Odd Men In July 4, 2006

Out of the shadows

Vintcent van der Bijl wasn't the obvious choice for The Times' hundred greatest cricketers when it was published in 1997. And yet his inclusion passed with remarkably little objection. Gideon Haigh explains why

Vince van der Bijl © Cricinfo
There was some dubious headshaking when The Times published John Woodcock's list of eternity's hundred greatest cricketers in 1997. Nine Englishmen in the top dozen smacked, to non-Englishmen anyway, of nationalism; Woodcock's preference for W. G. at the top over the Don seemed, at least to Australians, like lese majeste. The burly rosbif Alfred Mynn looked suspiciously overpromoted at No 4; Steve Waugh's Bradman-like batting certainty at the time made it difficult to credit that he barely scraped in.

One pick, however, passed with remarkably little objection, despite being the only twentieth century player not to have represented his country. At No. 78, Vintcent van der Bijl was deemed by the Sage of Longparish to have been a fast bowler superior to Harold Larwood, Curtly Ambrose, Bob Willis, Jack Gregory and Allan Donald among others. Wooders was surely onto something, big Vince's 767 first-class wickets at 16.54 being hard to overlook: all the same, no better career can have passed in deeper obscurity.

van der Bijl's autobiography is entitled Cricket in the Shadows; that shadow has subsequently lengthened and darkened. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least, it was common to mourn `the lost generation' of Springboks, from Test cricket untimely ripped. Mind you, they never seemed altogether lost: the names Pollock, Procter and Richards came trippingly off the tongue. And, well, unless you lived under the sport-and-politics-must-not-mix rock, it was hard to disagree they were lost for good reason.

Strangely, it is since South Africa reentered Test cricket on a wave of post-apartheid goodwill that they have really sunk from view. The heroes of the 1970s and 1980s are now those who kept the guttering flame of multi-racial cricket alight, even though their efforts would have been set at nought had not political change extended the franchise and expedited black-majority rule. Perceived as dupes of the regime, the white cricketers of that period have become a source of quiet embarrassment; the rebel tours that provided their international opposition now give off a seedy reek of opportunism and hypocrisy.

There's nothing tragic about van der Bijl not playing Test cricket; as Richie Benaud observes, tragedy is when the Titanic sinks. But there is something melancholy to it, especially in an era when Test caps are so cheap and profuse. There's no doubt that van der Bijl deserved the honour and would have valued it, his Rhodes Scholar father Pieter having been a patient Test opening batsman and an Oxford boxing blue before war wounds ended his active sporting life.

The only picture in Cricket In The Shadows of van der Bijl pere et fils shows Pieter congratulating Vince on his selection to tour Australia in 1971-72. Not even the formulaic nature of the newspaper cliché can disguise the warmth between them; not even the warmth can obscure the futility. The caption notes: "Both of us knew when this photograph was taken that the tour would not take place."

van der Bijl - here bowling against the England rebels in 1982 - 'lost nothing by comparison with Roberts, Holding, Garner....' © WCM

Pieter van der Bijl apparently stayed right out of his son's cricket upbringing; that, he felt, was rightly the domain of his son's school cricket master. It wasn't until the eve of his first big cricket during South African Universities Week in Cape Town that Vince received a letter signed by "Your loving Dad" with simple advice: "Whether you make runs or take wickets, or do neither, always think of the other fellow...It is so easy to win, and so easy to make excuses when things go astray. Mum and I will never be disappointed when you are not successful in the matter of making runs or taking wickets. We like you to do well only for your own sake. May you enjoy yourself."

During that week, with the aid of a coaching manual and a cooperative team-mate, the lanky youth developed a priceless outswinger; the attribute of visibly enjoying himself in all his cricket likewise lasted his whole career.

van der Bijl benefited early in his career from the counsel of Peter Pollock and Trevor Goddard, and his methods were disarmingly smooth for one displacing 115kg and with bald head topping out more than 2m above his size 14 boots. His run up that always seemed on the brink of being ungainly without ever becoming so, like some huge steam contraption with exquisitely-oiled ball bearings.

His fingers rolled over a ball that always seemed half reluctant to leave his caress; his contemporary Jimmy Cook noted how he invariably seemed to hit the top half of the bat, even when the ball looked overpitched. When van der Bijl followed through, he seemed to eat the pitch up with his stride, descending on the batsman as though to chill him with the length of his shadow. Yet geniality kept bursting through his aggression. Once when his captain Barry Richards asked him to bowl a bouncer at a tailender who had outstayed his welcome, he replied, full of concern: "But I might kill him, Boer."

By the late 1970s, big Vince was legendary in South African domestic cricket. But thanks to that country's outcast status, this meant he enjoyed fame only a notch above that of the best shuffleboard player in Estonia. Mike Brearley was peeved when, on England duty in Australia, news reached him that Middlesex had signed van der Bijl for the 1980 season. `Who the hell is this van der Bijl guy?' asked his team-mate John Emburey.

Brearley said he had no idea, but he'd be registering his displeasure when they returned to Lord's. In fact, van der Bijl had lots of demerits: he was 32, had played only a handful of first-class games abroad, and then did nothing in the pre-season fortnight to suggest he was county material. He travelled up to Trent Bridge for the opening of the county season full of foreboding.

van der Bijl's first ball pitched leg, jagged away, and beat the groping bat outside off stump; he was even more delighted to observe Brearley turning to keeper Ian Gould and chatting excitedly. At close of play after taking four cheap wickets, he then grabbed a beer and walked into the Nottinghamshire dressing room. From the looks of greeting, he realised this was not the done thing at all...but, well, it was where Vince came from, and he did not leave until the Notts players had been thoroughly acculturated.

van der Bijl took 85 wickets at 14.7 that summer, and made 331 rumbustious runs at 25.5; it was in the manner of his cricket as much as the matter that appealed to observers. Among spectators, he was naturally outgoing; among comrades, he was seldom downhearted long, and ensured against collective brooding. On one occasion, the Middlesex dressing room was silenced by the loss of a close one-day game. "It's my fault," Vince announced finally. "I bowled a half volley in my third over."

At a zenith of fast bowling, van der Bijl lost nothing by comparison with Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Lillee, Thomson, Kapil Dev, Hadlee, Imran: for at least a couple of years he was probably the most penetrative new ball bowler in the world, and certainly the most reliable, being apparently impervious to injury and a glutton for overs. Returning to Natal, he took a further 54 wickets at an outrageous 9.5.

When the SAB England XI broke the sanction to visit South Africa the following season, he mowed down 75 wickets at 14.9. In his valedictory season in 1982-83, moreover, he read the portents right.

He had no truck with the idea that the rebel tours were, as the South African Cricket Union insisted, fully-fledged internationals: "If someone asks me how many Test wickets I have taken, my reply is none." Having been disbarred from Tests for 11 years, he forsaw an exile as long again for a South African game "further than ever from international acceptance". He warned: "Politics and sport have become one and a new era is upon us." And, John Woodcock aside, that new era had no place for him.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer