The first shot was fired before the fifth test had even reached its pathetically mournful conclusion at the SCG. As Australia prepared to bury England in their own misery and humiliation, one of that country’s leading cricket writers was already suggesting that Jacques Kallis had retired “suddenly and prematurely” because he didn’t want to face a rejuvenated Australia.
Malcolm Conn is a brilliant journalist and among the many news stories that he has broken was the revelation that Mark Waugh and Shane Warne had accepted money from an illicit bookmaker for providing “information” way back in the 1990s. Whereas he has become (in)famous for baiting touring teams to Australia, he has always handed out similar treatment to his own national team when he has felt it appropriate.
He toiled hard six months ago and copped the incessant jibes from crowing English journalists as Alistair Cook’s team somehow engineered a flattering 3-0 scoreline in England. He was still working in the press box when a group of England players held an impromptu party in the middle of The Oval after the final test match. He was there when they felt the urge to relieve themselvesin the middle rather than walk back to the change-room.
His subsequent labeling of Cook’s team as ‘The Urinators’ when they arrived in Australia infuriated players, media, administrators and fans, which is exactly the reaction he had intended to generate. His questioning of the timing of Kallis’s retirement from test cricket is no less provocative for South Africans. But he is right, as he so often is. Kallis admitted as much himself when he said he realised that he’d lost “that bit of edge you need to play test cricket” and that it was “the right time to go with a big, tough series against Australia coming up.”
Kallis is more aware than anyone else in this country about the mental and physical requirements of facing up to Australia. If he felt he was lacking in either department, he knew it was in the best interests of the team to stand down. Playing test cricket against Australia is no place for the man committed only 99%.
If we were to be uncharitable, we might suggest that Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting might have served their country well by standing down before contributing modestly to the last two series losses against South Africa in Australia, but we are not uncharitable. Especially towards legends of the game, as they certainly are. They were simply not blessed with the realisation that their time had come and their best was gone, as Kallis appears to have been.
Not even the prospect of helping South Africa complete the international test ‘Grand Slam’ was enough for Kallis to defer his decision. Post-isolation in 1992, South Africa has beaten all nine test-playing nations on their own turf. And eight of them here in South Africa. The only one missing, of course, is Australia.
In the 36 days between now and the start of the first test match in Centurion, the hype will almost certainly reach overload. Mitchell Johnson’s double break of Graeme Smith’s hand, in Sydney and Durban, will be relived and retold. Despite what the world rankings say, the series will be billed as a test World Championship, and that’s probably a more accurate assessment of the teams than what the rankings say, given that India have lost nine of their last 10 tests away from home.
As the series draws closer, the stakes will grow. The level of hyperbole will reach crass proportions, and the danger of insult-trading will be worrying. No doubt many will fall into that trap. The Ashes was ruined not only by England’s incompetence, but by overtly nasty behaviour which had nothing to do with bat and ball.
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