The Imperatives of Tragedy, or why Kallis isn’t great

Posted on January 27, 2011 by


It is sometimes difficult to fathom how truly awesome Woody Allen really is. Apart from the latter day paedo-incest charges against him, the man’s range is quite extraordinary. He started off as an outstanding stand-up comedian, but his true mark, as we all know, was made in films. It’s fascinating to see how many amazing films he’s made while appearing as essentially the exact same character in each of them – a neurotic, emotionally paralysed, self-obsessed loser – who keeps finding himself in situations he clearly doesn’t understand for all their simplicity.

His most well-loved film, Annie Hall, is a fine example of his genius, primarily because he is one of those few directors who can be credited with creating a genre. In Woody’s case, this particular genre is the rom-com (romantic comedy), and Annie Hall was the first of its kind.

Yet, what separates this truly great film from the saccharine, consumerist, escapist trash that this genre has come to exemplify is that Annie Hall is not a comedy in the classical sense of the word.

Because simply speaking, a comedy is a story with a happy ending, and a tragedy is a story without one.

And even though comedies are a more acceptable fare for audiences, history shows that every culture values its tragedies far more. Just about every great legend that survived the millennia is a tragedy.

The greatest love stories, the grandest war myths, the most enduring odysseys, the most haunting folk tales, all end with dead lovers and lost causes.

For some reason, it appears that when it comes to narrative, mankind prefers to find its wisdom and its pathos from tales where ordinary humans are pitted against the limits of their mortality, and in their ultimate failure end up gaining immortality.

Unfortunately, in our present late-capitalist state of being, such an idea fails to make rational sense. In a society where we glorify the mundane achievements of our celebrities and worship them as gods, it appears perverse to claim that true victory lies in failure. Heroes, conventional wisdom dictates, are those who vanquish all, who win the battles and the war, who rise to the top, who make all the money and win all the trophies.

In a sense, we like to think that our narratives of greatness must be dictated by the statistics of accomplishments and milestones. If X has achieved (n) number of goals and (y) number of victories, then ergo facto, X must be great.

A fine example of this logic is found in the great number of recent articles proclaiming that it is high time Jacques Kallis is regarded as a true great of Cricket. Rob Steen wrote on cricinfo that

The stats, for once, tell the absolute truth: Jacques Henry Kallis, humble, unaffected, undemonstrative, unyielding Jacques Henry Kallis, is one of the most exemplary competitive artists ever to pull on a pair of flannels. Uniquely, future generations will value him more than we do. And if that’s not a definition of greatness, I give up.

It is easy to understand why so many cricket journalists find themselves trying to understand why we don’t venerate Kallis as one of the true greats. A casual glance at his statistics seem to show a behemoth, a man whose exploits easily compare to Sobers, and surpass all else. And because journalists are employed to weave narratives out of the barrage of events and moments that are continuously occurring, many of them feel compelled to create the narrative of Kallis the Great.

And yet, when we return to our argument of the tragic narrative, we realise why followers of the game can’t come to regard Kallis as great.

Because after all, where is the tragedy?

I had initially meant to invoke this idea of how greatness is intimately tied up in tragedy to explain the enduring passion for two of the greatest players of our, and indeed, all time – Sachin and Lara.

In the case of both men, there is a shocking lack of trophies and collective honours next to their names. Far lesser players have accumulated far greater achievements. To put it into context, Joginder Sharma and Brad Hogg have more World Cup winner medals than either of these two combined.

And their scarcely believable haul of personal records seems to further undermine their claim to greatness, as logic dictates that individual victories are meaningless in a game played between teams.

And yet, when we posit the careers of these two men in the context of their tragedies, another picture settles into place. The greatness of Lara and Tendulkar lies not in their statistics, but in their mythologies -Their endless battles against not just their opponents, but the mediocrity of their own teammates, their continuous efforts as the last man standing between the humiliating defeats of their sides.

In a sense, because both men intimately realised their position as tragic immortals, they seemed to be roused to their valiant best in the face of impending disaster. It is fitting that when the West Indies won the ICC Champion’s trophy, or when they chased down the world record total against Australia, Lara did little of note.

Tendulkar’s case is even more interesting. Unlike Lara, he actually managed to spend the latter half of his career playing with a world-class side. And yet, his role in most of Team India’s most memorable moments has been that of a supporting act, if not completely on the periphery.

And yet when the occasion reverts to abject chaos, such as that mammoth chase against the Aussies where he got 170-odd, Tendulkar realises his time has come and turns on the magic which makes him a legend.

What I am trying to say is that, contrary to what statistics and cricket journalists keep exhorting to us, the route to legend is intimately bound with failure, not victory.

Because what makes something truly great, what makes a player truly a legend are the moments when the limits of his powers, the ultimate failure of his toils are put into sharp relief, because at that moment, he comes to exemplify both the glory of our potential and the tragedy of our mortality.

Because the moment when he is closest to being a god is the moment he is most human.

The bean counters can keep adding up Kallis’s fourth-innings average and old-ball strike rates and they can keep conjuring up fascinating numbers, but they won’t be able change this basic fact.

Greatness is not measured by the brain; it is measured by the heart.


Article by Ahmer Naqvi