'I'm not really feeling my age'
Chatting to Shaun Pollock about as-yet-unreached career milestones is a lot like trying to pick out a birthday present for a billionaire. What do you give the man who already has it all?
Take a glance at Pollock's career statistics. He's already played his 100th Test (against New Zealand, 2006 ); he's already taken his 400th Test wicket (India, 2006); he's already scored his 3000th Test run (India, 2004); and, even though he's nominally a fast-medium bowler, he's already scored two Test hundreds (Sri Lanka and West Indies, both 2001).
His one-day international record reads much the same: he's already scored his 3000th ODI run (Bangladesh, 2007 ); taken his 350th ODI wicket (New Zealand, 2006); and scored his maiden ODI hundred (against the Asia XI in 2007). Oh, and he's also captained the national team already - in 26 Tests, 97 ODIs and, lest we forget, in South Africa's 1998 Commonwealth Games gold medal campaign. So could Shaun Pollock possibly have any milestones left to reach?
"Yeah, I do," he nods. "You've got to have goals, you know. If you have nothing to strive for, your passion will start to dwindle. So yes, I do still have some goals. But that's not my main focus and I'm not the kind of person who puts them out there. There are, at the back of my mind, some milestones that I'd like to achieve. And you'd love me to tell you what they are, but ..." He closes his lips into his familiar naughty-schoolboy grin.
Ag, c'mon, Polly.
"Okay, I'll give you one," he relents. "I'd like to get 400 one-day wickets. And I'm not too far off." Indeed not: at last count, Pollock had 383 ODI scalps.
It all seems a long way from his illuminating maiden ODI, against England at Newlands in January 1996, when as a wide-eyed, red-haired youngster he thwacked an unbeaten run-a-ball 66 and took 4 for 34 to announce his arrival on the international scene. He was named Man of the Match and then Man of the ODI Series, having already averaged 26.60 with bat and 23.56 with ball in the Test series.
Pollock's early reputation - no doubt fortified by his famous family name - was based on what was perceived as an ability to intimidate the batsman. "People had this big impression that I was a tearaway quickie," he says. "But I've never enjoyed pinning people, and I still don't get any pleasure out of tonking someone on the head. I had quite a quick bumper back then, and another one that nipped back at the right-hander and tended to follow him, so that probably got the batters into more trouble than my actual pace."
Come to mention it, Pollock's pace has faded over the years - to the point where there's now talk that his time as a top-level cricketer may be coming to an end. But all that talk has been limited to press opinions, commentator chatter and idle around-the-water-cooler office debates. Speak to Pollock himself, and it's clear that he's not ready to call time just yet.
"I'm not really feeling my age," he shrugs. "Yes, you get sore, but that's part and parcel of playing international sport. You wake up some mornings and think, 'Gosh, how'm I gonna get out of bed here?' But that's also part of the mental side of things, of lifting yourself every morning, lifting yourself out of disappointment, lifting yourself when you're feeling sore to come back and fight and put in another performance."
So were we wrong, in our World Cup previews earlier this year, to suggest that 2007 would be his last World Cup? Is he saying that he'll stick around till 2011?
I'd like to challenge myself outside of the game
for a while, and then maybe come back to it at a later stage. I've always been very
passionate about cricket and I believe you have to be passionate about what you're
doing in order to get the best out of yourself
"Ja, that's not going to happen!" he laughs. "Look, I've always been very conscious of not overstaying my welcome. I don't want to be here for longer than I should. But then I also don't want to cut my career short prematurely. I still want to be contributing and helping South Africa win games. And when I'm not doing that, the time will be right to retire."
But when? And where?
"That's difficult to say," he says. "But it is something I do give thought to. It's not like I'm putting my head in the sand here and saying I'll stick around forever or until someone kicks me out. I've had a lovely career. I've enjoyed everything. And I believe I still have a part to play for now. And when I feel like I don't ..." He sighs.
"You know, you hear guys talk and they'll say they knew when the time was right to retire," he says. "Well, for me it hasn't felt like the time's right yet. You have times when you think, you know, it's more time away from your family, your body hurts, you're getting older ... but I'm 34. The other guys were finishing when they were 38."
We put it to him that he might, as others have in the past, decide to retire from one form of the game, and focus his energies entirely on either Tests or ODIs. "I've given a lot of thought to that," he nods. "But that's the funny thing: for now I'm still enjoying both. So we'll have to see."
