Andrew Strauss jumps at silly point to avoid getting hit by a shot from Jacques Kallis

Jacques attack: Kallis didn't often get to bat with the flair he possessed and had shown early in his career

© Getty Images


Where would South Africa be if Kallis hadn't played the way he did?

Remembering the man who made modern South African success possible

Tom Eaton  |  

When Jacques Kallis played his last day of Test cricket, we said all the right things. Television pundits spoke about a once-a-century talent and the hole his retirement would leave. Newspapers published eulogies full of statistical marvels. Oh yes, we said all the right things.

But a day earlier, when Kallis raised his bat to acknowledge a Test century for the 45th time, a symbolic farewell to the game he had dominated for almost two decades, just 7000 of us had bothered to turn up.

There were, of course, superficially extenuating circumstances. Durban seems to have fallen out of love with Test cricket, with Kingsmead increasingly looking like a peripheral county oval haunted by a scattering of die-hards and memories of more boisterous times. Parochialism, too, played a role: Kallis was always going to get a more muted send-off outside the Western Province he called home.

But when only 7000 cricket fans can be stirred, on a Sunday, to salute a man who has scored 25,000 runs and taken 577 wickets in international cricket, then we must admit we are dealing with someone who was respected, admired, perhaps even held in awe, but not loved.

To be fair, it wasn't just the fans. The moment he nudged Ravindra Jadeja to mid-on and took that 100th run, Kallis should have had his name written in indelible ink under "Man of the Match". Instead, that honour went to Dale Steyn. Not even in the final minutes of Kallis' Test career could South Africa find the passion to indulge in a single moment of sentimental, hyperbolic hero-worship.

People had their reasons for not loving Kallis. For many, his technical, cautious approach felt faintly anachronistic in a game going through radical changes. While he was seldom outclassed, he was often outshone by his contemporaries. Kallis pleased the eye, but Brian Lara dazzled it. Kallis was a superb run-maker, but Sachin Tendulkar was a supernatural rainmaker. And, while Kallis always seemed to be saving Tests, Ricky Ponting always seemed to be winning them.

That lonely, ugly 87 in Kandy shunted South African cricket up onto a higher, brighter path, and it remains the foundation upon which everything since has been built

His claim to all-round greatness, too, seemed tenuous at times. In purely statistical terms, he was Rahul Dravid with the bat and Derek Underwood with the ball, but almost never in the same Test. To enter the pantheon, a Test allrounder must ignite at least one iconic series against mighty opponents, scintillating with the bat and devastating with the ball, but Kallis never had his Botham moment, his Flintoff summer. Certainly, he appears on the list of allrounders who have scored more than 250 runs and taken 20 wickets in a series; yet in that particular series - against a demoralised West Indies in 2001 - Kallis wasn't even the best allrounder in the team, let alone the world: Shaun Pollock also took 20 wickets and outscored Kallis by 35 runs.

Of all the criticism levelled at him over his 20 years in the game, one, I think, comes closest to revealing why Kallis was so admired but so unloved. You'll hear it in almost every conversation about his Test career, and you'll hear it mostly from South Africans.

Kallis, they'll tell you, was selfish.

When attack was required, he retreated into defence. If he was forced to choose between his team and his average, they'll insist, his choice was always self-serving.

They think they are presenting a dispassionate cricketing argument. But I think the impulse to accuse Kallis of selfishness is rooted in a profoundly emotional response, one that compels them to keep mentioning it years after his retirement. And that emotion is disappointment.

It seems a peculiar accusation to level at a player who achieved so much. I don't think the disappointment has anything to do with the number of runs he scored for South Africa. Rather, it is rooted in how he scored those runs. It is the disappointment that comes from being promised a treasure and then seeing that treasure withheld.

What Kallis was withholding, of course, was what we'd been promised by the likes of Bob Woolmer since Kallis was a teenager. And what we'd been promised was everything.

The first time I saw Kallis play, a charity knock-around just after he turned 20, I realised that the prophecies were not only true but that they were about to be fulfilled. He was everything: a quick-footed, laughing boy in a cap, all scything, aerial drives and cavalier cuts and pulls - cricketing fantasy made flesh. I couldn't wait for his Test career to start so that he could take his place alongside Viv Richards and Lara in the pantheon of elemental, beautiful geniuses.

We had been promised gold. Some of us had even seen it gleam.

But within a season, Kallis had transformed from glittering child to armoured man. And for the next 20 years, all we got was grey, hard iron.

The battler: Kallis batted nearly six hours, making 101 and adding 123 with Hansie Cronje, to draw the Melbourne Test in 1997-98

The battler: Kallis batted nearly six hours, making 101 and adding 123 with Hansie Cronje, to draw the Melbourne Test in 1997-98 Ben Radford / © Getty Images

In our disappointment, we blamed him. We refused to understand that this was a metamorphosis of self-sacrifice; that, by putting the needs of a famously weak batting side ahead of the temporary pleasures of booming cover drives, he was denying himself far more than he was denying us.

