Just how good is Jacques Kallis?

Jacques Kallis has now gone to the top of the Test batting ratings, following the great recent series between India & South Africa:

Tendulkar, Kallis top ICC Test batting rankings
January 7, 2011

Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis share the No.1 spot in the latest ICC player rankings for Test batsmen following the conclusion of the Cape Town Test on Thursday. Both Tendulkar and Kallis have 883 rating points, just one ahead of Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara at No.2.

There are several distinguished lists that these two players dominate, for example: Most hundreds in a career, and both oldies have been in phenomenal form recently:

Jacques Kallis (with his ninth century in his last 15 Tests) and Tendulkar (with his 12th in his last 24) laid down early markers for 2011, two of the greatest players the game has seen tussling for supremacy as others around them struggled.

Yet Kallis doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves:

Numbers Game – Jacques Kallis
by S Rajesh
Cricinfo
January 7, 2011

Kallis’ stats over the last 12 years are incredible, and they’re good enough to make him the most successful batsman during this period – he’s the only one to average more than 60. He has also scored the most hundreds – 38, to Ricky Ponting’s 37 and Tendulkar’s 34. Often, the debate over who is the best batsman in the world has been restricted to Tendulkar, Ponting and Brian Lara. Shouldn’t Kallis be in the mix too?

Certainly his twin hundreds in the Test just finished were the stuff of epics:

Injured Kallis out-thinks India
South Africa v India, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 4th day
Cricinfo
January 5, 2011

On the first day, he came in a crisis situation on a pitch where the ball seamed all over the place. He also got hit in the rib area, hard enough to put him out for two weeks, but was the last man out after having scored a century that we scarcely thought could be bettered. Today, with the batting crumbling, with four to five painkilling injections in his system, with the sun spewing out 35 degrees-celsius heat mercilessly, with puffs of dust when the ball landed in the rough, with the series on the line, Kallis showed us his first-innings effort could be bettered.

And as he did that, he didn’t mind looking ungainly, as if stretching himself. He was in a fight, he wasn’t going to run away from battle-scars. You hardly see him play the reverse-sweep; that’s not a shot for a batsman who plays proper cricketing shots so well. Yet today that reverse-sweep stood out. Great batsmen do that. They play one calculated, precise shot to change entire games. One shot. Think Sachin Tendulkar’s upper-cut off Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup.

If Tendulkar put Shoaib off his game with pure audacity, here Kallis got into the bowler and the captain’s heads. It was all going well for them until then. The ball was turning appreciably, and bouncing alarmingly. The leg-side fields were there to make sure no easy singles could be taken when playing with the turn. They even removed the silly point to make him play against the break. And what did Kallis do? He reverse-swept – in a Test, no less. And it was not just any reverse-sweep; the wrists rolled on it to keep the ball along the ground all the way. Not for a second did you feel that he was in danger of getting out.

That shot rattled Harbhajan Singh and MS Dhoni. The man who went to collect the ball from the boundary didn’t come back. We now had a fielder for a reverse-sweep. Kallis started toying with that fielder. He hit square of him, the fielder went squarer. He hit fine of him, the fielder went finer. It was a clever little mind-game from a hurting batsman, and India – perhaps surprised that he played that shot so well – lost that mind-game. Once he had played around with the fields and Harbhajan’s lines, Kallis was free to score as he wanted to.

Except he was batting in mad pain, thanks to the bruising and contusing in the ribs area from the hit he took in the first innings. Mark Boucher, who added 103 priceless runs with Kallis, later said it was impossible to imagine what kind of pain his mate was going through. “I don’t think anyone actually understands the kind of pain he is in at the moment,” Boucher said. “I just spoke to the doctor, and he reckons it’s like someone actually breaking their own rib. Just goes to show the character of the guy. Lot of people talk about this cricketer, that cricketer, but in my eyes, in my opinion, we have got probably one of the greatest cricketers that has ever lived in our own country. It’d be nice if people start realising that as well.”

