After the Hard Yards

It has become a commonplace these past few weeks - not that it did England any good at all - that Australia aren't a great side. This is true; they aren't. Leaving aside the unpleasant reality of where that leaves the England side that they've just eviscerated, the current Australian team contains one great batsman, Michael Clarke (who also happens to be an excellent captain), and three men, Harris, Johnson and Haddin, who have given convincing short-term impersonations of era-defining influence. In the case of Harris and Haddin, age and fitness are against them, but, after their deeds of recent weeks, they will one day retire happy in the knowledge that they decisively defined the course of a series which, for all its deeply unsatisfying one-sidedness, has added an indelible chapter to the annals of Ashes history.

Another player who, for all his vast corpus of first-class runs, will look back on this as the time of his cricketing life, is Chris Rogers. Rogers, with his pinched, serious expression, his slight stature, his understated body language and his clunky, workmanlike left-hander's game, is nobody's idea of a hero, and, as a batsman, he is easy to underestimate. In the early part of this series, Geoff Boycott, who has made a career out of being unpleasantly disrespectful to people who deserve better, repeatedly described him as a limited (and, by implication and tone, very ordinary) player who would be lucky to last the series. The thought that he was merely continuing to grow into a role which he would have felt until earlier this year had passed him by for good, clearly didn't occur, although, to give him his due, by the time of Rogers' polished centuries at Melbourne and Sydney, even Boycott appeared to have developed an awareness that he could play a bit.

As a professional opening batsman who spent the best years of his career in the twin shadows of Hayden and Langer, Rogers has done the hard yards on both sides of the globe. In England, from the slow club tracks of Devon and Shropshire to the bleak, unconsidered county arenas of the east Midlands, and, more recently, to the broad and beautiful acres of Lord's; in Australia, from the hardness and pace of the WACA to the intimidating vastness of the MCG. There is little he hasn't seen or done, and, now in the autumn of his career, he has played a vital role in his team's regaining of an Ashes urn he would never have expected to be given the chance to compete for.

Parallels can be drawn and similarities observed between Rogers and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Both are studiedly unflamboyant, often ugly, but with a suppressed class which can be hard to recognize and define. But there the similarities end: Chanderpaul made his Test debut at 19 and has spent most of his career in a poor side trying to stem the tide of defeat; Rogers made only one Test appearance before the age of 35, but, at 36, has played in a side which has won every game of a five Test series and humiliated its oldest foe.

England's players, brought low by a perfect storm of complacency, hubris, staleness, poor selection and Australian verve and excellence, will take time to recover from this. Chris Rogers will finally feel that he belongs, really belongs, at the game's top table.

For varying reasons, this has been a time which neither of them will ever forget.



As some people may have seen, Cricinfo were good enough to publish some thoughts of mine about Jacques Kallis. They can be found here.

The piece was edited. They may well have done me a favour by removing some additional guff about my Dad and his trips to South Africa, but it was interesting to find that a reference I'd made to the 'mysteriousness and corruption' of Hansie Cronje had also been removed. I'm not in a position to make a judgement about why that was done, but I can't see that a reference to Cronje having been corrupt is controversial in any way. He admitted as much himself.

Anyway, the unexpurgated version is below

Newlands, early January, sun shining out of an azure sky, is a cricket ground for the dreams. People have photographed it, people have written about it, people have loved it. In the isolation years those of us growing up in the old Test countries would read about it, imagine it. The oaks, Table Mountain, endless sunshine. Players - some forgotten, some never known - playing out their days in the Currie Cup. Pollock, Procter, Richards, Barlow, van der Bijl, Fotheringham, McKenzie, Hobson, Kirsten. Hard cricket, sure, but an ever-present sense of unfulfilment. A kind of slow death. Memories of the world at their feet, Lawry's Australia humiliated, and then nothing.

Early January, 1996. I am there. This is what I thought about when my Dad came back from his business trips to South Africa with the newspapers and the magazines. This is what I thought about that time we went with him to the heart of the Apartheid Republic (Hell, I regret it 35 years on, but I was young and it meant time off school) and we went to Cape Town but didn't get further than Green Point athletics stadium.