Of course, it was hard to find that perspective at the time. It must have been even harder for Kallis. I suspect that, buried under all that stoicism, he had an entertainer's soul. The trouble, however, was the stage and the supporting act.

Had he played his first Test series in the same team that Ricky Ponting had debuted into a week earlier, with Michael Slater, Mark Taylor, David Boon and both Waughs providing him a vast safety blanket of pure pedigree, he might have become the golden god we were promised. Had he taken guard for the first time on 422 for 3, as Ponting did, rather than 85 for 4, perhaps some of those first, formative plates of armour might not have been strapped on quite so tightly. If, like Ponting, his first series had been an almost contemptuous 3-0 shredding, rather than a 1-0 escape after four enervating draws, we might now be talking about him in the same way we talk about Garry Sobers.

But Kallis didn't arrive in that team. Instead, he found himself in a batting order that didn't know how to bat, or at least not in a Test match.

Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten had been the only two players with any experience of a settled and sophisticated batting culture, and both had just retired. What they left behind was a top six made of straw and tissue paper, endlessly being bailed out by lower-order allrounders and dragged back into contention by two high-class fast bowlers. Between readmission in 1992 and the summer of 1998 - the point at which a flourishing Kallis had started bringing some solidity to the team - South Africa's average eighth-wicket stand was higher than its first, fifth, sixth or seventh.

And so, as Ponting learned that his role was to hurt bowlers, Kallis learned that his was to deny them by denying himself. He learned that he was alone. And he learned that if he played for his average and made those 50 runs no matter what, the team was generally better off than if he didn't.

Kallis at No. 4 by point-of-entry scores
Score Innings Runs Average 100s/50s
Less than, equal to 20 26 1307 56.83 5/5
21 to 49 36 1813 54.94 9/5
50 to 99 49 2422 56.33 9/9
100 to 149 26 1254 57.00 4/6
150 and above 33 2237 89.48 8/11

Inevitably, the great rearguard innings took shape. We remember the youngster blocking his way to 101 at the MCG in 1997, less an innings than an exorcism as he became the first South African to keep the diabolical Warne at bay. There's the prematurely grim stalwart in Mumbai in 2000, dragging his team home, inch by bloody inch, with a three-hour 36. There are the twin hundreds in Cape Town in 2011, the second an act of pure willpower as he mastered extreme pain and difficult conditions to deny a hungry Indian team pushing for a series upset.

Kallis' greatest innings, however, is seldom mentioned among these grimly glamorous efforts.

It wasn't his highest score. It wasn't even three figures. And yet it defines his legacy like no other: a lone, grinding effort of focus and determination, an old-fashioned tradesman getting on with the job, patiently and painstakingly building the stage on which more charismatic players would steal the limelight.

The innings in question took place in Kandy in the August of 2000, but its all-important context exploded into existence on the 7th of April, in Delhi. Because that was the day Hansie Cronje was charged with match-fixing.

The fall of Hansie Cronje wasn't just a sporting scandal. For many fans and players it was a profoundly personal heartbreak, a stunning betrayal by a man who had commanded the sort of respect usually reserved for statesmen. Cronje had represented more than a fresh start for South African cricket: for whites, anxious about their place in a new country, he represented an idealised vision of acceptance and racial harmony; a clean slate. Cricket trophies were good, but the image of a young, worldly and apparently progressive Afrikaner being embraced by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were much, much better.

If Cronje had seemed charismatic to the public, that charisma was, by all accounts, felt a thousandfold by those close to him. There were rumours of a cult-like atmosphere in the dressing room; of a leader who demanded absolute personal loyalty and who required his followers to drink the ideological Kool-Aid that combined fierce ambition with a certain insularity and more than a dash of evangelical Christianity. Of course, rumours are always hyperbolic. But we know that when Cronje pitched the idea of fixing a match to his team, at least two signed up, some thought he was joking, and the rest shrugged it off. Not one reported him to a higher authority, perhaps because he was the highest authority they could imagine.

By the time Allan Donald retired in 2002, Kallis had bowled 1266 overs. But with no Kallis… imagine Donald limping out of Test cricket two years earlier than he did

In other words, when South Africa lost Cronje, they lost not only their captain but the centre of their world. He had taken the side and remade them in his likeness, and now he was gone.

Most teams wobble when they lose a great player and buckle when they lose two. But they eventually regroup because they still know who they are and what they are supposed to do. Australians are still Australians even if Allan Border or Shane Warne or Steve Waugh retire. But South Africa was Hansie Cronje. If he was gone, what was left?

