|Harbhajan Singh congratulates Jacques Kallis at the end of South Africa's 2nd innings at Cape Town, 2011|
Greatness. It is the Bharat Ratna, or the Knighthood in Cricket. It is not offered with any ceremony, but fittingly for a sport which celebrates the tension between selfish individuality and selfless teamwork like no other, must be seized by an aspiring candidate from a largely curmudgeonly community. In this community, this politics of greatness is conducted through murmurs - murmurs of envy, of approval, of dissent, of gratitude, of rivalry. You would be hard pressed to find a serious professional cricketer who thinks that Jacques Kallis is anything less than an all-time great.
And yet, there is, apparently, much division as to whether or not Kallis is a great player. I suspect we will hear the same debates about Ricky Ponting when the time comes. But then again, may be not. Because Ponting has already been appointed to greatness. He is regarded as the best Australian bat since Greg Chappell. Besides, the Australians are assertive about things like this. Once, during the rancorous 1980-81 tour to Australia, Sunil Gavaskar, exasperated by his own form and by the murmurs of dissent about his abilities (because of his putative struggles against Dennis Lillee), asked an Australian reporter whether he would say that Lillee was not a great bowler because he had played very little, and with very little success outside Australia and England. Gavaskar tells us that the reporter responded, without batting an eyelid, that those were anomalies. That Lillee was an all-time great fast bowler.
That was that.
The path to greatness is made easier by early endorsements. Shane Warne, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, all received attention very early in their careers from other greats like Gavaskar, Sobers and Bradman. This placed them firmly in the working-to-be-great category. It became not just a question of if, but of when.
Then there is us. In a compassionate dissent, the wonderfully titled karachikhatmal asks where the tragedy is in Jacques Kallis's career. This could as well be asked in another way - Where are the tragics? Tendulkar, in the words of C P Surendran had a "a whole nation, tatters and all, march[ing] with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the life-long anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit with their visored savior." Brian Lara had the remnants of West Indian ambition and Trinidadian nationalism behind him - a wisened, disappointed people, watching incredulously as the greatest cricketing dynasty of all fell to pieces in a matter of 3 or so years.
Where are Kallis's tragics? A great white champion in Protean South Africa, Kallis seems to have been inadvertently condemned for being on the wrong side of history. It is imperative that he be rescued.
It is time, in this argument, to make a definitive claim about greatness. How should we look for greatness? Firstly, it must be clear that the said player can play. This was absolutely clear in the case of Inzamam Ul Haq. In Kallis's case, he is technically supreme, and his bowling emerges as an afterthought. Imagine almost 300 Test wickets emerging as an afterthought! Secondly, there must be longevity. 145 Tests, ~12000 Test runs, ~300 Test wickets. Longevity is not an issue with Jacques Kallis.
But then there needs to be a memory to go with longevity and ability - a memory of heroism and mastery. A memory which makes a watcher sit up and take notice when the name Jacques Kallis shows up on the score sheet. This is more complicated than you might think, because it depends largely on what the watcher is invested in. In Kallis's case, it is less a case of what he might actually do to shape a contest, and more a question of whether the contest can be considered decided before he has had his say. How many observers are willing to predict the shape of a contest while Jacques Kallis is yet to be dismissed from the fray? Only the foolhardy ones.
This satisfies the mastery, you might say, but what of heroism?
Is South Africa's cricketing story since 1992 not one of heroism? Through trials and errors and triumphs and tragedies, South Africa have tried to make a country since Mr. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990. The details of the story are complicated, at times unsavory, at others uplifting. But it is a heroic story, one in which South Africa's cricket has played it's part.
For 15 years, Jacques Kallis has been South Africa cricketing rock. Through match-fixing, affirmative action and all their dispiriting entrails, from Donald to Steyn, from Ntini to Amla, Kallis has played cricket for South Africa - cricket of the highest quality. His efforts cannot be measured just in runs, though this makes an impressive measure in his case, but by recognizing that he has been the most priceless general in the worthiest battle waged through cricket in the last 20 years.
Where is the heroism you ask? We, who think cricket is important and wonderful, must be his tragics. Let there be no doubt. If we measure greatness the way we should, then Jacques Kallis is an all-time great cricketer. He belongs in the same breath as Bradman and Sobers and Tendulkar and Imran and Lara and Richards and Warne and Marshall and Muralitharan.