Mr. Dependable of contemporary cricket

In terms of sheer value to the side, Jacques Kallis ranks on top. It’s time the South African receives his due in world cricket. He’s strong, he’s resilient and he delivers — season after season, writes S. Dinakar.

Is Jacques Kallis, 34, the most consistent and dependable Test batsman in the world on current form? He might not possess the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, the flair of Ricky Ponting or the destructive ability of Virender Sehwag, but he can alter the course of a match with immense solidity at crunch time.

Kallis, perhaps, is a more powerful version of India’s Rahul Dravid, another studious accumulator of runs. Constructing an innings is an art that this South African comprehends very well. His rock-like presence — a great barrier for the bowlers — adds considerable value to the top and middle-order.

Kallis’ journey has been in quest of perfection. Shining through are his intense levels of concentration; much of Kallis’ cricket is about pride and he relishes duels with bowlers. He picks the length early and is decisive with his response.

The South African’s technique and temperament — he has this great ability to soak up pressure in the cauldron — were on view again as he teamed up with Hashim Amla in a mammoth 340-run third wicket partnership against India in the first Test in Nagpur after Graeme Smith’s men had lost two wickets with little on the board.

Fiercely focussed while at the crease, Kallis can blunt an attack or change gears with calculated bursts of aggression to surprise his opponents. He is deeply introspective and much of his thoughts go into his batsmanship.

Yet, the South African, for all his achievements, is arguably the most unsung cricketer of our times.

Kallis has a lot going for him. In the decade 2000-2009, his 8630 runs in 101 Tests were only behind Ponting’s 9458 runs in 107. Yet the South African’s average — 58.70 against Ponting’s 58.38 — was higher during the period.

Kallis’ batting is a lot about balance, poise and timing. Brought up on South African tracks, he is fluent off the back-foot, can drive, cut and pull. The right-hander also leans into his front-footed cover-drives, his head still and his bat beautifully extended.

Footwork is the essence of his batting. Against the fast bowlers, he is sure of his off-stump, can play and leave. And he is not someone who is intimidated by extra pace or bounce. Kallis is sure-footed against spin, if not flamboyant.

The South African scored 173 in the first innings of the Nagpur Test — his 136th — against India. His aggregate of 10813 runs at 55.16 with 34 hundreds — we will not focus on his valuable swing bowling at this point — represents a formidable achievement in itself. Time after time, he has revived South African hopes. Kallis has often been in the line of fire and finished at the right end of things. A battled-scarred hero, he certainly is.

Given that the South Africans have largely struggled against spin, Kallis’ record in India is remarkable. He averages 66.36 from eight Tests (730 runs) having countered the spinners with craft and application. This is a territory where Kallis scores over Ponting. The Australian captain has just 438 runs in 12 Tests in India at 20.85.

Kallis, on the other hand, has been below par in England, scoring 586 runs in 12 Tests at 29.30. Ponting’s average of 44.10 (1323 runs in 18 Tests) in Old Blighty is healthier.

Given his attributes, Kallis’ failures in England are rather surprising. Yet, his record at home — 5927 runs at 56.44 from 74 Tests — and on foreign soil — 4886 runs in 62 Tests at 53.69 — is a balanced one.

Ponting has 6790 runs in 79 Tests at 60.08 at home and 4727 runs in 60 matches at 49.23 on foreign soil. Kallis scores with his away record. Of course, Ponting has a slight edge in the overall averages with 55.67 to Kallis’ 55.16. But then, batting is not all about numbers. It’s a lot about the impact a batsman makes. Ponting is a more aggressive and naturally dominant batsman — there have been few better pullers in the game — than Kallis. Yet, the South African is more reliable, has a more secure defence.

It was a wonderful tribute to Kallis when England’s Kevin Pietersen, a nimble-footed attacking batsman, called the South African the best batsman in the world. Ponting’s fortunes have fluctuated in recent times and on present form, Kallis is definitely ahead.

The argument here doesn’t suggest that Kallis is better, for instance, than Tendulkar. The Indian maestro is the best after Sir Don Bradman if his career is seen in its totality (from 1989). Tendulkar has conjured some astonishing moments in the last few years but has somehow lacked the consistency of old.

And then, the inability of Kallis to score a Test double hundred — his highest score is 189 not out — could be held against him.

Legendary batsmen build huge monuments.

Dravid, with the third highest Test aggregate in the last decade with 8558 runs in 103 Tests at 54.85, would run Kallis close. He too can wear an attack down, bat out sessions and is strong in both technique and mind. His record in England — 915 runs in nine Tests at 65.35 — is laudable too. He has also been among the runs in Australia — 972 in 12 Tests at 48.60. But then, Dravid’s returns in South Africa — 504 runs in eight Tests at 33.60 — have been disappointing by his own high standards.

Like Kallis, Dravid is impeccable in the corridor. However, Kallis is more secure against the in-coming delivery from the pacemen. Given his high back-lift, Dravid can be vulnerable to deliveries bowled from wide of the crease that dart back or straighten.

Of course, there are the other heavyweights. Light on his feet, Mahela Jayawardene does dissect attacks with his delicate touch; he has 9120 runs in 110 Tests at 53.96. On the flip side, his record in Australia and South Africa (he averages 34.25 and 31.40 respectively) do not do justice to his ability. His team-mate Kumar Sangakkara, a southpaw, has good technique and a flurry of strokes. His 7549 runs in 88 Tests at 55.10 — he averages 65.16 in Australia — reflect his skill. In the years ahead, he could push several batsmen.

Of course, there is none who can leave an attack with psychological scars like Sehwag does. When you talk of a batsman imposing himself on a match, Sehwag does not have too many rivals. Given that he has over 6500 runs at just under 53.00, his strike rate of 80.57 can send a chill down the bowlers’ spine. Pietersen too is a gifted batsman even if he has gone off the boil in recent months.

However, in terms of sheer value to the side, Kallis scores over the rest. Just add 260 wickets at 31.47 to over 10,000 Test runs and you realise how precious he is to world cricket. He is also a good slip fielder with sure hands and speedy reflexes.

Kallis the bowler has dropped in pace lately but the sheer effort he puts into each delivery — he can swing the ball away or hustle the batsman with bounce — reflects the man’s character.

It’s time Kallis receives his due in world cricket. He’s strong, he’s resilient and he delivers— season after season.