Kallis signs off in style

2014-01-04 00:00

IT was not for us to question the decision that we knew was coming; to be sure many of us thought it was premature, particularly with a visit from the fired up Australians just a matter of weeks away. The great man, however, felt the moment had come and with the exquisite timing of an entire career he has left the Test match scene with all of us thirsting for more rather than hoping he would go before he was pushed.

It is given to very few to write their own scripts but Jacques Kallis pulled it off in a manner that was utterly consistent with the way he has played Test match cricket for 18 matchless years. His last innings was pure Kallis — careful, studied, purposeful, technically perfect, vastly important for his team and as always with Jacques, a hint of one eye on the stats that would tell the story of his wondrous career.

Kallis, as is well known, took a few years to establish himself in what was a good but not great South African team. Even when it had become apparent to a wider audience that he was a special cricketer, his batting seemed weighed down by the responsibility he carried as the best batsman in the team. Too often one thought he was unduly cautious in his pursuit of runs when the situation cried out for a more adventurous approach. The classic example occurred at Old Trafford in 1998 when he compiled a laborious first century against England as the South African first innings ground its way into the third day of the match, only to run out of time with England at the mercy of the Proteas.

His approach seemed to change when Graeme Smith became captain of the team in 2003. It may be that when he saw in his young captain such a prolific and aggressive scorer of runs, Kallis felt he could play with a little more freedom. His number of admirers began to appreciate towards his current standing as one of the greatest cricketers ever to have played the game.

In 2005, Kallis, Smith, Mark Boucher and Gary Kirsten were joined in the team by three other world class players — Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. Once these three had settled in, the building blocks of a great team were assembled round the cornerstone and balance provided by South Africa’s top batsman and its greatest ever all-rounder, Jacques Kallis. The march towards becoming the best Test team in the world began.

Surrounded by other batsmen of immense talent, Kallis became more free in his approach to batting. His runs flowed with a freedom that had been absent during the years when every South African innings seemed to depend on him. He even managed to record the fastest 50 ever made in Test match cricket. As his batting became more pleasant to watch so did his reputation as one of cricket’s greatest players gather momentum.

Here was a batsman with more than 10 000 Test runs who had also taken over 250 Test wickets. It no longer seemed foolish to compare him with the legendary Gary Sobers, who had stood alone at the pinnacle of all-rounders for almost 50 years. For entertainment value, Sobers still stands alone but statistically Kallis has moved past the great West Indian. No other all-rounder can stand comparison with these two, however much Ian Botham would like to insert himself into the frame.

Kallis was integral to South Africa’s rise to the top of Test cricket but such was the talent in Smith’s team that important victories were achieved and games saved without massive contributions from him. Once a future without him seemed “too ghastly to contemplate” but for the time being the team he has left behind him have enough in the tank to carry on. Or have they? We will know soon enough.

As the years unfolded, opponents, as they always do, began to find ways to deal with Kallis the batsman. He became vulnerable to fast full-pitched bowling mixed up with some short stuff. Andrew Flintoff gave him a torrid time in 2008 when Kallis had a poor time of it in England. The young Australian Pat Cummins roughed him up at the Wanderers, but it had to be very good and very fast bowling to trouble him. One just wonders if the thought of Mitchell Johnson coming at him at over 150 clicks was enough to induce in Kallis the thought of a mid-season retirement. There is nothing much that even the greatest batsmen can do about it when their reactions slow down for that nanosecond that causes them to freeze against bouncers from bowlers who have that extra yard of pace.

In his early days, Kallis the bowler was sharp enough to cause discomfort to most batsmen but throughout his career he was able to move the ball away from the batsmen. This gave him a measure of control that became as valuable to his captains as was his ability to accumulate a steady harvest of wickets. He was much more than a batsman who bowled and that he was still bowling at pace in his last Test match is a testament to his skills, strength and fitness.

And all the while he stood at slip catching everything that came his way. I loved watching him stand there almost as still as a statue, deep in concentration, expending no nervous energy. He must have missed a few catches along the way but I cannot remember anything of importance. Those he never missed.

Kallis will linger on in lesser forms of the game but South Africa’s greatest Test cricketer has left the stage centre back.

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