In the decade after South Africa’s readmission to international cricket, Daryll Cullinan was one of the standard bearers of the batting line-up. He made 14 centuries in 70 Tests and retired with a batting average of 44.21. Most would say that he was exceptionally gifted without being an all-time great.
So, when halfway through the Durban Test, he had a go at Jacques Kallis, one whose place in the pantheon is in no doubt, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
After the third day of the match ended with Kallis unbeaten on 78, Cullinan had plenty to say on a post-match analysis show.
“Sadly, the match has degenerated into a Kallis show,” he said. “He was a great cricketer, let us give him that, but take a step back from that, there is a Test match on the go and there is a series to win and I don’t get the impression South Africa are interested in that.”
Strong words, and ones that do not look very wise a day later with India facing an uphill battle for survival. No one will argue that Kallis’s 115 was a fluent bare-knuckle effort that had fans in a tizzy. What they cannot dispute, however, is the value of the innings to a team that was in real strife at 113 for three on the third morning.
Cricket is a game of partnerships, and Kallis added 127 with AB de Villiers and 86 with Dale Steyn. A 58-run stand with JP Duminy was sandwiched between the two. In total, he faced 316 balls and defied India for 393 minutes.
The likes of MS Dhoni and Zaheer Khan must be sick of the sight of him. On their last tour here in 2010/11, he started off with a double-century, his first, at Centurion, before a hundred in each innings on home turf in Cape Town denied India what would have been a first series win on South African soil.
At one stage in the second innings, South Africa led by just 128 with only four wickets remaining. Kallis was batting a rib injury, and he winced wince after almost every stroke. He would add 103 with Mark Boucher, and bat for a total for 380 minutes and 240 balls to ensure that it was South Africa that finished the series stronger.
When people recall that series though, it is invariably the tussle between Sachin Tendulkar and Dale Steyn at Newlands that they enthuse about. Tendulkar finished that series with two hundreds and 326 runs. Kallis had three centuries and 498 runs. Look at those numbers, and you can begin to understand why those that champion Kallis’s credentials – not that he needs it – feel that he has not got the plaudits he deserves.
Thus, Cullinan’s view – one that will not win too many friends back home – is especially interesting.
“One thing that was shared by a few bowlers that played against South Africa, is that they never felt that Kallis could hurt them, they felt they could bowl at him, that there were always more dangerous players around him,” he said.
“I have always felt Jacques Kallis [often misses the opportunity] to stamp his authority on the game. That’s why there will always be question marks over where he fits in the bigger picture of the true cricketing greats.”
That seems like a ridiculous thing to say of someone who has 13,289 runs and 45 Test hundreds, but he does have a point. When I interviewed Glenn McGrath a decade ago, I asked him how he would bowl to the elite batsmen of his era. He was especially animated when talking of Tendulkar and Brian Lara, and of tussles he had with Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden in domestic cricket.
Echoing Cullinan’s words, McGrath spoke of those four and even Inzamam-ul-Haq as those who could upset a bowler’s plans with the brilliance and audacity of their stroke play. He seemed less worried by the steady accumulators like Kallis and Rahul Dravid, men he felt hurt you more with patience than anything else.
On his day, Kallis could be beautiful strokeplayer. His driving and cutting were pristine, a lesson for any kids learning the game, but you seldom saw him play with real freedom. There was always the feeling that the handbrake was on, that one foot hovered over clutch and brake.
Old-timers often scoff at comparisons between Kallis and Sir Garfield Sobers, once universally accepted as the greatest all-round cricketer ever.
I can understand why. Kallis was a byword for efficiency with bat and ball – someone you could rely on to come good when the team needed it most. Sobers, who often turned up in the dressing room in the previous night’s tuxedo, inhabited the other extreme. In that sense, comparing the two is as silly as contrasting the careers of Tendulkar and Dravid.
All you need to know is Kallis was in the Sobers class, and he is likely to leave the game with a match-winning hundred to his name.
There are many all-time greats, flamboyant and otherwise, who would have loved such a farewell.