Kallis an island of calm in a sea of change

A master batsman tells Stephen Brenkley he is happy to live with strains imposed by the past
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When Graeme Smith berated his middle order after South Africa's dramatic defeat on the last day of the Fourth Test, one man, if only one, was exempt. Jacques Kallis has become a phenomenon, who makes the batting returns of, say, Andrew Strauss, look positively pedestrian.

When Graeme Smith berated his middle order after South Africa's dramatic defeat on the last day of the Fourth Test, one man, if only one, was exempt. Jacques Kallis has become a phenomenon, who makes the batting returns of, say, Andrew Strauss, look positively pedestrian.

One indifferent match in Johannesburg last week ensured not only that South Africa lost the match but that Kallis was reduced to No 2 batsman in the ICC's first official world rankings, which shows what they know (Rahul Dravid went back to No 1 by the simple expedient of not actually playing).

For almost two years, Kallis has been a batting sensation, a state of affairs enhanced by the fact that while he has been going up, his team have been going down. When England removed him first ball at the Wanderers on Monday (a peach from Matthew Hoggard) that alone made their epic victory possible.

In conversation, Kallis plays a straighter bat than he does at the crease, with the difference that usually he also pats back the half-volleys. He is perfectly pleasant, but to him controversy may as well be a wild bull: he runs a mile from it. His public stance on South Africa's indifferent batting in this series and the fact that he is expected to carry it is placid, almost matter-of-fact.

"It's all added to the pressure, which I enjoy," he said last week in reflecting on South Africa's unexpected defeat at the Wanderers. "We need the youngsters to start doing it, but when I started there were a few guys who took the pressure because there were a few youngsters in the side. It shifts from generation to generation, and it's something you deal with."

Kallis is big on dealing with things. He deals, for instance, with the country's selection policy, which apart from being partly influenced by the unofficial need to have a balance between white and non-white players is also, possibly as a result, decidedly eccentric.

"Unfortunately, you have got to ask when is it going to go away. It's a frustrating point but we do understand that we are part of a new country so we have got to put up with these things. Sometimes we go on to the field with not quite our strongest side and with a lot of different pressures that other countries don't have.

"I know that development programmes have been in place for around 20 years but they have really only been done properly for 10 years, and it probably needs another four or five before you see guys coming through who are all there on merit. There is no doubt that it affects the team, but you learn to accept it and get on with the job.

"The unfortunate thing is that when players of colour get picked it's said every time that it's only because of their colour, when a lot of the time it's simply not true."

He is concerned also about the youth policy, although even on this he seeks to avoid direct confrontation. "We push players too quickly. I was one of them, and it could have destroyed me. Luckily I got one or two breaks. There are odd exceptions, but I don't think you should get into the habit. The Australian side are mostly over 30."

Thus it would be mistaken to portray Kallis as a man entirely without opinions. But they are not necessarily for public consumption. A tale is doing the rounds that the other day at the Wanderers he had strong words with Smith in the dressing room when the South African captain batted at No 8 in his side's second innings because of concussion, which he sustained during fielding practice. The gist of Kallis's apparent complaint was that either Smith was fit to bat, or he was not.

He dead-batted this easily. "No, we're very close mates, Bouch [Mark Boucher] and myself as well. I think he [Smith] will become one of our best captains and the guys support him 100 per cent. He was my man for the job from day one."

Occasionally, Kallis will take you by surprise by playing a piercing conversational cover drive, delivered in an amenable, relaxed way. Asked about the concentrated nature of this England tour he said: "It's crazy the amount of cricket we are playing. The guys aren't getting time to recover, bowlers are knackered and you are going to get to a level where the public have had enough.

"The problem is that the administrators want to make money, and you can see where they are coming from," he continued. Even there, Kallis was eager to insert a rider under the category known as "on the other hand".

He tends to become a wee bit annoyed (that is, he narrows his eyes half a millimetre) when he is sometimes mildly derided for his one-paced batting. "I have worked out what works for me. Going in from ball one and trying to hit it over the top doesn't work for me as it might for someone like Andrew Flintoff. So I am continuing to do what I do. I think I have proved that when it needs to be kicked on, I kick on. If people say that's a failure then go to the beach."

He can barely explain his batting form of the past few years (and he is, officially, the world's best all-rounder despite diminishing bowling returns) but his sequence of 16 scores above 50, including eight hundreds in 26 innings, started after his father's death.

"Over the last two years I have played as well as I have ever done. I played well before my dad died. He went in four months and that taught me there is more to life than cricket. Enjoy every day. Maybe I am just a bit more relaxed." Carrying South Africa's batting and still relaxed.