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MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

- Jacques Kallis must be one of the nicest cricketers today

In 1997, on my first trip to South Africa, I was driving with some friends from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, along the so-called Garden Route. At one stage, our driver, who was also our guide, told us that if we were willing to take a detour of a couple of hundred kilometres, he would show us the southernmost tip of Africa, known as Cape Agulhas. This — and not, as some mistakenly think, Cape Hope — is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. We accepted the offer, so our guide drove off the highway into a country road that passed through undistinguished scenery. Then the ocean appeared, the water a striking aquamarine blue. We disembarked at a small, deserted beach. We stood silently, watching the waters flow and part. A ship appeared on the horizon, disappearing almost as soon as it had come.

As we got back into the car, we saw a sign showing the way to “the Southernmost café in Africa”. The sign appealed, because of what it signified —a one-of-a-kind place — and because we had been several hours on the road and were famished. We drove on to the café; as we reached, three huge, smiling white men came out of it and walked down the road. They were large — very large — their muscles well exhibited by the T-shirts and shorts they wore, their skins a bright pink, the smile on their face denoting the recent consumption of a good meal and perhaps a cheery temperament as well. The signs were promising. But in the end only our driver-cum-guide had a proper lunch. The rest of us were vegetarian, and — this being South Africa — the dishes on offer were wildebeest, wart hog, and buffalo. Bread and chips and a cold Coke was what we Madrasi sakaharis had to be content with.

I always remember that trip to Cape Agulhas when I watch Jacques Kallis come out to bat on the telly. He looks like those men I saw outside the southern-most café in Africa — big, broad and silent, but not unsmiling. By all accounts, he has an equable, even cheery temperament. He has never been known to slag an opponent, question an umpire, or bitch about a team-mate. He must be one of the nicest cricketers in the game today — and also one of the, if not the, greatest.

In his book, Masters of Cricket, Jack Fingleton wrote that “the longer I live, I am pleased to say, the less nationalistic I become. The outcome of a match is interesting but not, on the scales of time, of any great moment. What IS important is whether a particular contest gives to posterity a challenge that is accepted and won, or yields in classical technique an innings or a bowling effort that makes the game richer, so that the devotee can say years afterwards, with joy in his voice, ‘I saw that performance.’”

I am a Hindu, so my pantheon was capacious to begin with. From the time I was a boy, my gods have been firangis as well as desis. One of my few regrets as a cricket-watcher is that I have never watched the South African Test team play live, at the ground. I have seen almost all the great moderns in the flesh — Wasim, Waqar, Imran, Miandad, Inzamam; Lloyd, Kallicharan, Richards, Greenidge, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Lara; Botham, Knott, Gooch; Ponting, Warne, Steve Waugh, Border, McGrath, Gilchrist; Martin Crowe; Andy Flower. The two who I have never seen bowl or bat before me are Alan Donald and Jacques Kallis. But, thanks to the magnificent work of generations of (anonymous) cameramen, I have been able to watch plenty of them on the box.

When Kallis made his international debut, he was principally an offside player. I remember one of his first one-dayers, when he came in with four or five wickets down, with South Africa needing about forty off eight overs. He played a series of dazzling back-foot drives behind and past point and got them home. A few years later, I saw Kallis strike a more brutal note, as he powered his side to a win in a Champions Trophy semi-final against Sri Lanka, being played in Bangladesh. That diet of wildebeest and wart hog was put to good effect as the great Muralitharan was hit for a series of sixes (five in all, I recall) over midwicket.

Those elegant drives past point, and those muscular hoicks to leg, have been less in evidence in recent years. Assigned the role of innings-builder, Kallis has relied more on leg glides and off drives to make his runs. He remains a very accomplished batsman indeed, and a very prolific one. As of now, he seems the only man with any chance of overhauling Tendulkar’s record of most Test centuries.

At home, if my son is with me when Kallis walks out to bat, one of us says to the other, “Here comes MVP.” This is our ghar ka naam, borrowed from baseball, that fits Kallis better than any cricketer since the peerless Gary Sobers. For the last ten years now, he has been one of the three or four best batsmen in the game. He has scored almost 13,000 runs in Test cricket, with 44 centuries. But he also has the small matter (at the time of writing) of 282 wickets and 192 catches to his credit. Jacques Henry Kallis is, without question, World Cricket’s Most Valuable Player.

When he began his career, Kallis swung the ball prodigiously, both in and out. I remember a series in England where he was regularly given the new ball, with Alan Donald coming on first change, after his young protégé had winkled out an opener or perhaps both. Later, as he became older and his body filled in, Kallis slowed down, and lost the ability to move the ball late and dangerously. But he remains a very effective bowler, able to contain batsmen on the go, and able also to break partnerships.

Kallis is also a crackling good fielder. He normally fields at second slip, where the edges come really fast in any case, and faster than normal if the bowler is named Donald, Ntini, or Steyn. How many times have I — and you — seen an edge flying fast towards Kallis, the pace and pressure of the ball pushing him backwards, from where he rises, smiling, the ball in his hands, the white floppy hat still in place?

In 1999, when South Africa last played a Test in my home town, I was away, on work. More recently, Jacques Kallis has played a season or two for the Royal Challengers. I live down the road from the Chinnaswamy Stadium, but my detestation for 20-20 overcame my admiration for Kallis, so I never got to see him play.

The last two decades will go down in cricket as the Age of Tendulkar. His devastating strokeplay, his ability to transform a match (Test or one-day) within minutes, his precocious and enduring genius and his citizenship of a country composed of a billion and more cricket fanatics means that Sachin defines his times more effectively — and more dramatically — than any other contemporary cricketer. But Kallis remains for me the Most Valuable Player in the game.

One is tempted to see Kallis as being to Tendulkar what Wally Hammond was to Don Bradman. In any other epoch, Hammond would have been the greatest cricketer of his time. Even so, he may have been a “more valuable” player than Bradman — for apart from his superb batsmanship, he was a great slip fielder and a most effective medium-pace bowler as well. Kallis has all of Hammond’s cricketing gifts — and he seems to be a much finer fellow too. At my age I have few ambitions left, in cricket or in life in general. Here is one — that I may yet see Jacques Kallis play in a Test match in Bangalore.