Sport

Proteas need a new hero in a hurry

Neil Manthorp

Jacques Kallis's absence will be keenly felt when the South African cricket team sets out to beat a swaggering Australia.

Jacques Kallis, like a strong and healthy patriarch of a large family, enabled his teammates to relax and concentrate on their game. (Gallo)

The only truly predictable aspect of Jacques Kallis's retirement from Test cricket was the outpouring of appreciation and gratitude – and concern for a future without him. It's not as though the game's supporters haven't had enough time to think about it. It's just that the thought was too ghastly to stay with for very long.

All correspondents, statisticians and pundits worth their salt, and many more besides, have had their say on Kallis's value to the national side. There is no shortage of ammunition and evidence to mount a powerful and compelling case for him being the finest all-round cricketer of all time. There are some reasons to prefer others, of different eras, but there is no discounting Kallis – not on measurable evidence, anyway.

But, some things really are immeasurable. One of them is the effect a player's mere presence has on his teammates and their performances. Like the strong and healthy patriarch of a large family, Kallis enabled everyone beneath him to relax and concentrate on his own performance safe in the belief that nothing serious could go wrong while he was there.

Young or inexperienced international players occasionally mistook his quiet, methodical approach for detachment, even aloofness, until they either decided to approach him directly or were persuaded to do so by teammates.

"Whenever anybody asked him anything, he was ready and willing to give his time and share his know-ledge," Proteas Test captain Graeme Smith said. "He was a great comfort to me and everyone else, just knowing he was there."

Hashim Amla's aura has a similar effect on the rest of the team, as does Smith's when batting conditions are at their worst. For that matter, Dale Steyn's presence provides a source of comfort when pitches are at their flattest. Another few years like his first two in international cricket and Vernon Philander may start to have a similar effect, although lacking the ability to inflict physical harm in the way Steyn can will be a limitation.

Kallis is irreplaceable and, fortunately, everybody who matters is aware of that.

How rare was he? Unique. No regular all-rounder in the history of Test cricket has batted as high as number three or four. He needs to be replaced by a fourth seamer or a second spinner, depending on conditions.

They need to be more than merely proficient with the bat to perform at number seven or eight in the order. Ryan McLaren, Rory Kleinveldt and young Warriors spinner Simon Harmer are strong candidates for the Australia series, which begins on February 12.

AB de Villiers is the obvious candidate to bat in Kallis's place at number four but is unlikely to do so while he is keeping wicket – unless he sets his mind to it. The problem with genius, for the mortals who have to work with it, is trying to "control" it. De Villiers can do things other people can't. You either accept that and welcome his brilliance, or you fight it and risk impairing his contribution to the team.

Those who said he wasn't a Test-standard 'keeper are strangely quiet about his record as the most productive gloveman in the world in 2013. Those who said he couldn't do the job and bat in the top five are equally tight-lipped about a year in which he scored four centuries, was the country's leading run scorer and averaged nearly 78. Throughout the year one had the impression it would take just a single dropped catch for the sceptics and cynics to open their mouths. De Villiers never gave them the chance. Frankly, if he believes he can bat at number four, then he almost certainly can.

Yet it may be prudent to allow Faf du Plessis to do the job for now. His match-saving century against India at the Wanderers when he served as "night watchman" for Kallis was the perfect start.

His record, averaging 60 with three centuries after 11 Tests, is better than any South African since Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards, and for that alone he deserves the opportunity to make a go of the coveted number four position – for as long as De Villiers remains intent on becoming "one of the best wicketkeeper/batsmen in the game". (He already is – but don't tell him yet. Let him prove it, again, against Australia.)

South Africa's fightback to win the second Test against India at Kingsmead was nothing short of epic after the tourists had reached 181-1 on the first day. Steyn claimed that Kallis had "sat the bowlers down and told them this Test wasn't going to end in a draw". In fact, it wasn't quite that clear. All Kallis actually did was suggest that it was going to require a huge effort.

He may have mentioned that he wouldn't like his final Test to finish in a stalemate. Steyn, in response, would have climbed mountains and run through brick walls to ensure it didn't. But figures of 6-100 were more useful.

Australia will arrive next month bristling with confidence and, no doubt, their old swaggering arrogance after annihilating a shockingly poor England team in the Ashes. For South Africa, there is only one, post-isolation Test record remaining. Victory against Australia – at home. It has not been achieved in five previous attempts. Another epic challenge looms, and the Proteas will have to face it without Jacques Henry Kallis."Whenever anybody asked him anything, he was ready and willing to give his time and share his knowledge"

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