But I'm not enjoying it. Really I am not enjoying it. The early year sky is unnaturally blue, which, for someone brought up in northern Europe, is slightly spooky, and it is hot. God, it is hot. And I am ill. Stomach trouble, brought from the UK, sunburn from Port Elizabeth and a streaming cold, caught on the Western Cape.

Just get through the match. It will not take long, as England will lose inside three days. Years later, if people mention Dave Richardson or Paul Adams (fortunately they rarely do) it makes me shudder. Memories of that time and place do the same to Ray Illingworth, to Devon Malcolm, to others. England, wasted in Australia, have it bad now, but that was a grim time.

It is still the first day but the scalding, relentless sun is too much. Shelter is found under the chalets. The embryonic Barmy Army on the grass in front, England battling away, trying to defy the weather and the odds.

Jacques Kallis, twenty years old, comes on to bowl. It is the first time I have taken any notice of him. He made his debut at Durban two weeks before but the game was ruined by rain and he barely got off the mark. People are talking about him, but only as a batsman. I have no idea that he can bowl.

Kallis here is slimmer than the barrel-chested figure of his later years, and he has all his own hair. He bowls four economical overs, high side of medium pace, robust, muscular action, bounce. It sticks in the mind.

From that day on, Kallis is around. For the first year or two he struggles, then the century comes at Melbourne. The rest is history.

For a long time people underestimate him. With his subdued personality he can seem a little too mechanical and unemotional. People do not warm to him. His batting (people say) lacks a signature, lacks defining elegance, lacks really big scores. Kallis (people say) is too one-paced, Kallis is not alive to the situation. Kallis is this; Kallis is that. All the while, though, Kallis is making runs. There is a bloodless technical perfection to his batting in the way there always was with Martin Crowe, but this does not mean that he is unworthy of greatness. Gradually he builds his reputation like an innings, brick by brick.

He is also - although sometimes with reluctance - taking wickets. There is always bounce, sometimes there is genuine pace. When conditions help and the muse is with him, as at Headingley in 2003, there is movement and what old English pros call 'a heavy ball'.

When he is not making runs or taking wickets, he stands at slip and catches everything.

For those that remember Sobers, Kallis has one particular fault. He is not and will never be Sobers. This is of course true in all ways but it doesn't matter. Every generation is territorial about its heroes, but comparison of players from different eras is ultimately meaningless and demeans those who try to score points through it. I can feel old around cricket these days, but I hardly saw Sobers. Through a young child's eyes in 1973 and then a cover drive from the Gods in a charity game at The Oval nine years later. I am happy to accept that Sobers was better, but he was a different player in a different time. Gideon Haigh said this week that Sobers was 'a cavalier among roundheads', while Kallis was 'a roundhead among cavaliers', and, while this is open to discussion, there is plenty enough truth there. Statistics are of little relevance in such an argument, but if you want to go there, well, Kallis' immense figures stand proudly against those of anyone else who has ever played the game.

When I was in South Africa in late 1995 and early 1996, the country was changing rapidly, both on the cricket field and far away from it. As the post-isolation era developed at Newlands, and Kingsmead and at the Wanderers, Kallis was at its heart. Young, and not as visibly or as showily as Rhodes, or with the pace and vitality of Donald, or the mysteriousness and corruption of Cronje, but he was there. Lately, in the era of Steyn and de Villiers, and of Smith, and of Philander, he is still there. Like Tendulkar he has outlived one epoch and seen his side into another. It somehow seems appropriate that they should retire within a few weeks of each other.

In this there is a sense of the passing of cricket history. This is an old, old game, and these are two of the best players it has ever produced. But it should not necessarily be a source of sadness. In the age of T20 the fabric and context of the game is shifting like sand, but it will still produce players to rank with any that have gone before. From Kallis's final game there is Steyn, there is de Villiers, and there could in the future be Pujara and Kohli.

Few, though, will ever be better than Jacques Kallis.

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