Greatness in sport is a strange thing. It has no cut out definition. But it can come from anywhere – from the streets of Karachi or the hills of Kandy. Nor is it predictable to a pattern.
As a kid growing up Javed Miandad was a man who I believed to be the all conquering god of batting. He had smashed Chetan Sharma for a six on the last ball to win a one-dayer for Pakistan and ever since, he was one player all budding Indian batsmen secretly admired and hated. I was no different. He was the epitome of a scrapper and street fighter. A cagey man and an astonishing batsman, he was a great batsman. Perhaps a shade less than Viv among his contemporaries. Viv imposed his pride and will on the game like no one since.
Not always is greatness bestowed on a cricketer very early. It is not a mere test of ability, but of character, endurance, will and the know how to seize a moment. Champions are recognized for the long haul. Every champion has holes: more so with batsmen as they are measured often against one failure each time. Occasions such as world cups and tests against arch rivals often determine their fate. A Lara is remembered for his immortal unbeaten 153 against Australia in Barbados whereas a Gatting for getting out playing a reverse-sweep in a world cup final. Often, that is the lasting legacy of cricketers: what they do in the critical hour. Every one has a highest peak. For some the highest peak of failure outweighs their highest peak of success.
In that regard, some are not given the due they deserve. Like Rahul Dravid, Kallis doesn’t get his due. Like Dravid, Kallis never got the coverage he deserved when he got to 12,000 Test runs. It is a shame.
Make no mistake, he is a colossus. As a batsman alone he counts among the best five batsmen to have played the game in the last 20 years. As an all rounder, he is the best since Sobers.
Some keen observers point out that Kallis likes to look after himself: a clever way of saying that he plays for averages. Often he is criticized for that in the one-day games. The entire South African team ignored him at breakfast following the world cup defeat against Australia in 2007. His numbers are staggering in all formats and in all levels. His longevity and consistency are startling considering his work load as a bowler, a very skillful one at that in his pomp.
A man of strong basics, he has built his game on sound technique. Australians tried exposing holes in his drive, which, in turn was an examination of his mind and not of his game. Unnerved and solid, he has passed the test. As he has all around the world scoring runs on dry wickets and on the wet ones, against swing and seam, and against spinners on dust bowls. Not to mention seeing his team through in tough situations. Yes, there will be eternal argument in not seeing his teams through in world cups, but to pin the failures of a generation of South Africans on one man is preposterous.
I often believe the many struggles all cricketers go through are in the hope of achieving something substantial and special – as players and as a team. Long after they are done playing the game, it is moments of collective peaks that bring them a sense of satisfaction. And Kallis has often been at the center of many of the brightest moments of South Africa’s cricketing success. Perhaps he is comfortable now than before. He seems a lot more willing to impose himself on the opposition. He even lets out an occasional smile and shares a light moment with the opposition.
It is hard to imagine anyone as good as him who has got lesser recognition. He has won more games for South Africa than any other (most Man of the Match awards in Test history). Yet his calm is mistaken for insecurity and weakness. He knows his game and knows what it takes to succeed. If anything, his last few years have been better than ever before. Perhaps a lesser bowling load and a shift down the batting order have helped. Age and form will eventually catch up, but at current evidence, they seem many summers away.
When he is done playing the game, the game will remember him as among its very best.
This is a published article in The CouchExpert