Just three weeks after Cronje broke down in tears at the King Commission, South African cricket was sliding towards existential oblivion. In their first Test without Cronje they were thrashed by an innings and 15 runs in Galle, their first-ever loss to Sri Lanka, and their heaviest defeat in two years.

In the second Test, in Kandy, the slide accelerated into free-fall as the top order crumpled to 34 for 5 before Lance Klusener and Mark Boucher dragged them to respectability. Sri Lanka took a comfortable first-innings lead, and then the nightmare started again. Neil McKenzie, opening the batting in the absence of the banned Herschelle Gibbs, was bowled for 1, Gary Kirsten for 13, Daryll Cullinan for 6.

It is difficult to condense entire eras into single, pivotal moments. There are a hundred different events that dictate each twist or turn of history. And yet for want of a nail a kingdom can be lost, and I believe in Kandy that day the wicket after Cullinan was that nail.

If 50 for 3 had become 55 for 4, it would have become 70 for 7 and 120 all out. South Africa would have lost the Test and with it the series. Adrift, tormented not only by a rampant Muttiah Muralitharan but also by creeping doubts about each other and whether any of the last years under Cronje had been legitimate, they would have been crushed in the final Test, probably by an appalling margin.

And from there?

Just a few years earlier, West Indies had started what looked like a gentle, temporary decline. Now they were a parody of themselves, bowled out for 54 at Lord's a month before South Africa travelled to Sri Lanka. If such a malaise could strike West Indies when they were still proud and confident, what about a shocked and rudderless South Africa?

But 50 for 3 didn't become 55 for 4.

The legacies of many South African cricketers were built on the toil of Kallis

The legacies of many South African cricketers were built on the toil of Kallis © Getty Images

Instead, it became 121 for 4, then 153 for 6, and eventually 231 all out. And the man holding it all up, making 87 in four grim hours, was Jacques Kallis.

In the end it was enough, just. Chasing 177, Sri Lanka lost their last four wickets for eight runs. South Africa scraped it by seven runs.

The third Test was a timid draw, and the press wrote disparagingly about unimaginative and cautious play from both sides, but in retrospect, 1-1 in Murali's backyard, three months after having their world exploded by Cronje, was an astonishing result for South Africa. Without even realising the mortal danger they were in, they had short-circuited the death spiral. The series was bagged and tagged, packed away as a forgettable tour against a forgettable team, and South Africa returned to the relative calm and perspective of a home summer against weak tourists. Nobody realised what had been averted. Because, of course, it had been averted.

Cricket is a team sport. Counterfactual histories are always pure speculation. And yes, there were other pivotal moments in other high-stakes series that could have gone either way. But for me, that was the moment when South African cricket teetered on the absolute brink of psychological devastation and the start of systemic collapse. And that was the moment that Jacques Kallis put his back to the wall and fought the team free of a West Indies-style future. That lonely, ugly 87 in Kandy shunted South African cricket up onto a higher, brighter path, and it remains the foundation upon which everything since has been built.

Perhaps, in the end, counterfactual speculation is the only way to fully appreciate Kallis. To understand his contribution, perhaps we need to remove it.

Remove the 50-odd runs an innings, and remove the 12 or 15 overs. Remove the self-restraint. Remove the selfishness, if that's what you think it is. And then reimagine the last 20 years and see what's left.

Imagine a team endlessly trapped in a cycle of defensive anxiety, never finding the time or space to mature and start mastering the more sophisticated arts of batting. Imagine Kirsten, paired up with yet another fidgeting failure - with no Kallis, the selectors never have the cover to experiment with Herschelle Gibbs up the order - eventually buckling under the pressure of the inevitable slide from 20 for 2 at drinks to 60 for 4 at lunch.

Top run scorers for South Africa between 1999 and 2007
Player Matches Runs Average 100s Percentage of bat runs scored
Jacques Kallis 89 8180 64.92 27 16.5%
Herschelle Gibbs 80 5827 45.17 14 11.8%
Graeme Smith 58 4570 46.63 12 9.2%
Gary Kirsten 53 4197 51.18 14 8.5%
Mark Boucher 92 3623 32.06 4 7.3%

Imagine a team failing to recover from Hansiegate, mounting losses forcing it back into the paradoxically defensive and fragile approach of the early 1990s as the game evolves away from it. By the early 2000s, it is still being dug out by its lower order and kept in the game by its fast bowlers. Except now those fast bowlers are wearing out, overbowled by five or six overs an innings, a hundred overs a year: by the time Allan Donald retired in 2002, Kallis had bowled 1266 overs. But with no Kallis… imagine Donald limping out of Test cricket two years earlier than he did; imagine Pollock, shouldering a much bigger role as a batsman, becoming a medium-pacer and retiring three years too early.

