Sunday, March 27, 2011

In which I express dismay at this tendency, much in evidence of late, toward the deification of Jacques Kallis

I was compiling a list of World Cup gripes, and this was one among them. But it got too big, and I had to give it a post of its own.

It used to be that in Kallis, we had the one cricketer everyone had license to mock. He's always had the numbers to be considered the greatest all-rounder ever, but his fan club was about as big as the longest thoughtful silence ever recorded in a room with Navjot Sidhu in it. About the only time he got into a World XI (when those were such a fad a few months back) was when someone compiled the World's All-Time Dullest XI. Kallis was listed twice in there - once as batsman, once as bowler.

And all was well with the world... until India toured South Africa late last year. India have worked hard over the years to develop a reputation for developing others' reputations. We've done it for Saeed Anwar, for Gary Kirsten, for Andy Flower, and for Matthew Hayden. And now for Jacques Kallis. We grabbed him, skulking about the periphery of ridicule and mockery, and pushed him up into the rarefied heights of the legends. We did it by granting him his first double century in international cricket, and then with that second-innings century.

Yes, it was a great knock. Yes, he played through the pain barrier. Yes, but for it, South Africa would've conceded their first home defeat to India. But it was still an innings at home against India -  whose only world-class fast bowler was half fit; whose two other fast bowlers were last seen being left out of the World Cup squad in favour of a plonker whose stock delivery is the short-and-wide ball at about 115 kph; and the less said about the consistency of their lead spinner, the better.

Things reached their nadir when someone - Pat Symcox, I think (a pre-choke smarmily cocky Symcox) - said, "This is a man who's taken 550 wickets across all forms of international cricket. Now, if that isn't indicative of him being the greatest player of all time, I don't know what is." I've already written about what I think of numbers. Is that why you watch sport? May I point you to book cricket instead? In this case, for instance, could not half those wickets be attributed to Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn putting the fear of God into opposition batsmen, and inducing them to flail at the first sign of a loose delivery? Would anyone really put those out-swingers 3 feet outside the off-stump anywhere near the top tier of South African fast bowling, let alone world cricket?

Then there's the question of his batting, his real claim to greatness. Before I proceed, let me qualify what I mean by greatness. We're all prone to laziness such as "Wow, now that was great chicken. *burp*" What is greatness for the scope of this post is the infinitesimal, the top four of any given time period. Is Kallis amongst the four greatest middle-order batsmen of all time? Done laughing? Let's move on.

Maybe that was too ambitious. All right then, would he make it into the middle order of the Best XI of his generation - the nineties and the noughties? Would you drop one of Tendulkar, Lara, Inzamam, or Ponting for him? Would you even pick him over geniuses who don't quite have the numbers to back up their talent - men like Laxman, Mark Waugh, de Silva or even Hooper? Fine, let's keep it to just South Africa. And let's also forget the past: let's chuck Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock right out the window. Of the current South African lineup, if you were asked to order de Villiers, Amla, Duminy and Kallis in order of whom you'd prefer to watch, which end would Kallis find himself at?

And, much as I hate to reference football, does he have the spark? Is he the talisman that changes a game on its head, the Atlas that carries a team? For huge chunks of their careers, Lara and Tendulkar carried a mediocre batting lineup. And yet, it was also during this phase that they stamped themselves on the game. Their performances then were not marked by anchoring roles or by grinding down the opposition. Their finest, their legacy, are the counter-attacks, the blazing knocks carved out on burning decks, millimetres from disaster, and yet played as if they cared not a whit. Even Ponting, with his genius fading, with his team crumbling around him, has managed to look the part - "the pure spirit of the game" never more apparent than it is now.

Kallis, for most of his career, has had a much better batting lineup around him than the two unquestionable greats of our time, but what are his memorable knocks? Rob Steen, in an article that purports to support Kallis's claim to greatness, lets slip that prior to his finest match as a batsman (the aforementioned performance against Sreesanth, Harbhajan, Ishant, and a half-fit Zaheer), the most memorable-cum-valuable innings he'd ever played was his seventh knock. That, too, was a dour, defensive innings that eked out a draw against the odds.

