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.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Divans of Foam, or: The Unemployed Youth's Guide to Blissful Irresponsibility

1) Plan your unemployment. The "telling the management off and walking out the door with dignity and reserve" thing works only in the movies. Here in the real world, there are such things as notice periods. Nothing stops you from clumping out the meeting room with shoulders back and uppity demeanor, of course, but you're likely to get only so far as your desk. So, for instance, if the World Cup starts on February 18th, schedule your dust-up for January 18th, or some such.

2) The other thing to consider is the weather. When summer's at its worst or winter's at its most freezing, you may as well spend most of it in office. If you're going to be miserable anyway, get paid for it - and save on air conditioning, to boot. There are no limits, literally none, to what I can achieve in the springtime, said Uncle Fred. Why not direct all that industry inward, rather than waste it on some soulless corporation?

3) On the subject of industry, don't ever fall into the "discovering yourself" trap. If you do, at least be smart enough to see the "climbing Mt Everest / helping the poor / becoming a doctor" commercialisation by Hollywood for what it is. Movies are often nothing more than product placements for the powerful sports equipment / strength-of-the-human-spirit / medical school lobbies. You can discover as much about yourself by sitting on the same spot for two months straight, and not moving a muscle (save the ones required for working the remote), as by running from Kanyakumari to Khardung La. How did Buddha achieve nirvana, again?

4) Not to put too fine a point on the last paragraph, but society, for some reason, encourages productivity over sloth. The word sloth has an unpleasant ring to it, even, no? And so, you may justify - to your family and friends - your decision to quit your job with all sorts of excuses that sound distinctly unslothy. Which is all right, so long as you don't overdo it and deceive yourself. Do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Meet no people. Read no books. Watch no movies. Take no walks. Eat no vegetables. Hah! Caught you there! Of course you should watch movies. What's life without films?

4.5) Watch "Dazed and Confused."  Over and over again. It's the perfect film for slackers everywhere - a funny, wise and literate celebration of inertia. The anti-"Chariots of Fire." The film is a riposte (no, not exactly a riposte, but more of a languorous, "I hear you, dude, but you gotta, you know, consider this, too, man") to all out there who goad us constantly to seek ways to improve, to those that exhort us to plan and to achieve. Relax, it says. Grab a beer. Slow down that pace, and drive leisurely down the highway to nowhere. You'll run out of gas one day, and it'll make no difference whether you travelled 20 miles or 2000.

5) Mix and match the films. Let's say you've been rationing, for the past few months, a collection of Jarmusch films, a few Melvilles, and also the complete Berlin Alexanderplatz set. And then spare time falls into your lap like deep-fried manna from the heavens, with a side order of tandoori chicken. The temptation, then, normally, is to work your way through the Jarmusch first, then the Melville, and finally the Fassbinder. The problem is, you do NOT want to watch all of Berlin Alexanderplatz in one go.

While undoubtedly a jewel, it's also unrelentingly dark and despairing. What with all the seemingly endless focus on guilt and punishment and loneliness, and chapter titles like "A hammer blow to the head can injure the soul," and "The outside and the inside and the secret of fear of the secret," your comfortable vegetating would turn into a horror of wide eyes, chin cupped in hands, cheeks scratched in agony, and tear-stained shirt. Watch the Germans brood and shriek, by all means, but punctuate it liberally with the quirkiness and cool surrealism of American independent cinema, add a smattering of stylish French nihilism, and coat it all with a touch of insouciant, misanthropic British humour - and that's as irresistible a cocktail as any for an aspiring vegetable.

6) Try and shower at least once in 9 days. Also, hitch your jaw up, if you notice a lot of drool around the chin area. Speaking of hitching, if you dread visiting your hometown because of relatives and neighbours inquiring about your matrimonial plans, and making unsolicited criticisms of your not having any, now is the time to go home. Not only do you get someone else to put you up for free, no one's going to want their daughter - or their friend's daughter - to get hooked up with an unemployed vagabond.

6.5) Spread the joy. Message your friends about the cool, the breeze, the sounds of the world bustling about outside. Tell them that Mondays are not so bad after all - especially if you wake up just before noon.  They may be outwardly caustic in their replies, their terse replies a little at odds with your sunny outlook. No matter. Deep inside, they'd be grateful to you for reaffirming their faith in the general goodness of this world. Beneath the surface apoplexy (usually most evident when you thoughtfully point out their reddish eyes, and the darkish circles around the same, and enquire solicitously whether sleep deprivation's the cause) would be genuine gratitude.

7) Eat breakfast. It improves your energy levels and your general outlook drastically. This is not so important when you're running the rat race, but you should take your vegetating seriously. And eat well. Not "eat healthy," mind you. Drums of heaven, biryanis, masala dosas, momos, pastries, etc, etc, etc. The one difficulty I faced with breakfast is that Delhi is a little cold in the mornings in February and March. The thing to do, then, is to go to bed dressed. That way, you don't have to take off your nightclothes in the early-morning chill. You just jump straight out of bed and into the nearest restaurant.

8) Drink lots of water.

8.5) Refuse to enter into any discussions titled Your Plans For The Future, or General Faults I Perceive In Your Approach To Life.

9) Number the Slackandments, for easy reference. Keep them to a round figure like ten, if possible, when you become a subject-matter expert and decide to share your wisdom with the rest of God's creatures. If it's good enough for Jehovah...

10) When the money runs out, find a job.