The cunning rock of Kurunegala

South African cricket’s most influential administrators have promised to meet within a week to plot “a way forward” which is very good news for everybody. It appears almost certain that a joint ‘way forward’ is impossible, such is the rancour between president Norman Arendse and chief executive Gerald Majola, but nonetheless – let’s all enjoy the current outbreak of peace, however phoney and short-lived it proves to be.

During commentary on the second test against Bangladesh in Chittagong, it occurred to me that the fourth generation of South Africa’s international players was about to come to an end. Working on the basis that a ‘generation’ of cricketers spans an average of 5-6 years, which is a good international life, it seems that South Africa have started their fifth ‘cycle.’

Given that the ‘golden oldies’ (Peter Kirsten, Jimmy Cook, Omar Henry, Adrian Kuiper etc) were pretty much at the end of their careers when South Africa returned to international cricket, the first ‘full’ generation of internationals can be thought of as ‘Kepler’s men’ – Craig Matthews, Richard Snell, Allan Donald, Mike Rindel, Meyrick Pringle, Eric Simons, Dave Richardson, Fanie de Villiers and Dave Callaghan. They are merely random names. The point about ‘generations’ is that they are not specific.

Allan Donald, for instance, played as great a part in the next generation of players as he had done in the first. The Hansie Cronje generation included players like Jonty Rhodes – who also featured strongly in the Kepler generation – Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Brett Schultz, Herschelle Gibbs and…Jacques Kallis.

Then, of course, came the Graeme Smith generation – in which Kallis has been, and remains, utterly intrinsic and critical. And finally, with the emergence of young match-winners Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, AB de Villiers and J-P Duminy, and the retirement of Pollock, the next generation has begun.

One simple method of measuring a players’s ‘greatness’ is his ability to span generations. That may sound obvious but it is not simply a matter of carrying on playing games. It takes compromise, sacrifice and the ability and willingness to see things from a different perspective after years routine, often successful routine. And not just on the field, either. Great players need to find a way of accepting or at least coping with, the vagaries of different administrators and selectors, many of whom take up their positions determined to do things ‘their way’ irrespective of whether the previous way had been working or not.

Sometimes potentially great players are unable to make the required adaptations, and sometimes they are unwilling. ‘Change’ in any sphere of life inspires heated emotions and, sadly, some of the current generation of senior administrators appear to enjoy the mistrust and fear that change creates. Nonetheless.

As good as the skills have been of South Africa’s greatest players, it is as much their ability to cope with change and span generations that have defined their careers. Allan Donald, Gary Kirsten and Jonty Rhodes spanned three generations and it is no surprise that their ‘people skills’ are amongst the best ever to appear in a Proteas blazer. And nobody, black, white, brown or green, will probably ever comprehend the amount of emotional fortitude and strength of character that Makhaya Ntini has needed to enter the fourth generation of his international career and remain at the top of his game.

But even he may be usurped by the timeless Jacques Kallis whose greatness, while appreciated by the rest of the world, appears not to be fully appreciated – yet – by his own countrymen.

Way back in August 1995 he was plucked from relative obscurity to represent South Africa on an under-24 tour of Sri Lanka. A squad of 14 was chosen of which just one, apart from Kallis, is still playing first-class cricket in South Africa, HD Ackerman. Roger Telemachus plays one-day cricket for the Eagles while Dale Benkenstein, Lance Klusener and Nicky Boje have thrown their lot in with the rebel ICL in India. All three are also hoping to continue their English county careers. But eight have retired.
Although he is younger than any of his teammates from 13 years ago, there is still no greater example of a man able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Kallis is a brilliant cricketer, one of the greatest ever. The SA Cricket Annual spotted his talent back in ’95:
“Jacques Kallis, at 19 the youngest member of the squad, confirmed his emergence as the most exciting batting talent in two decades and dispelled the notion that he’s an ‘occasional’ bowler. He will be a powerful all-rounder in the years to come.”

But there have been others, before and since, whose talent could not shine because of their inability, or unwillingness, to span the generations and cope with change. Kallis has been criticised from time to time for not involving himself sufficiently in team affairs and for failing to mentor junior players, but the payment for that occasional indifference has been 9,438 Test runs and 229 wickets. And anyway, indifference can be a very reasonable response to matters which people consider to be unreasonable.
If Kallis sometimes seems single-minded, and perhaps even selfish, then it probably means he is. And thank goodness for that. It’s the only way he has been able to cope with the changes of four international decades – and if you doubt how hard it can be, just ask Makhaya and Shaun.

PS – One of the three four-day ‘Tests’ between the under-24 teams was played in the stunningly beautiful town of Kurunegala which boasts a wonderful cricket ground overlooked by a massive rock, at least 150 metres high. I climbed it before play one day with Finlay Brooker and we sat at the top for half an hour feeling very wise but probably talking nonsense. It is a memory I will never lose. Get in touch, Fin. What are you up to?

(SA Under-24 squad to Sri Lanka, 1995: Dale Benkenstein – (Natal – Captain), HD Ackerman – (Western Province), Adam Bacher – (Transvaal), Nicky Boje – (Free State), Finlay Brooker – (Griquas), Mark Bruyns – (Natal), Mark Davis – (Northern Transvaal), Adam Huckle – (Eastern Province), Jacques Kallis – (Western Province), Lance Klusener – (Natal), Gerhardus Liebenberg – (Free State), Lulama Mazikazana – (Eastern Province), Roger Telemachus – (Boland), Ross Veenstra – (Natal)

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