South Africans say Jacques Kallis is the greatest cricketer ever. They’re not far off the mark.
It’s not often you’ll find me agreeing with Kevin Pietersen, but his description of Jacques Kallis as the “greatest cricketer ever” is pretty close to being true. It’s an opinion widely held in South Africa, but seldom shared around the world.
As a sports fan, my first instinct is an emotional one. My all-time sporting hero (antihero?) is Alex Higgins. My all-time favourite cricketer is Ian Botham. But at some point, you have to look beyond the style and focus on the substance.
To save you having to read the rest of this article, here are the reasons why Jacques Kallis is, in my opinion, the greatest cricketer of his generation:
1. He scored 13,289 Test runs at an average of 55.37 and took 292 Test wickets at an average of 32.65.
2. Erm, that’s it.
With apologies to Barry Davies, “Look at those stats! Just look at those stats!” Only Garry Sobers and Wally Hammond come close among all-rounders in the history of the game with Kallis third on the list of all-time Test runscorers. And in his first 50 Tests, he took 94 wickets at an average of 27.44. To give you some idea of how good that is, Stuart Broad’s career Test average is 28.81.
The man from Cape Town made a pretty inauspicious start to his international career. He was dismissed twice for the grand total of eight runs in two Tests of England’s 1995-96 tour of South Africa, both times by Peter ‘Digger’ Martin (remember him?). He scored runs in ODIs but did not return to the Test side until Australia came to visit in February 1997. Promoted from the middle order to number three, Kallis struggled with the bat but took his first wicket, a certain Steve Waugh, and got rid of both Waugh twins in taking 3-29 in the second Test.
He was moved down to number six again for the last match where he failed again with the bat. It wasn’t until his eighth Test innings that he made his first half-century, a 61 against Pakistan in Rawalpindi.
The floodgates didn’t exactly open after that although his first Test hundred, mostly compiled on the final day against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne on a worn MCG pitch, saved the Boxing Day Test. He was also doing a good job of augmenting the Proteas’ pace attack spearheaded by Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.
Kallis was described as ‘fast-medium’ but anyone who watched him will remember more than a few searing deliveries in excess of 90mph. His former Middlesex team-mate Angus Fraser calling him “seriously quick”. It’s true to say Kallis would have got into the South Africa side either as a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler. For me, this ranks him above the mighty all-rounders – Botham, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan – before him. They were exceptional bowlers who were also fine batsmen. Hammond was an exceptional batsman and a fine bowler.
Choosing between Kallis and Sobers is almost impossible and I keep changing my mind. The Barbadian was initially selected as a bowler before becoming one of the finest batsmen in history. Sobers possibly edges it due to his inspired captaincy of the West Indies but there’s barely a fag paper in it.
South Africa’s tour of England in 1998 was the springboard to Kallis’s spectacular career. In the second Test at Lord’s, he got rid of Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe in quick succession to precipitate an England second innings middle-order collapse. His 4-24 helped put South Africa 1-0 up in a series they somehow contrived to lose. He also made a ton in the third Test at Old Trafford (back at number three), averaging 42.00 with the bat in the series, and 27.82 with the ball.
In fact, Tony Lewis’s comments on Kallis reaching three figures in Manchester (at 6:45; and how lovely it is to see BBC cricket highlights) could sum up his career with the bat: “It’s been a cultured innings full of good strokes but never extravagant, and extremely patient.”
It started to come together in one-dayers too. That year, Kallis was man of the match in the semis and the final as South Africa won the Wills International Cup (soon renamed the ICC Champions Trophy) in Bangladesh. He showed the true all-round nature of his talents, striking 113 off 100 balls against Sri Lanka in a rain-reduced semi-final before taking 5-30 and scoring 37 to account for West Indies in the final.