Imagine Graeme Smith taking over a team that now aspires to mediocrity, despite the class of the young Dale Steyn and the enthusiasm of Makhaya Ntini. Endlessly sniped at by journalists and eagerly abused by fans, Smith is tightening, his game becoming more conservative, his answers more clipped. At the press conference following South Africa's fourth consecutive series defeat, he snaps and tells journalists and fans where they can stick their views on his captaincy. He is immediately fired and replaced by - well, does it matter?

Imagine, as losing becomes a habit and the dysfunction spreads, the frustration of a young Hashim Amla, picked and dropped and then never recalled. (With no Kallis there is no precedent for persevering with a young talent who has had an appalling start to his Test career.) Imagine him weighing up his options and, sadly, signing for Warwickshire, and two years later, qualifying for England.

Imagine AB de Villiers, pressed into service at the top of the order, unable to suppress his animal instincts or grow a hard shell, hounded by the press and pilloried by the public for too many cavalier dismissals and for his culpability in South Africa's continued inability to post 300 regularly. Imagine him retiring from international cricket in 2011 to become a T20 specialist, and emigrating to Australia a year later. Steyn is still bursting his lungs for South Africa, but when de Villiers goes, a light fades for good.

Imagine six subdued months later, the winter of 2012, as captain Jacques Rudolph takes his team to England and sees them bludgeoned. Amla plunders 311 not out against them at The Oval. And then, at Lord's, they encounter another expat.

When Cronje brought South African cricket to its knees, Kallis was there, scoring one unattractive run at a time, to make sure it didn't collapse completely

When Cronje brought South African cricket to its knees, Kallis was there, scoring one unattractive run at a time, to make sure it didn't collapse completely © PA Photos/Getty Images

For Vernon Philander, playing cricket in England was always supposed to be a means to an end, a temporary detour en route to the South African team. But in 2008, during a stint for Middlesex, his plans change. The rand is plunging against the pound. Sponsors, alarmed by the growing chaos and mediocrity of the post-Smith era, are starting to edge away. Friends back home urge Philander to stay in England as long as he can, to keep his options open.

Which is how, in 2012, he is making his Test debut for England, and dismissing South Africa for 97 and 51.

The year ends with another regulation 3-0 whipping by Australia, and for the first time in 123 years, South Africa have played and lost nine Tests in a single year. Imagine Rudolph resigning, replaced by Dean Elgar, the Proteas' sixth captain since Smith.

Finally, imagine three young men.

Quinton de Kock was 13 when the brief Smith era came to an end. Aiden Markram was 11, Kagiso Rabada ten. None of them has ever seen a dominant South African cricket team.

All of them enjoyed playing cricket at school, but everybody knew it wasn't something you took seriously enough to do for a living. For starters, there's no money in South African cricket, especially now that they play so few series.

Mostly, however, they just didn't have the passion. And how could they? How could they get excited about a team that changed every six months, with its endless denials of infighting, its tinny promises that this time will be different, its clichéd explanations for why it's the same old shit as last time? That's all the Proteas have done for ten years: talk, and lose.

Kallis' all-round performance in South Africa's wins and draws
Matches Runs Batting avg 100s Wickets Bowling avg 5 wkt hauls Avg diff
124 10723 67.01 42 231 28.57 5 38.44

They still play cricket, of course. De Kock opens the batting for a team of expats in Dubai, where he works in the telecoms industry. Markram plays for the 1st XI at the University of Sydney, where he's finishing a commerce degree. And Rabada bowls off a short run for the University of the Witwatersrand, where he's following in his mother's footsteps and studying law. Every so often he bends his back a little more and gets it to hiss off the pitch and pound into the keeper's gloves, and just for a moment he wonders; but just for a moment.

All of them watch this summer's series. For a while there was talk that India might come - their first visit since 2011 - but it all fell apart over money and TV rights: Indian audiences just aren't that interested in South African games. Still, Bangladesh is better than nothing. It's certainly better than the Proteas: most agree South Africa will be lucky to win one of the three Tests…

When Jacques Kallis retired from Test cricket four years ago, we said all the right things, but we didn't understand what we'd lost, because we'd never really understood what we had.

Do we understand it now? Perhaps. Perhaps time has provided perspective, and South African fans might be ready to acknowledge that a selfish cricketer gave them everything. Perhaps we are ready to see that Kallis' legacy is not thousands of runs or hundreds of wickets from a decade ago, but a proud, fierce team walking out against the best in the world and expecting to win. And perhaps, finally, we are ready to remember the great deeds of Jacques Henry Kallis with something that feels a little bit like love.

Tom Eaton is a columnist, screenwriter and novelist from Cape Town