Cricket: Kallis and the future perfect

Stephen Brenkley hears that the scourge of Lord's is planning a long run of destruction
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AS the Second Test entered its final phase the ball swerved disconcertingly and England's batsmen performed their wonderful impression of rabbits trapped in a car's headlights. No matter what they tried they would not, could not, evade its clutches. Rabbits, it seemed, in more ways than one.

To anybody watching, the clatter of wickets was no more arresting than the sight of the sturdy fellow creating much of the mayhem. Jacques Kallis hit the pitch with intent, found a worrying line and stuck with it. His 4 for 24 from 19 overs made him merely the latest cricketer to achieve a career-best performance against England.

"I'll always be a batsman before a bowler," he said, which was more disconcerting than his swing down the Lord's slope. "I've worked hard on my bowling, I stand up much straighter in the delivery stride. I still like to hit the deck but I've probably lost a yard of pace for greater accuracy. But I will always be a batsman first."

Translated, this means something like Kallis has the potential to be one of the world's most potent international all-rounders. He could be the batsman-bowler to Shaun Pollock's bowler-batsman. It gives South Africa a balance of power in their team which will not exactly erode their chances of becoming the strongest side in the world in the next five years.

At 22, Kallis has already played 16 Test matches and is one of four or five players who will shortly form the spine of their team. When he was first introduced against England three winters ago he did not quite live up to the billing, but the South Africans knew they had something special. Contrary to public perception here that foreigners simply throw young players into the deep end and let them swim, Kallis was given five Tests and then quietly hauled from the pool.

"There are pros and cons to being picked young," he said. "It can be easy to fail at this level because it is so much better and some players could almost be finished by it. I found it tough at first but it didn't upset me. You've got to get it right."

Kallis is still longer on what might be than what has been but the signs, as he demonstrated so positively at Lord's last Sunday afternoon, are unmistakeable. He is wary of paper talk, for it accompanied his every move when he first broke into the team two months after his 20th birthday, but this boy has it. He scored his maiden Test hundred in Melbourne back in December. It was his seventh Test (he and the selectors had been patient), and the innings was instrumental in saving the match.

It was not only his highest Test score but his most complete performance. What England had to do with it is unknown but it is surely not pure coincidence that had spent the summer honing his game by playing for Middlesex. Another foreigner polished to perfection on these shores?

"I can tell you that county cricket is not as soft as you guys make it out to be. There are some good players and some good matches. I enjoyed it and I'd love to play it again," he said. Heartening words perhaps, but he would say that after scoring more than 1,000 runs at 47 and taking 32 wickets at 20, wouldn't he?

"I'm determined to enjoy my cricket and I've certainly learnt to relax more," he said, and the visible signs have been there to see in the first two matches of this series. "I like it in English conditions and I think having played at Lord's with Middlesex helped. I was able to suggest the line and come up with ideas."

He is, like almost every one in the squad, amenable, pleasant and neither anticipating easy victory nor afraid to express an opinion. "We've got a tremendous spirit, but England are a good side. We know that they're going to push us all the way. This series is far from over. It'll be hard but I hope it's played the right way. Quite honestly, this business of fining players can be pathetic. Are they not allowed to show emotion?

"Umpires have a very, hard job and we accept that mistakes can be made. I think also you've got to keep the human element without calling in cameras and third and fourth umpires. Players know that, but equally they've got to be allowed to show disappointment and I think umpires will realise that." Sounds, too, as though he could be a future leader.