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Jacques Kallis. Photo: Anesh Debiky/AFP
Jacques Kallis. Photo: Anesh Debiky/AFP

Jacques Kallis: The understated legend

Has the South African, who has just retired from Test cricket, got his duelike his contemporaries Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara?

“Farewell Hundred from Jacques Kallis in Durban and no-one there to watch it! SA Cricket fans...where the heck are you?"

This was the sentiment of famous sports commentator Alan Wilkins on Twitter on the fourth day of the second Durban Test. For if Ricky Ponting’s last Test in Perth’s Western Australian Cricket Association (Waca) Ground was house-full, and no one can ever forget Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell Test in Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, Kallis departed without much fanfare. For his final Test, barely 7,000 people were present at the Kingsmead stadium in Durban.

Despite the staggering statistical evidence of undisputed greatness, Kallis does not seem to have captured the imagination of the masses, and his name has never been mentioned in the reverential tone reserved for Garry Sobers or Don Bradman. There is no end to the debate on whether he has got his due—and if not, why not.

“One thing that was shared by a few bowlers who played against South Africa is that they never felt that Kallis could hurt them; that there were always more dangerous players around him. I have always felt Jacques Kallis lacks (the ability) to stamp his authority on the game, that’s why there will always be question marks over where he fits into the bigger picture of the true cricketing greats, ability to change the game, to make a difference, to take the bull by the horns, to do the unexpected," said Daryll Cullinan, a former South African batting great, on Match Point, a chat show on cricket website ESPNcricinfo, after the third day’s play in Durban on 28 December.

Kallis’ career is a statistician’s delight. But legends are not built on numbers alone.

“A lot of people say he hasn’t got the accolades he deserved and I’ve often wondered why. The people you would be comparing him to are Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and maybe Rahul Dravid," Shaun Pollock told the media in Durban during the second Test.

A lot of factors come into play when somebody is hailed as an all-time great. For one, Kallis was not a child prodigy like Tendulkar, Ponting or Lara. And that seems to have gone against him.

Compared with his illustrious contemporaries, Kallis had the worst Test-career start. In his first five Test matches, the Proteas all-rounder averaged below 10. To play a big innings like 150, he had to wait till his 40th Test, and when it did come against New Zealand in 2004, the world didn’t quite pay enough attention. If someone scores runs at an average of 388 in a Test series without being dismissed even once, it will earn you accolades. However, it went down as a mere footnote since the opponents were Zimbabwe.

In contrast, Lara had 277 at Sydney against Australia and 375 against England as two of the monumental Test innings early in his career. Tendulkar scored his first Test hundred early on in England (119 not out in Manchester). His next three hundreds came soon in Sydney and Perth, Australia, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Under the radar

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Kallis. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee/Reuters

In the 2003-04 season, Kallis made five Test hundreds in five matches, a record that put him just below Bradman, who had six hundreds consecutively. However, of the five, four came against a mediocre attack of the West Indies on home turf. When he scored the fastest 50 in Test cricket in just 24 balls in 2005, critics didn’t rate it much again since it came against Zimbabwe.

In the past 40 years, apart from Kallis, only Sobers has retired with an average above 55 (when a batsman has scored at least 5,000 runs). And, if you add his 292 Test wickets, his achievements seem greater than those of Jeff Thomson, Andy Roberts or Michael Holding. But in his first seven years, Kallis had just three five-wicket hauls in an innings—two of them against the West Indies and one against Bangladesh. And that is precisely the reason his reputation as a formidable bowler didn’t grow exponentially.

“Even his bowling contributions, he would pick two or three wickets but there weren’t many performances that brought attention to him. He was always there doing his part and that’s why he always slipped under the radar. It’s also a case of maybe a prophet in your own land. We appreciated him here but maybe we didn’t give him as much attention as maybe someone like Sachin or Ricky Ponting got," explained Pollock.

Late in the day

The fact that he scored only two double hundreds in a colossal career was also held against Kallis by critics. That the first double hundred came after almost 15 years also allowed many to argue that the South African was not as blessed as Tendulkar or Lara were as batsmen. Cricket often judges the greatness by the number of bigger innings one plays. If Lara scored nine double hundreds, Tendulkar and Ponting had six each.

Moreover, unlike Lara or Tendulkar, Kallis could never become the darling of international media, particularly the English and Australian press which are the traditional powerhouses of cricket. There were never enough headline-generating quotes by a Sobers, Imran Khan or Ian Botham on Kallis. Once Bradman spoke about the glimpses of batting similarity with the Master Blaster, Tendulkar’s standing in the world changed forever.

“I think they do it now. In recent years, great players like Tendulkar, Dravid and Steve Waugh have said that. In any case, it’s not a subjective thing. It’s a fact the Kallis is the greatest cricketer of all time," said Pat Symcox, the former South African spinner, who was recently in Noida for a commentary assignment.

He certainly doesn’t buy the argument that Kallis hasn’t got his due. “Probably, that is your view. I think in South Africa we all recognize what Kallis is and what he has done. From the first day to the last, we will never choose a Tendulkar, a Lara or a Ponting over Kallis," said Symcox.

“You become greater when you finish. As time unfolds, the magnitude of his efforts and performance will be even greater. Later on, people will be able to measure it in such a way that they will say in the last 100 years, no one was better than him," Symcox argued, vehemently dismissing any suggestions that the world has been slow to recognize Kallis.

It is true, however, that Kallis hasn’t had an extraordinary One Day International career. He has never been part of a world cup winning squad like Tendulkar and Ponting. Tendulkar knew that his cricketing CV was incomplete without a world cup and did everything to fulfil this dream. Perhaps Kallis thinks on similar lines. Maybe he wants to make South Africa a world champion team in 2015. Until then, he may well be considered an understated genius outside South Africa.

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Jacques Kallis’ milestones

■ Barely 7,000 people were present at Kallis’ final test in Kingsmead stadium, Durban.

■ He averaged below 10 in his first five Test matches.

■ Kallis scored his first big innings, 150, when he was 40 Tests old.

■ He had just 3 five-wickets hauls in an innings in his first years.

■ Kallis’ first double hundred came after almost 15 years.

Vimal Kumar is IBN7’s deputy sports editor and the author of Sachin: Cricketer of the Century.

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