“Comparisons are odorous,” said Mrs Malaprop. She was only partly right. In fact, comparisons are sometimes not even odious, especially when they are as inevitable as the debates on whether Jacques Kallis is the equal of Sir Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers. (I know that punsters will grab the chance to say that this particular comparison cannot be odious as Kallis has played vastly more ODIs than Sobers ever did). Here we are discussing the merits of two champion cricketers of two different eras.
The arguments have gathered strength after Kallis’s recent exploits against India: he not only got a notorious monkey off his back by recording his first Test double century, but went on to fully realize his strength in a grand show in the Durban Test that could be described as the viswarupa of this Hanuman of modern day cricket. Like the monkey-god, he often seems unaware of his own true potential. Sobers might have had his faults but self-doubt in cricket was certainly not one of them. He always backed himself to do well by himself and the West Indies.
A classic instance was when a hasty Australian media dubbed him Richie Benaud’s bunny after a single failure against the leg spinner in a tour match. Legend has it that Don Bradman, one of his greatest admirers, ruffled his hair and said to him, “Don’t worry, son. You will be able to sort him out,” while a pensive-looking Sobers sat with his pads on in the 1960-61 Brisbane Test, watching Benaud in action. Sobers was puzzled by this suggestion that he was capable of being worried about any bowler. Soon enough, he was facing Benaud in the middle. Misreading a googly, he still had the time to change his shot and send the ball to the boundary with a blistering, if uppish, straight drive, forcing the bowler to duck in self-defence.
The statistics of the two all rounders are remarkably similar. Kallis has a Test batting average of 57.43 to Sobers’s 57.78, 270 wickets and 166 catches in 145 Tests to the left hander’s 235 and 109 in 93 Tests. The South African’s relative longevity in international cricket is a testament both to his fitness and desire as well as the greater professionalism of his era compared to the West Indian’s. Like Sachin Tendulkar, Kallis seems to have gained second wind in a long, distinguished career and can be expected to play 175 or more Tests, and finish with an unsurpassable record as an all rounder.
I agree with Bishan Bedi, who entered the argument recently, that Sobers has the edge between the two great all rounders, but not entirely because I played and watched cricket during the great Barbadian’s heyday, though it can be difficult to eliminate bias in favour of your own generation. I will prove my overcoming of any such partisanship in a bit, but before that, let me substantiate my claim by referring to Sobers’s superior record as a match winner and match saver. His rearguard actions in partnership with his cousin David Holford were of the stuff fables are made of. He bowled in three distinct styles, fast medium, orthodox left arm spin and chinamen, and on occasion could be almost as quick as the fastest. He won a few Test matches with the ball against England and Australia, and his close-in catching was quite magnificent—standing almost intimidatingly near the bat at leg gully and picking them effortlessly in the slips. His six sixes in an over against Malcolm Nash of Glamorgan in a county match and his memorable 254 for World XI versus Australia were stunning displays outside Test cricket that served to invest him with the halo of cricketing immortality, but no less awesome were his many gems in Test cricket, some of them below a hundred runs.
Spectators at Chepauk were privileged to watch two innings of stunning effortlessness, the second of them in adversity, in the 1967 Pongal Test, when he saved the match in style for the West Indies with 9, 10 and Jack for company. A straight six in that match off a rampaging BS Chandrasekhar was reminiscent of that straight drive that nearly decapitated Benaud six years earlier—in that it was the result of a last moment change of shot; only Chandra did not have to take evasive action, the ball sailing well over his head.
Sobers’s versatility, self-confidence, enjoyment of the game, aggressive intent and his conviction that it is imperative for cricketers to entertain, make him the better all rounder in my estimation. Yet Kallis has time on his side, and who knows what new facet of his cricket he will unfurl in the years to come? I was one of those who believed that Sunil Gavaskar and GR Viswanath were greater batsmen than Sachin Tendulkar—until in the second innings of his career the Little Master proved beyond doubt that he had gone past his illustrious predecessors to the title with his incomparable performances against all comers, in all conditions, in all forms of the game. Perhaps Kallis will similarly out-Sobers Sir Garry some day.