But what does it say of a batsmen when the high-points of his career are two such - separated by 13 years? In between, he's had a 111 off 275 balls, in a South African first innings total of 451 against Australia (a match the South Africans went on to lose), and that famous 85 off 260 balls in the second innings against England. A back-to-the-wall effort, perhaps? Nope, South Africa were racing toward a declaration, having managed a first-innings lead. That match ended in a draw.

Even if you judged him solely on his merits as a sheet anchor, would you put him over someone like Rahul Dravid, who has played a similar role for India at roughly the same time? Perhaps it's nationalism speaking, but for technique and that elusive class, I'd pick Dravid over Kallis. And also, Dravid's performances have arguably had greater weight for Indian cricket than Kallis's for South African cricket: he was the cornerstone of India's emergence, in the early noughties, as a Test team that could win outside the subcontinent.

Has Kallis raised his game, like greats are expected to, against the best team of his generation? Has he mastered all conditions, like the swing of England, perhaps? Has he made his mark on the biggest stage there is? It's not spectacular, but it's not bad either; but then, when he top-scored for South Africa in the 2007 World Cup, his slow scoring cost him his vice-captaincy. For a team not averse to the odd choke, what's his average in tournament finals like? For those who live by them, do the numbers linked to above indicate a player who pushes his way to the forefront when the heat is at its whitest?

And even if we were to discount the numbers, if we were to go searching for that talismanic figure in the South African lineup, would you plump for him? Their game-changers have always been their fast bowlers and maybe even their fielders. The names most identified with South African cricket post-isolation are Donald and Rhodes, with the current keeper of the flame being Steyn. If a batsman has the potential to take that mantle for himself, that would be AB de Villiers.

Ah, so you ask: What of the 254 he scored against Australia, that Bradman described as the finest exhibition of batting ever seen in Australia? Damn fine question. Except that it wasn't Kallis who did that. That was Sobers, a man who epitomises attacking cricket, the man Kallis is often compared to. Someone first picked in the West Indies team for his bowling (would Kallis make it into the South African lineup for the same?); who opened their bowling, and also bowled wrist spin and finger spin. Forget his batting. How many bowlers have we seen bowl both pace and spin? Ok, forget the fast bowling, too. How many spinners have we seen bowl both wrist spin as well as finger spin?

To the batting, then. Fred Trueman and Richie Benaud, just from the Wikipedia article - two rather good bowlers from that era - seem to have a high opinion of Sobers. He was listed here as the second best batsman of all time. It matters not whether you agree with the rating or not; the point is that it's not a ridiculous notion. Which means that even if Darrell Hair were the man chosen to officiate in the match against the Proxima Centauri XI, and if he, for some reason, found the leftie's action objectionable, Sobers'd still have a good chance of making Earth's Time Warp XI purely for his batting alone.

If Kallis were to be compared to men like Kapil Dev and Ian Botham, perhaps he'd be seen in a more favourable light. But even here, the issue's far from certain - both were far better bowlers than Kallis is, and have had famous moments with the bat. Botham has a whole series identified with him, and Kapil - who didn't take his batting nearly as seriously as he ought to have - played one of the memorable World Cup innings.

Lastly, has the man ever exuded happiness on the cricket field? Ok, we've not seen it in his play, but does his face demonstrate any joy at all in this partaking of the finest sport known to the human race? Even ignoring the hissy fits he used to throw in his younger days when he got dispatched to the boundary for one too many half-volleys outside the off-stump, his countenance has been described as that of a "pompous lump" - like that of a Siddhartha Gautama in an alternate universe, who, just on the cusp of enlightenment, is interrupted by someone wanting to know whether he needs a personal loan; thereby getting his face etched permanently into that Kallis-at-first-slip expression.