His Test batting career blossomed further when he moved down the order to number four for the 2001-02 tour of Australia. Two years later, he became the first man since Donald Bradman to hit centuries in five consecutive Tests. That this run came just a few months after his father died of cancer (Kallis’s mother passed away when he was just nine), shows the mental fortitude he was able to bring to the middle.
As a batsman, he was as near to technical perfection as I’ve seen. Beautifully upright, able to play every shot in the book, and immaculate in defence. The latter might be why he isn’t universally lauded despite the fact that he boasts a superior average to the only two men who have scored more Test runs, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting. robelinda2 is probably the best cricket poster on YouTube but he’s no Kallis fan as this clip proves. In fairness to him, he did also put up this Kallis ton against England at the start of 2000.
Kallis was accused by some of being a ‘flat track bully’ and unable to produce against the big teams. Wrong. He averaged over 40 against every team bar Sri Lanka and even that strikes me as something of an anomaly given he averaged 58.46 in India. Like many, he struggled against the swinging ball in England (averaging 35.33, spookily identical to his record in Sri Lanka) but he took 39 wickets at 29.31 so he was hardly a passenger. Yes, he cashed in against Bangladesh and weak Zimbabwe outfits but if you take them out his batting average is 52.98 (still higher than Ponting and Brian Lara).
There was often the suggestion that Kallis was a “selfish cricketer” which I’d attribute to his undemonstrative appearance on the pitch as much as anything. He was unflappable and Australian bowlers wondered if he was deaf, so immune was he to their sledging. If he didn’t produce with the bat, you could usually rely on him with the ball, as in England where he took a career-best 6-54 at Headingley in 2003. He could certainly adapt his game to the situation, most memorably when he hit what was then the fastest Test half-century off just 24 balls against Zimbabwe. He didn’t do badly in the IPL either, playing a key role in Kolkata’s 2012 title triumph.
When required, the quiet man could also rally his team-mates. In March 2006, Australia bludgeoned 434-4 off 50 overs at the Wanderers. With the home dressing room resembling a morgue, Kallis piped up, “Guys, I think we’ve done a good job. I think they’re 15 runs short.” Cue smiles and laughter, and an astonishing South Africa victory with a ball to spare.
One account I found of Kallis supposedly batting for himself was in the 2007 World Cup when South Africa were set 378 to win by Australia. Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers were rattling along at eight an over before de Villiers fell with the score on 160. Smith soon retired hurt (he later returned) but Kallis made 48 off 63 balls as South Africa fell to defeat by 83 runs. Smith’s departure brought the attacking Herschelle Gibbs to the crease so Kallis probably thought it wise to drop anchor (to some extent) and allow his partner to increase the pace. But seeing as no other batsman passed 22, it’s harsh to pin the blame on Kallis as he watched a succession of team-mates return to the pavilion.
Kallis also never courted the captaincy but stepped in twice when Graeme Smith was injured, the second time after Ashwell Prince turned it down. He always maintained that being an all-rounder and captain was too much to bear and one doesn’t have to look too far (Botham and Andrew Flintoff) for evidence to back up that theory.
As the bones started to creak with age, Kallis unsurprisingly became more of a specialist batsman. But he could still turn his arm over to great effect. At the start of 2012, he made 224 in the first innings against Sri Lanka before taking 3-35 to end the tourists’ second innings. Later that year, he cleaned up Ponting with a beauty in Adelaide. Not bad for a 37-year-old.
He was a mean slipper as well, taking 200 catches in his Test career although his best might have been this incredible effort to get rid of Shahid Afridi.
Kallis’ last Test against India in Durban at the end of 2013, in which he was the only man to make a century, was also the end of an era, that of the fast-bowling all-rounder. The seemingly non-stop calendar and the way the game has evolved means wicketkeeper-batsmen are the modern ‘all-rounders’ as well as the odd batsman who can bowl (Moeen Ali being the prime example).
In conclusion, Kallis deserves his place among the greatest players in history. While Bradman would be the first name on my all-time XI, Sobers and Kallis would be next ahead of Shane Warne.