Retirement must rank quite high among the inevitable traumas of life, especially when the identity of an individual has been conflated with his profession. I guess there’s a warning in that for all of us – to try to become more than you have had to be from eight to five, to imagine a life without a title, to claim a tiny little locus in the universe that has integrity and value not for what it has been, but for what it is and can become.
In the case of sporting and other icons the trauma, naturally, is more widely felt as the admired actors of the stage of public life take their curtain calls and we, the audience, project onto their passing, our own.
So it was, I found, with Jacques Kallis.
There can be little argument with the numbers (as numbers go) that Kallis has been a true “great” of the game: the highest Test batting average of any player who has scored over 10,000 runs, coupled with a highly-competitive bowling average (and strike-rate) make him unarguably the most valuable player of the modern era.
The latter qualification is an important one, since it will always be specious to compare a Barry Richards, a Graeme Pollock or a Donald Bradman with a Kallis or a Tendulkar. Conditions have changed, the rules have changed, the tools have changed, and technology marches on – all factors which make it silly to argue their relative merits.
But as Kallis ground his way to his final century in his final test, one thing was clear to me: this was not the man who had once been the best of his time.
The feet were slower, the hands were slower, the eyes were slower, and the fact that ultimately the hamstring played up as he moved ever so slowly to overtake Rahul Dravid as the third-most-prolific run-getter in Test history – take away the romance of the fairy-tale ending, and all of these added up to one thing: it’s been a wonderful ride, but it’s time for a change.
At the height of his powers, Kallis had a ranking score of 935 on the statistical scale used to compare international players, and he was the world’s best; at his retirement, his ranking had slipped to a lowly score of 681 (and fifteenth place).
His decline has been steady but sure over the past six years, while the rise of younger guns (A.B. de Villiers and Hashim Amla are ranked 1 and 2 respectively) has been a key factor in South Africa’s elevation to the top of the pile of Test-playing nations. Technical incorrigibles like Graeme Smith and T20 wonderboys like the Ozzie Dale Warner now rank above him.
There is even a New Zealander called Taylor at number four, which is a complete mystery since they have to drop their cricket pitches into their rugby fields by helicopter in order to get a game together.
An even greater mystery is a West Indian called Chanderpaul, one above Taylor at three, since he is 39 years old and takes guard with his shoulders facing square-leg, which is the opposite of what any coaching manual advises aspirant players to do.
I and my family will miss Jacques Kallis. It was much better to have him on our side than on the enemy’s, even though he often put us to sleep. But now I can look forward to Quinton de Kock getting a deserved spot at number 5, and showing us a bit of flash.
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