What it all boils down to is, if you had to pick the one cricketer across the ages to represent your sport, that you'd proudly point to, when the Martians landed and said "Take me to your finest cricketer," would you really want to point them toward a South African whose selling point is above average bowler, fine batsmen, and ooh lookee here, look at my stats? The thing about all this anointing of Jacques Kallis as the greatest cricketer ever, or even one of the greatest cricketers ever, is that it is a depressing celebration of mediocrity over genius, of numbers over skill. When you watch Kallis play, do you have to fight yourself to keep in a wave of almost incommunicable admiration, do you feel in your gut that you're watching one of the finest sportsmen of all time?

Think of all the reasons why you'd line up for hours outside a stadium, why you'd sit patiently in the scorching sun for 9 hours straight with scarcely any food or water. The heartbreaks, the indignation and, of course, the triumphs. Think, above all, of the magicians of the sport, both seen by you and only described to you. In short, forget the numbers, and think of all which draws you to the game. So, the question once more...

Is Jacques Kallis the game's greatest exponent?

Edit: I'd thought that there wouldn't be any videos of the 254. Turns out I was wrong. Here's two more from Sobers.


Neha said...

'Incommunicable admiration' indeed for this post. Nice picking on a balding cricketer, meanie.

Also, may I mention that in the longest time, I haven't laughed at a description of pompous lump.Hilarious!

Rohan said...

He's not balding anymore, Neha. Haven't you seen his new thatch?!

missjane said...

My question is, who is deifying him, exactly? I demand evidence of the antithetical argument.

Rohan said...

There is the Wikipedia article which calls him "one of the greatest cricketers of all time." If you go to its talk page, a chap has justified it by the remark that his "only realistic competition is Sobers and Bradman." That was in March, 2009. Where are the outraged replies demanding an immediate revert?

And if you don't consider the Rob Steen article linked to in my post as sufficiently deificatory, there is the Harsha Bhogle article that argues that it is time to "put blasphemy aside, let two greats sit at the same table and acknowledge Kallis to be the Sobers of his generation." Despite him openly inviting it in his introduction, where's Bhogle's tarring and feathering?

And then there's his Cricinfo profile, which claims that those who "accuse him of not dominating attacks he has already ground into the dust, of unnecessarily slow scoring, and of failing to take the match situation into account as he plots his innings," only do so because they have a "limited understanding of the dynamics of the South African team." Apparently, if we had an unlimited understanding of the same, the boring plodder we now see would vanish, and we'd behold a combination of Barry Richards and Dale Steyn.

And even more than all this is how the TV commentators are so reverential with his name these days. The great Jacques Kallis, the legendary Jacques Kallis, ah, here's clearly-the-greatest-cricketer-ever-to-walk-the-Earth Jacques Kallis.

man in the iron mask said...

I don't know, have you ever seen Kallis bowl to Mark Waugh? Or Matthew Hayden?
And your argument about bowling along with the best attack in the world, and "fear of death". It is a case of torturing the evidence.
Put in simple mathematics. Pick the amount of matches played, and take 20 wickets per test. Then subtract the number of wickets Donald and Pollock and Ntini and now Steyn have picked. You will have "how" exactly that predicament of having to bowl with the best attack ought to be interpreted.
Did you watch him bowl for his 6/54 against England? Did you see the ripper that got rid of Flintoff? Please, give me a break.

And yeah, about his batting. Here is the thing. Any argument is based on logic, which in turn is based on mathematics and numbers. Rohit Sharma is a wonderful talent, and what is he giving me? is greatness worth the mere sight alone? Why, Mahela Jayawerdene is the greatest batsman of the present era?
And why so much love for the aesthetics of Rahul Dravid? How exactly is Dravid different from Kallis, especially with his falling over.

