Is Jacques Kallis the best all rounder after Gary Sobers? It would be easier to answer that question in the affirmative rather than in the negative. The figures against his name are of the mind boggling and eye-rubbing variety. His deeds just take the breath away and the manner in which he has maintained his fitness despite the hectic international schedule these days is a tribute to his discipline.
There he is at 37, batting, bowling and picking up the catches at slip with an ease that would make a younger man proud. He plays and excels at all formats of the game, figures in the IPL year after year and hardly misses a tour or an important competition. And this has been going on for 17 years and with the end nowhere in sight.
There may be talk about retirement when it comes to others of his age but no one dare even hint of Kallis calling it a day. That’s because unlike the other contemporary greats whose game has fallen off a bit, Kallis is still at the height of his powers. He is still the immovable object at the crease, reeling off hundreds, bowling more than his quota of overs and picking up wickets and pouching all those catches.
He can be the crisis man who plays the rescue act to perfection, the man who can up the scoring rate when required, the man who can break up a troublesome partnership. He is the ultimate team man, Mr Reliable, Mr Dependable – any such exalted title fits him just fine.
Having grown up in the sixties and keeping a close tab on the feats of Sobers, I reckoned there could never be anyone like him - at least not in my lifetime. I have often wondered how Sobers got only 90 votes and not the maximum 100 when it came to picking Wisden’s five cricketers of the century at the start of the new millennium.
Only Don Bradman got 100 out of 100 but Sobers too was deserving of the same honour. The figures against his name say it all – 8032 runs at an average of 57.78, 26 hundreds, 235 wickets at 34 apiece and 109 catches from 93 Tests. He was a match winner, match saver and a dynamic player who was always in the game. Ironically the player whose game was ideally suited to limited overs cricket played just one ODI and was out for a duck!
Kallis has had better luck in this regard for he has played at a time when there have been a plethora of limited overs matches and his all round record in ODIs and T-20 are second to none. But it is still his Test record that beggars description.
The very fact that he averages 57.30 highlights the similarities with Sobers’ record for otherwise having played in many more Tests, Kallis’ aggregate of runs and hundreds will obviously exceed the peerless West Indian left-hander’s. And with 12837 runs and 44 hundreds, Kallis at the moment is second only to Sachin Tendulkar in the number of three figure knocks and fourth behind Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid in the aggregate.
That alone would bear testimony to Kallis’ status as a living legend. But where he overshadows the others – and this is where the comparison with Sobers is highlighted – is the bowling record which has seen take 280 wickets at 32.73 apiece.
Here again the average is roughly the same though Sobers must rank as the greater bowler simply because he could bowl just about anything with his left arm - fast medium, orthodox spin and chinamen. But Kallis’ bowling is not to be shrugged off. He still has nearly two wickets a match and it is only his greater feats with the bat that has put into the background his feats with the ball which too have been considerable.
He has five five wicket hauls and is the only South African to score a century and take five wickets in an innings twice. Incidentally Sobers too performed this feat – the hallmark of the truly great all rounder – the same number of times. Kallis also matches Sobers when it comes to catching for the ratio is very similar – 189 from 156 Tests.
But while his Test feats have been noteworthy, what makes Kallis stand out is that he has run up an unparalleled all round record in ODIs too. A combination of 11498 runs and 270 wickets from 321 ODIs is way ahead of the record of any other player in the history of ODIs. And while cricketers of his age generally are not very enthusiastic about T-20, Kallis is able to hold his own even in the game’s shortest format.
The genuine all rounder is the first casualty of the non-stop cricketing schedule for the burden he carries is almost impossible to bear. Having to bat, bowl and field at the highest international levels for 17 years these days would be an unbelievable feat.
A look at the careers of some of the leading all rounders of the modern era like Chris Cairns, Andrew Flintoff and Shaun Pollock would indicate how difficult it is to set high standards and maintain it. All of them packed it in after ten, 12 or almost 15 years. It is a tribute to Kallis’ fitness and cricketing skills that he is nowhere near the end of his career.
What’s the secret behind his awesome achievements? Kallis himself summed it up in an interview a short while ago. Asked for the reasons for his success and what keeps him going he replied: "I really set myself high standards, I'm never satisfied with mediocrity, and I really enjoy what I do."
With that kind of winning philosophy, is it any wonder that Kallis is not only the finest player produced by South Africa in all its long history but also takes his place alongside Sobers as the greatest all rounder ever in the game?