In that kind of physical pain, just his coming out to bat after Alviro Petersen fell in the second over of the day was a brave act. The collective relief around the Newlands could be felt as soon as they saw it was Kallis walking out to bat. King Kallis, as they call him.

Despite the pain, despite the pressure, despite the misbehaving bounce, Kallis managed to make things look smooth, at least he made batting look the easiest anyone has done in this Test. He still played beautiful on-drives and straight drives. Except for the times when the ball bounced and he had to hold onto his side to fight pain, he still was cool Kallis.

“I have not seen many people bat the way he batted today,” Harbhajan, who took seven wickets today but couldn’t find a way past Kallis, said. “I have not seen many who could take up the responsibility the way he did. It was difficult conditions on the first day. It was overcast, and the ball was doing a lot for the seamers, it was nipping around, and there was a lot of bounce and swing. He has got the technique to play in all conditions. I would rate him up there, very up. After Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis is the best player in the world.”

Harsha Bogle has recently made a comparison that illustrates just how good Kallis is. Statistically he compares with the great Garry Sobers, the best all-round cricketer in history and an clear choice for an Earth XI to play Mars. Before the comparison, some reminders of just how good Sobers was:

So here we go. You don’t make comparisons like this lightly, but Bhogle pulls it off:

Kallis is the Sobers of his generation
by Harsha Bhogle
Cricinfo
January 7, 2011

And so to the great Garry Sobers and to the great Jacques Kallis. One smooth, slim and lissome, the quintessential amateur who shunned thigh pads and might have shunned a helmet, who played with a smile and brought many to spectators, who could do things people knew and didn’t. The other thick-set, solid, the modern-day professional, always focused, firm jaw and gritted teeth, and can do everything in the game.

For someone who finished in 1973 and for another who only began in 1995, their records are amazingly similar. From 93 Tests (and these are numbers serious cricket lovers know by heart) Sobers had 8032 runs at 57.78, 26 centuries, 235 wickets at 34.03 and 109 catches. Kallis has played one and a half times the number of Tests (145) and, hold your breath, has virtually an identical proportion of runs (11,947 at 57.43), centuries (40), and even catches (166)! He has fewer wickets by comparison but at a marginally better average (270 at 32.01).

This similarity in numbers cannot be mere coincidence. Yes, there were variables. Sobers played first-class cricket all around the world in addition to his Test workload, but Kallis has played 307 one-day internationals too. Sobers batted largely from No. 6, which some might say is an easier number but affords fewer opportunities, while Kallis, amazingly for an allrounder, batted from No. 3 or 4, which meant he had more time but also often had to change bowling shoes for the half-spikes rather quickly.

The batting position is interesting. All the great allrounders, from Keith Miller to Sobers to Imran Khan to Ian Botham and Kapil Dev batted at No. 6 or lower, even though they were often better than those who batted above them. Certainly, excellent as Basil Butcher and Seymour Nurse were, Sobers was a better batsman. I often wonder if players like Sobers batted as low as they did out of respect for those who were in the side as batsmen alone. But Kallis was always a top-order player, and if he took fewer wickets for the number of games he played it was because he was always the fourth seamer, alongside wicket-takers like Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn.

You could argue that this is a great time to be a batsman, and you would argue well, but it cannot be held against players. Kallis averages 170 against Zimbabwe and has enjoyed playing against Bangladesh too, but those aggregates do not significantly skew his numbers (only 1000 out of almost 12,000 are against those two countries). He didn’t enjoy playing Sri Lanka greatly (averaging 33) but amazingly neither did Sobers against New Zealand (averaging 24). And while Kallis didn’t have to play one of the best bowling sides over the last 15 years, Sobers never had to face Hall, Griffith, himself and Gibbs in Test cricket.

So maybe it is time to put blasphemy aside, let two greats sit at the same table and acknowledge Kallis to be the Sobers of his generation. Now would that please everyone?

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