The colossus of South African cricket

Published : Jan 20, 2011 00:00 IST

Jacques Kallis is not a showboat that the modern era often celebrates. He is quiet and resilient, and has all the strokes, but is rarely flamboyant. In the Kallis School of Cricket, efficiency, consistency and results are of greater value than a few moments of brilliance. He has endured and delivered time after time, writes S. Dinakar.

Jacques Kallis has the eye of a tiger, the strength of a bull and a heart even bigger than his large frame. Whether he makes the bowlers sweat and the fielders chase leather with his patience, technique and power or gets the batsmen to hop around with mean short-pitched deliveries or holds the rapidly travelling ball effortlessly in the slips, Kallis oozes the commitment of a team-man.

With his fierce focus in the cauldron, Kallis shuts his mind from distractions and self doubts as he bats through deliveries, overs, spells, sessions and days to construct monuments during times of distress. By living in the present moment, he counters pressures of the most severe nature.

The purity of his methods is reflected in the manner he eases into the right position. Here, Kallis' transfer of weight, footwork and his reading of the length of the deliveries are his allies. His judgment of line and bounce is impeccable as well.

Not too many batsmen ‘leave' the ball on or outside the off-stump with the confidence of Kallis. He watches the hand carefully and picks the direction of the delivery's deviation.

The South African's basics are sound and his powers of concentration immense. Not for nothing is his scalp a prized one in world cricket. Former India coach Greg Chappell once said about Kallis, “He is a quality player with a proven record in all conditions. He is able to adapt and can make the mental switch capably.”

In a match of fortune swings in Cape Town, Kallis journeyed to the essence of Test cricket where all barriers, including shooting pain, were overcome for the team's cause. The 35-year-old, battling a rib injury, often winced in anguish but put a price on his wicket. But for his unconquered century of character and skill in the second innings — he made 270 runs including centuries in both innings of the Test — South Africa might have suffered its first series defeat against India at home.

Put this South African in a crisis situation and he responds with batsmanship of the classical variety. Kallis is invariably balanced and poised while meeting the ball and can find the gaps.

Yet, for all his achievements, this formidable cricketer of broad shoulders and great resilience is modest about his feats. He is not a showboat that the modern era often celebrates. He is quiet and resilient and has all the strokes, but is rarely flamboyant. In the Kallis School of Cricket, efficiency, consistency and results are of greater value than a few moments of brilliance. He has endured — Kallis began his Test career in 1995 — and delivered time after time.

Just consider his astonishing numbers for a moment. Kallis has 11947 runs in 145 Tests at a whopping 57.44 with 40 Test hundreds. Only maestro Sachin Tendulkar has notched up more centuries in Test cricket. And in 307 ODIs, Kallis has made 11002 runs at a laudable 45.84. Add to these his 270 Tests wickets at 32.01 and 259 ODI scalps at 31.90 and you are looking at a cricketer who is already a legend.

The sheer effort that Kallis puts into his cricket is mind-boggling. To his credit, the influential South African has not neglected his bowling even as his role as a batsman has grown. When this writer once queried him about his growing workload in a crowded cricket calendar, Kallis' response was typical of the man. He dwelt on the challenges of taking on more responsibility with pride. A lesser man could have wilted under the burden.

Kallis can inflict damage with the ball. With fine wrist and seam positions, he is a natural swing bowler. But then, there are several dimensions to his under-rated bowling. He ambles across in his run-up but can generate surprising speed with his strong body action where his shoulder plays a major role. He has a telling short-pitched delivery, can hit the bat hard. In cricketing parlance, he often sends down the ‘heavy' ball.

In the ODI arena, Kallis extracts lift from back-of-a-length, making it hard for the batsmen to drive him off either foot. Had South Africa not been a traditionally strong pace bowling side, Kallis might have had a greater role to play in the attack. He is now the fourth seamer, a support bowler, who is expected to provide the breakthrough once the specialists fail.

But then, Kallis' bowling provides the side depth and balance. When fitness concerns prevented him from bowling in the Cape Town Test against India, skipper Graeme Smith found it hard to manage the overs once his spearheads, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, finished their spells. And South Africa appeared a lesser bowling unit; Kallis hustles the batsmen, maintains the pressure.

Kallis' success with the ball against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe is held against him by some. However, even if you take away his 21 scalps versus Zimbabwe and 17 against Bangladesh, Kallis still has 232 Test wickets, which is more than what a lot of specialist bowlers have managed in their careers.

Importantly, Kallis has 48 wickets in 24 Tests against Australia at 36.37 and 46 scalps in 28 Tests versus England at 34.67. For a frontline batsman — he invariably bats in the top or the early middle-order — to achieve such success with the ball is remarkable.

Kallis' batting feats overshadow his bowling but then his returns with the ball are still out of the ordinary. He deserves a place in the pantheon of immortal all-rounders.

In fact, the legendary Sir Garry Sobers was the only other leading batsman who encountered as much success with the ball in international cricket. However, it would be unfair to compare cricketers of different eras. Cricket was different in the days without helmets and when there was no restriction in the number of bouncers. Those were the days when the pitches were juicy and the quality of bowling higher.

Sobers, by all accounts, was a genius. Kallis is more a diligent accumulator of runs and a strong, hard-working paceman. In contemporary cricket, though, Kallis is the foremost all-rounder.

Records will tell you that Kallis has been the most successful Test batsman in terms of averages (minimum qualification 5,000 runs) from January 1999.

During the period, Kallis has scored 10,928 runs from 123 Tests at 62.44. Tendulkar follows with 9932 runs in 114 Tests at 58.08. The left-handed Kumar Sangakkara is third with 8244 runs from 94 matches at 57.25. Ricky Ponting, another batting giant, has 11,154 runs in 130 Tests at 56.33.

Yet, there is a chink in Kallis' record. He has only 586 runs from his 12 Tests in England at 29.30. Coping with swing and changing conditions in Old Blighty is among the major challenges for any batsman and Kallis will surely seek to improve his performances in England.

Brought up on the bouncy South African pitches, Kallis is essentially a back-footed player who can drive, cut and pull. Here, a sure-footed back and across movement holds the key. However, the swinging ball in England demands exemplary front-footed play with the batsman often moving forward and across to counter the movement. Kallis has not quite been able to make the adjustment in the manner of a Tendulkar, who scores over him with 1302 runs at 62.00 from 13 Tests in England.

Still, Kallis has a lot going for him. He averages 58.46 in India and 83.14 in Pakistan. He can play spin with soft hands, using the depth of the crease, defend stoutly when the ball turns and close catchers surround the bat, and give the spinners the charge with lofted shots and drives. He has a cricketing mind that ticks and is not averse to taking calculated risks.

Kallis' away record of 5199 runs in 66 Tests at 53.59 underlines his proficiency. This does not include the two Tests against Pakistan played at a neutral venue (UAE) this season where he amassed 323 runs in two Tests at 107.66.

In his next series, versus India at home, Kallis took his game to another level with a stunning 498 runs in three Tests at 166.00. Despite much sweat and toil, the battle-scarred Kallis still retains the appetite for runs and scalps; even after 16 years in the international circuit.

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