Please Rohan, you don't need to make him a God. But yeah, everyone knows greatness when they see one. And Kallis is the greatest. Oh yeah, based purely on numbers. That is why few remember Victor Trumper and that is why Bradman is the gold standard. And rightly so, because it is the numbers that win matches. And weren't it for those numbers, Dhoni should be chucked out off the team for his ugliness alone.

Rohan said...

I'd be the last to argue with you on the usefulness of logic. But much like a certain Vulcan star-fleet science officer who boldly went where no one had gone before, I, too, have divided loyalties and likes and dislikes no logic or numbers can explain.

Besides, the question of aesthetics has always been rather difficult to quantify. Of course, if you were to define sport in terms of numbers, worship of Kallis is one that brooks no argument. But if I were of that school of thought, I wouldn't bother with watching much of it, when reading the score in the newspapers the next day would take up so much less time...

To wind up, what is Rohit Sharma's wonderful talent to you? As fair a question as what is numbers to me in the realm of sport.

Also, interesting that you should bring up Trumper vs Bradman. There was kind of a follow up to this post, where I sort of hinted that I'd take a Kanhai over a dozen Bradmans. ;)

hamms said...

You seem to be another one frustrated by India drawing that series.I love the way you keep demeaning that attack;calling it unfit,unreliable,etc.Did you even see that game?The inconsistent spinner(Harbhajan) was turning the ball square on a crumbling pitch.Amla a wristy Asian player was bowled.Yet Kallis batting with painful injections took the game away.Kallis has played many great innings-many of which you don't seem to know about.162 v/s Eng-Durban,95 v/s India-Mumbai or Bangalore,97 v/s Sri Lanka-Kandy,155 & 100 v/s Pakistan-Karachi,102 v/s Australia-Melbourne,99 v/s Australia-Melbourne(2001).....the list goes on.

You question about his average in England....He has played in more difficult conditions at home all his life.Still as you say numbers don't tell everything.He toured England thrice.In 1998 he scored 350+ runs at a comfortable average.In 2003 he was only half fit & managed 63 runs from 2 games.In 2008 he was in poor form averaging just 14.How can a batsmen having been born & brought up in swinging conditions average 14;but for poor form.

You find Kallis monotonous.I & many others find his style aesthetically pleasing-his cover drive,square cut,pull,straight drive.....

Ah his record v/s Australia-the best team of the era.48 wickets at 36-including(Gilchrist-6 times,Ponting -5 times,Hayden-5 times,S Waugh-3 times)Name an Indian pacer who has such a record against this(1996-2009) opposition.Also 1664 runs at 41 v/s the top team.How many Indian batsmen have done better in matches involving Australia's full strength attack(McGrath,Warne...)
Lets see.....Dravid nah,Tendulya hmmmm...: Sachin has had the advantage of playing in some series against Aus where neither McGrath or Warne (or both) were present. Of his 29 Tests v Aus only 8 of those featured both McGrath and Warne. 5 had Warne only and 1 featured McGrath only. So he had 15 of 29 Tests against Australia with neither bowler (17 really since Warne in 1991/92 was a shadow of his future self). Check out Sachin's averages in each category of game:
Against just McGrath (1 Test) - avg = 5.00, Against just Warne(5 Tests)-avg=102.83,Against neither bowler(15 Tests) -avg=58.76
Against both bowlers(8 Tests)-avg=40.75
40.75,40.75,40.75........similar to Kallis isn't it.Unfortunately Kallis didn't have this luxury(of facing a B side attack) at all.

You quote his record in finals.He was the Man of the series in his country's only ICC trophy win,including a Man of the Match performance in the final v/s guess who Australia(full strength). His record in worthless FINALS like Coca Cola cup,Hero cup(where Tendulya excels) is poor but who cares.OOps you do.Keeps on disillusioning yourself.

Satish Naidu said...

Just to break it to very gently, because I know you would love it. Kallis is quite simply the greatest cricketer ever.