A rare breed

Jacques Kallis was indeed a multiple-player-package and it will be tough for anyone to step into his massive shoes. It wasn’t just his varied skill-sets that drew fellow cricketers to him. More than that, it was the warmth he gave them as a virtual big brother that helped him forge life-long bonds. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A few hours after the second Test at Durban’s Kingsmead Stadium concluded with South Africa defeating India by 10 wickets, there was a stirring inside the Proteas dressing room. And then they emerged — a bunch of men, a touch tired, obviously overwhelmed and visibly sad. They had won a match but they were all thinking wistfully about the patriarch amidst them, who was bidding farewell to Tests following a fabulous 18-year journey. They assembled with him on the pitch and opted to conceal their melancholy with a boisterous rendition of team song. Sung at high pitch with arms around each other, the beer adding a certain timbre to their voices, the players hung onto each second.

Those were sacred minutes for the South Africans. In their middle was Jacques Kallis, their greatest cricketer, their go-to man for staying firm with the bat, for building partnerships as a batsman, for breaking alliances as a bowler and that too with a startling bouncer in his kitty, for offering safe hands in the slips and for gifting stability on and off the field.

The numbers tell a huge tale — Kallis, 166 Tests, 13,289 runs, 45 hundreds, 55.37 average, 292 wickets, bowling average 32.65 and 200 catches. Add to it other current titles — third highest run-getter, second-highest century-maker and second in the list of fielders with maximum catches — and you get a player who merged the attributes of longevity, talent, consistency and all-round skills into an iconic sporting personality.

He could be termed as a great batsman, he could be labelled as a more than fine bowler who held his own among the Allan Donalds and the Dale Steyns, and he had an ease in the slips that made catches look easy. It was no surprise when his former team-mate Shaun Pollock said: “Now we need to look for two players! He could have played on for another one or two years.” But Kallis, despite his 115 anchoring South Africa to victory, had already made up his mind. “I have lost a bit of that mental edge,” he said.

The great man was indeed a multiple-player-package and it will be tough for anyone to step into his massive shoes. It wasn’t just his varied skill-sets that drew fellow cricketers to him. More than that, it was the warmth he gave them as a virtual big brother that helped him forge life-long bonds. “We need to accept that he cannot be replaced,” South African captain Graeme Smith said. Steyn added: “I had a tear in my eye when he broke the news (of retirement) to me.”

A man, presumably an emotional fan nursing the soul of a closet poet, walked into the press-box at Kingsmead and held aloft a banner that read — ‘From the chalice of greatness, he sipped deep and rained sixes and fours’. There were many more words and the exaggeration could not be concealed but the worst cynics in the world —journalists — dropped their cold air, whipped out their mobiles and took a few pictures. Such were the feelings that Kallis engineered among all – be it players, fans or the media.

The punch past cover, the ability to grind attacks and consume time and the ability to give his all in every contest defined Kallis and given a choice he would have left the stage without a fuss. It was a point that Smith, Steyn, Alviro Petersen, Morne Morkel and Pollock stressed in unison across varying press conferences. “He would have probably finished the game and then said, that’s it!,” Smith said. Asked why he wanted to keep his exit so low-profile, Kallis replied: “I think it is probably my personality. All my career I have been low-key and I never enjoyed the media too much or fronting up too much, I just enjoyed getting on with my game. Cricket South Africa was brilliant with the way they did it, everybody was happy and I could still play a normal Test match. I think we got the balance right.”

Pollock highlighted a characteristic that Kallis and Rahul Dravid shared — of doing the job while skipping the limelight. “He and Dravid tended to slip under the radar may be it is that old tale about prophets in their own lands (not being recognised). They did their job to the team effectively,” Pollock said.

Kallis had his own take on the way he approached Tests: “Every game I always thought it was a privilege and my last game and I always gave everything in the situation and I always did my best for what the team required.”

Kallis is a man, who is whispered in the same breath as Sachin Tendulkar among batsmen, Sir Garry Sobers among all-rounders, Dravid among fielders in the slips and who also ‘bowled at the speed of light’ (as his closest friend Mark Boucher says) in the 1999 World Cup game against Sri Lanka. It is a staggering achievement and it was no wonder that Tendulkar, holidaying in London, texted a senior scribe: “If you see him, wish him on my behalf for being a champion cricketer.” The only solace cricket lovers now have is that Kallis will play ODIs with an eye on the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Watch him closely when he turns out in coloured clothing under floodlights.

Players like him are rare and need to be savoured forever.