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Farewell Jacques Kallis - true grit and a true great

Tuesday, 31 December 2013 - 7:45am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Kallis was never as idolised as Lara, Tendulkar or Warne, but he has been a truly special cricketer.
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Cape Town, in the late 1980s. A young cricketer, around 13 or 14 years of age, turns up at Western Province's regional selection trial. The selectors there take one look at him and pass. The kid is told that although he has talent, he is too small to make it in the brawny world of provincial cricket. Undaunted, he tells his coach: "I'll show them."

For what none of them know - what none of them can possibly know - is that the boy they have just turned away will become one of the greatest cricketers in history. It was not that Jacques Kallis did not care what you had to say. It is just that he did not hear you. Few batsmen have ever been able to cocoon themselves in concentration as Kallis did through 516 international matches and more than 25,529 international runs.

Even his swansong innings against India at the weekend - a century, naturally - was a masterpiece of serene grit, or perhaps gritty serenity: the Zen-like calm of a man utterly in control of his mind. Few moments illustrated this better than his maiden Test century, at a deserted Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1997.

As South Africa desperately clung on for a draw, Michael Kasprowicz charged in, peppering the 22-year-old with the ball, and then again with insults. Bouncer, duck, verbals. Bouncer, duck, verbals. Eventually Kasprowicz slung down another short ball. Kallis ducked, whereupon an exasperated Kasprowicz cried out: "Is this man f---ing deaf?" For most of his career, you could easily mistake Kallis's stoicism for bloodlessness: easy to admire, hard to love. Interviewers would be presented with the same dead bat as opposition bowlers. Sachin Tendulkar had his grace; Brian Lara his flair; Ricky Ponting his aggression.

What did Kallis offer us? Nothing but runs, and runs, and wickets, and runs. Not especially big runs, either: Jason Gillespie made a Test double-century before Kallis did. In the modern, hyper-infantilised court of public opinion, when emotions must be not merely experienced but exhibited, Kallis's determination to see cricket for what it essentially is - an obstinate pursuit of numbers - counted strongly against him. They called him dour, selfish, clinical, almost inhuman.

But was a strong degree of emotional discretion really so surprising in a man who had lost his mother at the age of nine? It turns out, in hindsight, that there was a hinterland to Kallis all along; you just had to know where to look. During the World Cup in South Africa in 2003, his father Henry was diagnosed with lung cancer and given months to live. Henry brought Jacques up single-handedly, and would stay up until midnight bowling at him. He was a nervous watcher, and would go through packets of cigarettes while watching his son bat. At his father's behest, Kallis flew to England to play in a triangular one-day international series against England and Zimbabwe.

After scoring a century against Zimbabwe at Canterbury, he turned around to point at the number on his shirt. Sixty-five. His father's age. "I didn't know until the very last minute whether I would come on this tour," he said afterwards. "With my uncle dying and my father being diagnosed with cancer, I don't think - from a family point of view - it gets any worse than that."

That seemingly superfluous clause - "from a family point of view" - speaks volumes. Nothing more fittingly encapsulates the remarkable extent to which Kallis was able to compartmentalise the professional and the personal. Three weeks later, Henry died with his children at his bedside. When Kallis finally made a double century, against India in 2010, he raised his eyes to the heavens and blinked back tears. "When I walk off at the end of an innings, I sometimes feel he'll be up there watching me," he said in a 2005 interview. Henry taught his son that no cause was ever lost; no problem so intractable that it could not be overcome with hard work.

At Johannesburg in 2006, Australia ran up a world record 434 for four in 50 overs. As the South Africans sat glumly in the dressing room contemplating their predicament, in strode Kallis. "Well guys," he said brightly.

"They're 10 runs short of what they should have got. Let's go and get it." Everyone laughed. But Kallis was right. They won by one wicket with a ball to spare. So how great was he? Greater, perhaps, than Sir Gary Sobers, the undisputed yardstick for all-round achievement? In many ways it is a parlour game, a late-night bar-room conversation, one that will never reach consensus. But let us indulge, nonetheless. Only Tendulkar has more centuries, only Ponting scored more runs in the 2000s, only Adam Gilchrist has hit more sixes and of players who made their debuts in the last 50 years, only Kumar Sangakkara has a higher average.

And none of them took 291 Test wickets at fewer than three runs an over. Given the relentless physical demands of modern cricket, it is fair to predict these achievements will never be matched. Kallis may well go down as the last great fast-bowling all-rounder. Posterity may ultimately give him a fairer hearing.

Cricket's great virtue is its ability to span politics and economics, art and science, mind and body, to serve as a canvas and a conduit, a model of humanity and a model for humanity. This may be why we are drawn to the Laras and the Warnes, players who catch the eye and stoke the soul. But cricket is cricket, and real life is real life, and nobody expressed the divide better than Kallis. That we failed to appreciate his gifts for so long says a good deal less about him than it does about us.


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