Alex Massie

The Kallis Conundrum

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Having endured a miserable time of it last time he was in England, there was a typically Kallisian probability that the bugger would grind his way to a century today. And so he did. It had everything you'd expect from a Kallis innings - which is both a compliment and thin praise indeed. Naturally the commentators were united in praising the South African as a true modern great, "up there with the best of them". But is this true?

No-one ever said of Kallis, as Cardus did of Woolley, that his batting is the stuff of "soft airs and fresh flavours" nor does it even contain "the brevity of summer" which also accounted for Woolley's loveliness. For the truth is that Kallis is not a lovely batsman. He possesses many virtues but chief among them is his quiet efficiency. Of all the leading batsman of the age, Kallis is the least demonstrative, the least exciting, the least entertaining. Even his cover-drive, correct and solid as the rest of his strokes, somehow fails to thrill. If robots built cricketers, Kallis is what they might aim for. And in a Golden Age for Batsmen why honour a Kallis (or a Hayden for that matter) when there are so many more deserving candidates for immortality?

Oh, the figures may say he's great. Indeed, put baldly they make a case for Kallis to be considered a rival to Lara, Tendulkar and Ponting and given the fourth place on a Rushmore of contemporary greats. But just as Teddy Roosevelt is flattered by his presence alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, so placing Kallis in such lofty batting company over-estimates the impact the South African has had. You might think him very, very good but he's not that good.

True, one's view of Kallis is skewed by the fact that he only averages 29 in 12 tests in England. But given that English wickets, though paler and blander than they used to be, still offer a test that must be passed this is a telling statistic. Perhaps that's unfair but as the case for Kallis is predicated upon statistics since, I believe, no-one can remember the details of any given Kallis innings, then his followers should not complain if some of the holes in his statistical record are pointed out. (All batsmen have such holes of course, but that's not the point either.)

Consider this revealing stat: in the Warne-McGrath era Kallis averaged 38 against Australia. By contrast, Lara averaged 51 and, albeit in just 16 tests, Tendulkar scored at a rate of 55 runs an innings. Now this is a crude measurement. Tendulkar's 241* at Sydney for instance came in a match in which neither Warne nor McGrath was playing. Then again, Sachin owned Shane so Warne's absence may not have hurt the Aussies. But, still, the point stands: against the best team of his era, Kallis's record does not shape-up particularly well.

But it's the aesthetics that prevent Kallis from really being considered one of the true greats. There is no joy in his cricket. It is measured, correct, efficient, technically-sound and many other fine things. But it does not sing. He is a dull batsman, but not in any interesting way.

A short, incomplete, list of current batsmen one would rather watch would include: Laxman, Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Gambhir, Dhoni, Ponting, M Clarke, Sangakarra, Chanderpaul, Sarwan, Gayle, Afridi, Yousuf, Pietersen. Now Kallis is a better batsman than many of these fellows but that's not everything. Many of the numbers will tell you that Gooch was a better batsman than Gower but so what? Unless you're from Essex or have no imagination, whose batting do you remember more keenly and with more pleasure?

No, I'm afraid Kallis, for all his technique and his composure, won't quite do. I think of him as a (more complete for sure) rich man's Alastair Cook. This is, I know, unfair. But there you have it. One somehow has the feeling that Kallis is always just quietly carrying out his orders and, oddly, this sense persists even when he takes the attack to the bowlers. With Kallis there are no extremes and precious few rough corners. It is all very bland and efficient and if you like that sort of thing then this is the sort of thing you will like. I don't.

UPDATE: The Old Batsman also makes a good point: England put the South Africans in because they over-thought everything. As he says, "Let the openers see off the first hour. That's their job."

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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