Extra punch when it’s needed

2011-07-30 00:00

THE more I examined the circumstances behind England’s statement-making victory over India in the first Test at Lord’s this week, the more I was simultaneously reminded of the extraordinary benefits Jacques Kallis offers to the Proteas — even as he prepares to turn 36 in the South African spring.

Of course, with almost 12 000 runs to his credit at an average of 57,43 (he remains top of the ICC Test batting rankings, though now pursued in second spot by fellow Capetonian Jonathan Trott) Kallis’s pedigree purely as a batsman is in no doubt whatsoever.

But it is his ongoing contribution as a bowler that really sets him apart from anyone else among the major current powers in the five-day format.

Just a reminder at this point: Kallis also remains at the helm of the Test all-rounder rankings, with a rating of 451 that keeps him comfortably ahead of New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori (who is simply not in his league as a batsman, of course) on 364.

England’s big win at Lord’s in a four-Test series against the No. 1-ranked Indians significantly strengthens (you would think) their quest to win the series by at least two Tests and move ahead of both their present opponents and South Africa (second) to go top of the pile.

My guess is that whatever happens in the remainder of this series, the global balance-of-power situation will remain reasonably fluid, especially when the Proteas finally get back into action against Australia early in the new season.

There is, arguably, little to choose between any of the top three right now, but the big plus for South Africa remains their healthy ability, courtesy of Kallis’s versatile presence, to field a five-man attack rather than the more glaringly four-pronged ones both England and India are dangerously employing.

After all, the pitfalls of a four-man bowling line-up — invariably caused by the absence of a genuine all-rounder in the side — came home to roost nastily for India at Lord’s.

For the lion’s share of the Test, you see, they were suddenly restricted to three recognised bowlers as their critically important left-arm spearhead Zaheer Khan cried off with a hamstring problem after failing to complete his 14th over on day one of England’s first innings.

Before his injury — not the first time he has broken down during a Test, it must be said — Zaheer had snaffled both England openers, but then Kevin Pietersen’s double-century more or less took the game away from India from a “win chance” point of view as Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan Singh increasingly wilted under the strain of extra responsibility.

In England’s second knock India actually managed to have the hosts staggering on the ropes at 62 for five, but again their curtailed firepower proved a bugbear as Matt Prior’s ton greatly restored the initiative.

With sometimes off-spinner Sachin Tendulkar reportedly poorly from a virus, the Indians were even forced into the rare occurrence of captain and wicketkeeper MS Dhoni taking off his pads and trundling some wobblers in each England knock to try to relieve the load on the overworked frontline trio.

I suspect a focused and hungry England might well have gone on to win anyway, but remain highly curious, nevertheless, as to how the complexion of the match might have differed had Khan remained fit and firing throughout it.

India, of course, have not really had the genuine article as a Test all-rounder since Kapil Dev’s retirement in 1994, while if the current, largely impressive England side have one weakness it is — very similarly to India — the slightly lopsided formula of six batsmen, a batting ‘keeper at No. 7 and four bowlers.

Every now and then Trott (two Test wickets at 83,50, for the record) turns his arm over innocuously for the proverbial change of scenery, but England are the poorer structurally for bowling depth since the retirement of Andrew Flintoff and a bit later Paul Collingwood, although “Colly” was never remotely in the same class as a seamer and really just a periodic fifth element as far as bowling duty was concerned.

At least with Kallis (270 Test wickets at 32) still so admirably willing to shoulder an influential responsibility with the ball, South Africa have the luxury of one potential mid-match breakdown still leaving them with a properly constituted four-man attack.

His ability to be the fully fledged fourth seamer is priceless too, when you consider that opponents like England and India most customarily (if not on the sub-continent) have one spinner among their four bowlers: this often means, especially on the first couple of days of a Test when “tweak” can be a bit less influential, that the spinner comes into action a little earlier than is ideal and an unrelenting pace barrage in seam-friendly conditions is just not possible.

When I last saw Kallis bowl, on television during the latest IPL, he was still sending down plenty of his “heavy balls” in the vicinity of 140 km/h and spiritedly trying to rough up fellow-great Tendulkar with a bouncer onslaught.

That is hardly the sign of a man desirous of scaling down his highly valued second trade any time soon.

Keeping things that way, whatever it takes, may very well be a key thrust of Gary Kirsten’s Test template when he officially assumes the Proteas’ coaching reins on Monday.

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