Ag, c'mon, Polly. Gun to your head, which one would you choose?
"Gun to my head? At this stage I'd probably choose one-day cricket," he says. "And that's just because of the time you're away from home in Test cricket. The strain on your body, bowling 30 overs a day. In one-day cricket you know you've just got ten overs per match."
It's obvious - and it's been obvious from the start, from that warm January evening at Newlands in the summer of '96 - that Pollock has had a particular affection for cricket's abbreviated form. "It's the hype," he says. "It's the adrenaline rush. And you know what you're going to be doing. You know how many overs you're going to bowl, you know where you're going to bat. It's something you can deal with. Test cricket is the true test of the game: it's where your proper skills are tested and it's where the proper players tend to come to the top. So it's going to be sad, but just from a holistic perspective it would make a lot more sense to retire from Test cricket first."
At the insistence of the no-nonsense TWC editor, we're still probing: How about the full England tour in 2008? Wouldn't that, then, be the obvious (grand, fitting, etc) occasion to call time on Tests?
"I'm not even 100 per cent clear in my mind at this stage."
Pollock is that rarest of things in the current Proteas side: a family man. While some of his team-mates are filling the pages of South Africa's gossip rags with their swimsuit girlfriends and, erm, their late-night exploits, Shaun Pollock is a husband and father. And as much as he loves playing cricket for his country, he hates spending too much time away from Tricia and his two girls, Jemma and Georgia.
"I think it's more difficult on them than it is on me," he says. "When I'm away on tour I'm surrounded by a squad of 20 guys. But there's a lot of downtime for my family, and there's a lot of pressure on Tricia having to deal with the kids and the household while I'm away. I've been very fortunate in that they've made the sacrifice and allowed me to live my dream and pursue my career. But the more you play and the older the girls get, the harder it gets for me to go away and for them to understand why."
Pollock suggests that as the international cricket calendar becomes more and more filled up, senior players like himself might start selecting which tours they'll go on. "Like the golfers and the tennis players do now," he says. "They don't play in every event. They work out their schedules so that they're peaking for the majors. You might find if you're going to play against Bangladesh at home, where you'd be expected to win, that the selectors might bring in the younger players. Keep the nucleus of older guys, but throw in the young brigade to give them a bit of experience, and then rest the other guys.
"But it's a delicate balancing act, and it's not always popular with the media, with the spectators, and sometimes even with the players. I know from a player's perspective that none of us likes to miss a game. We like to play and we don't like to be rested - especially when the team's playing at home. You want to be out there in front of your own crowd where the battle's happening."
Judging by the ICC's Future Tours calendar, there'll be plenty of time to play - and to rest - in the coming months. After the Twenty20 World Cup, South Africa face series against Pakistan (away), New Zealand (home), West Indies (home), Bangladesh (away) and India (away). And that's just between now and April.
For Pollock, that's a mixed blessing. "It's good for the game that there's a demand for that amount of cricket," he says. "At one stage with the match-fixing and all that, people were worried about where cricket was going. But that's not saying it's good from the players' perspective, because the workload is not ideal. And you always want the big players to be playing; that's what makes the product good."
Returning, gingerly, to retirement talk, we press Pollock for what his plans are when he does ultimately decide to hang up his gloves.
"I think I'd take a six-month sabbatical," he says, with the air of a man who's thought this all through already. "I'd like to challenge myself outside of the game for a while, and then maybe come back to it at a later stage. I've always been very passionate about cricket and I believe you have to be passionate about what you're doing in order to get the best out of yourself. So I'd have to find something else that I'm passionate about and that I'd want to put all of my time and energy into. I'm not too sure what that would be. I've got a Bachelor of Commerce degree, so maybe I'll have to go back to some work at some stage."
And discover, perhaps, that there's more to life than cricket?
"I know there's more to life, trust me!" he says. "But my focus has been so much on cricket that there are things I've not been able to do. For example, I've never been able to go skiing in case something happened to my knees. So that six-month sabbatical will be time where I do the things I wish I could have done while I was still playing.
"Not," he adds, "that I would have changed anything."
With more than 100 Tests, more than 400 wickets, more than 3000 runs, and nearly every ODI milestone reached (except, of course for that elusive 400th wicket), it's hard to imagine much Shaun Pollock would have changed about his career. Except, perhaps, for the idea that at some point it will all have to come to an end.