for West Indies, Kallis did run in alongside Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and later Dale Steyn.
Sobers and Kallis with the ball
On the field, Sobers was brilliant at any position and could take blinders anywhere close in — superb in the slips and extraordinary in the back-ward short leg, especially to Lance Gibbs. Kallis has been less mobile, sticking to his place in the slip cordon. Yet, he has his share of spectacular catches.
Sobers and Kallis in the field
While there may not be too much perceptible variation between the two apart from their styles of batting, bowling and fielding, there is one key difference between the two.
Sobers made most of his runs from the position befitting an all-rounder — number six. He did enjoy his moments at the top of the order, but predominantly came down lower in the order, after men like Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse and later Clive Lloyd. It was perhaps justified for him to bat low given the amount of work he had to put in with the ball. In contrast, Kallis has always taken on the role of the front-line batsman of the team, getting most of his runs from numbers three or four. His forays down the order have been occasional and always driven by extenuating circumstances.
Sobers scored more than half his runs and 15 of his 26 hundreds from numbers five and six, while Kallis has hardly batted below four, and 43 of his 44 centuries been scored from numbers three and four.
Sobers and Kallis according to batting order
The other major difference is of course captaincy. Sobers led in 39 of his 93 Tests, often with innate brilliance and sometimes according to his whims. Kallis has led South Africa on only two occasions. He has been a trusted advisor of his captain. And although Keith Stackpole rated him as one of the most selfish batsmen in the game, fellow South Africans vouch for his being an ideal team-man.
Given the similarities between their records, it was quite fitting that Kallis had been awarded the Garry Sobers Trophy for the ICC Player of the Year in 2005. He went on to be Wisden’s Leading Cricketer of 2008 and a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2013.
Along with his astounding collection of runs, wickets and catches in Test cricket, Kallis also boasts 11,498 runs at 45.26 in ODIs to go with 17 hundreds, 270 wickets at 31.69, and 125 catches. He has not done too badly in the T20Is played for South Africa as well, with 666 runs at a strike rate of 119.35 and 12 wickets at an economy of 7.23.
There are speculations that Kallis will play till the ICC World Cup 2015. There has also been some introspection on the part of the master himself, who has thought long and hard about his plans for the future.
His bizarre fitness levels notwithstanding, there will come a day when time will finally draw curtains on this noble career. But, until then, the world can still enjoy this magnificent cricketer, one of the wonders of the cricket world.
In Photos: Jacques Kallis’ cricketing career
(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://twiter.com/senantix)