THE LINCHPIN

V.V. KRISHNAN

Though not wholly capable of the merriment of Lara or the adroitness of Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis belongs in the pantheon of cricketing gods, writes S. RAM MAHESH

GREEN Eggs and Ham, a book by Dr. Seuss, emerged in response to a challenge from his editor to write a book with just 50 different words. Most of Jacques Kallis's compositions share similarities with the admirable and aforementioned collection of pages; their creator has chosen to restrict himself in his choice of raw materials.

If a batsman of undoubted temperament and uncommon skill compels sportswriters around the world to use `majestic' and `soulless', `gorgeous' and `unloveable' in the same breath as if trying to balance one against the other, it raises questions. A Kallis innings is an exercise often more in denial than expression. But, pray why?

For as a batsman, the South African while not wholly capable of the merriment of Lara or the adroitness of Tendulkar belongs in the pantheon of cricketing gods. His figures suggest as much: 7420 Test runs from 94 matches at 57.07 and 7861 ODI runs (after the first ODI against India in Hyderabad) from 225 matches at 44.41. Both averages are among the best of all time. The Kallis repertoire is varied and has the vigour necessary for bold self expression. Six-feet tall and seemingly hewn from granite, his driving reminds old timers of Wally Hammond — any spot between square cover and square leg is fair game. This the 30-year-old can accomplish off either foot and with varying degrees of wrist involvement. To the short ball, Kallis either gets beside the line to cut or inside the line to pull. In either case, he has time to adjust his hands and keep the ball to ground.

"He's getting better and better," said South African captain Graeme Smith. "He doesn't get the same accolades as Lara or Tendulkar but he's right up there with them. He sets high standards for himself."

Yet the man from beautifully named Pinelands is held up as an unyielding accumulator. Simon Barnes, writing in The Times, described South Africa as a team "short of humour, irony and critically short of adventure". Conservatism is posited as a national trait and, for some time now, Kallis has come to typify South Africa's cricket.

Indeed, this bulwark has been noted by bowlers not for an attacking stroke but for an ability to pick the line and desist. "Nobody in the last 12 months has left (deliveries from) us as well as Kallis has," said English fast-bowler Steve Harmison during the England-South Africa series earlier this year. "That first innings in Durban was the best anyone has played against us." England captain Michael Vaughan concurred with those thoughts.

This unflappability of disposition, however, has allowed Kallis to remain his team's backbone through testing times — from the post match-fixing flux to the 2003 World Cup debacle. Despite not bowling as much as he used to — sharp, muscly out swingers from a jog up — the all-rounder has been indispensable. His very presence has allowed Smith to build a team around him that will not be overly scarred while finding its feet.

AP

Coaches and players have come and gone while Kallis has scratched out his guard and played himself in. When former wicketkeeper Ray Jennings took over as coach and operated much the same way drill-sergeants do, the light-haired giant's spot came under media gaze. "I would rather burn Jacques out at 30 or 32 playing to the level I know he can play than drag him out to age 38 and have him firing at 50 per cent for the next ten years," Jennings had said in an interview to Wisden Cricketer. "I'm going to turn on the heat, make him or break him. No soft options."

This "make or break" involved getting Kallis, who had become a reluctant bowler, to bowl more while continuing to carry much of his country's batting burden. South Africa's pace bowling had tailed away with Shaun Pollock losing pace and Makhaya Ntini becoming the main strike bowler. There was concern that Kallis's batting would be affected.

A man of considerable physical strength and mental resilience, the Western Province player has outlasted Jennings. Kallis has said the team is more honest under new coach Mickey Arthur, who is credited by many in the team with bringing enjoyment back to the game. In the home series against New Zealand that preceded the tour to India, Kallis failed in the first match prompting opinions that he should be shunted down the order to make way for the power hitters.

With 158 runs in ten matches going into the second ODI, Arthur was asked if he was worried about Kallis's form. "As for Jacques, I feel he is one innings away from a big score," he said. "I have noticed he is a bit slow getting into his trigger position." On a drip an hour before the match, Kallis went on to make 51 in 94 balls on a sluggish wicket at Newlands — an innings that showed he had read the pitch and played accordingly.

But Kallis's strike rate of 70.58 in ODIs, in the realm of other orthodox players Rahul Dravid and Marvan Atapattu, has raised the odd comment about his disinclination to take charge despite having the ability. Surely for one eminently capable of slog-reverse-sweeping a six — the touchstone of urgency and adventure — he could do more. "There are a few changes to the rule this year, but the basic principles of the game have remained unchanged," said Kallis, who shared the ICC Player of the Year award with Andrew Flintoff. "One of the top three batsmen should still try to bat through. Everyone can't follow the same tactics and I know what my role is." Much of Kallis's reticence stems from his early career — his first five Test matches brought him 57 runs, before 61 at Rawalpindi gave him hope. Then followed his bouncer-leaping and Warne-driving 101 at the MCG, which he still classes as his best innings. A reduction over the years in the quality and experience of those to follow him in the lineup and the natural South African doggedness to not give an inch (which differs from Australians who force themselves into that inch) have combined to dry any insouciance Kallis may have possessed.

Forced to deal with his father's loss in 2003, the man with 35 international centuries re-evaluated his attitude to life and decided to keep things simple — a philosophy that has sparked a remarkable run since. And while his career numbers are skewed (a Test average of 34.90 against Australia but over 250 versus Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), there can be no denying his role in keeping South African heads high in difficult moments. Or that he will be around, as he seems to have been, forever.