Personally, I would still go with Sobers (by quite a long way actually) for a couple of reasons (some rational and some emotive):
- Sobers was good enough to be picked for the Windies as both a batsman or a bowler. To me, that is the ultimate sign of a great all-rounder, and very few have ever met this criteria (Imran and Miller being two others). This can be seen by the fact that Sobers actually debuted for the Windies as a left-arm spinner, and batted near the tail. With all respect to Kallis's bowling, he wouldn't have ever been picked for South Africa if he was somehow unable to bat. Imran Khan and Keith Miller both player for their respective countries purely as batsmen when injured, even though they were fantastic fast bowlers.
- Kallis bowls a lot less in general than Sobers; in fact Sobers bowled nearly twice as much as Kallis does each Test. He averaged 38 overs a test match (21599 balls in 93 tests), whereas Kallis only averages 20 overs a match (18505 balls in 150 tests). Sobers' figure is quite remarkable, and is in front of others such as Holding (35 overs a match), Botham (35 overs a match), Imran (36 overs a match), Marshall (36 overs a match) and Jeff Thomson (34 overs a match) amongst others. In contrast, Kallis's figure is only slightly higher than other batting all-rounders like Bob Simpson (18 overs a match).
- Sobers' statistical record as a bowler is also slightly misleading, as his ability to bowl finger spin, chinamen or pace was fantastic for the team but ultimately detrimental to his own performance. The Windies would pick their team around the other bowlers, and then rely on Sobers to fill whatever gap was left. Therefore, if the pitch was likely to turn, Sobers would end up opening the bowling to take the shine off the new ball before it was tossed to Valentine, Ramadhin, Gibbs etc. Conversely, if the pitch was fast, Sobers would be asked to fill the role of the spinner and bowl some containing overs prior to quickies like Hall, Griffith and Gilchrist taking the new ball. Kallis only bowls in one style, and also doesn't bowl a lot when the pitch doesn't suit him. This is supported by the above statistics about the significant difference in total bowling per test match.
- While their batting averages would appear comparable, Sobers scared the opposition. Kallis does not. I realise that this is a somewhat arbitrary argument, but what the hell. As an Australian, I am never confident of victory against India until VVS is out. It doesn’t matter if they are 7-100 chasing 300, if VVS is still in, I am worried that the bastard will somehow manufacture a win out of it. Kallis doesn’t scare me at all in that regard. Sobers was the same as VVS – until he was out of the equation, the opposition were never quite confident.
- The argument has also been put forward that Sobers' batting was somehow inferior to Kallis's, because Sobers batted more at no. 5 and no. 6 whereas Kallis tended to bat at first or second drop. This line of thinking also doesn't stand up to analysis. In actual fact, Sobers batting was unduly affected by the decision of his captains to bat him lower in the order. If you look at his figures, Sobers batting average at no. 3 (1009 runs at 72) and no. 4 (1530 runs at 63.75) is superior to his batting at no. 5 (1895 runs at 59.21) and no. 6 (2614 runs at 53.34). Sobers was seen as very good at batting with the tail, because he had the ability to score quickly when needed. This meant that he was denied the opportunities that Kallis has always had, with many of Sobers innings cut short by running out of partners. Like with his bowling, Sobers did what was best for the team, rather than what was best for himself.
Kallis is an all-time legend, and fully deserves his place near the very top of the pantheon of all-rounders. Australia would love to have someone of his skill playing for them. But, for me anyway, Sobers continues to reign supreme.
However, Kallis versus Imran - that is an interesting match-up .......