January 9, 2007

Back in the high life

A year after being the subject of obit writers, Shaun Pollock slipped back into his best form to be named Man of the Series against India



Eighteen months ago there were loud whispers that it was time Shaun Pollock retired but he silenced the critics with an outstanding series against India © AFP

In the great tradition of all individual honours winners, Shaun Pollock downplayed his Man-of-the-Series award after the third Test at Newlands saying he couldn't understand how he had "come out ahead of Ashwell" - Prince having scored 306 runs at an average of 61.20.

Pollock's own numbers, for the record, made even more remarkable reading. His 13 wickets came at a cost of just 16 runs apiece and, while his 187 runs came at a tidy 37.40, far more impressive was the fact that he contributed two innings which played a critical part in South Africa winning the second and third Tests.

"I'm usually the guy hanging around nervously in the change room wondering whether I'm going to have to go out there and finish the job with the tailenders," Pollock said after his inspired promotion to No.4 during South Africa's fifth-day run-chase in which he scored 37 in the successful pursuit of 211 at Cape Town.

"I'm not the first Pollock to bat at No.4 for South Africa, so it was important to make some sort of contribution," he said with a twinkling smile in reference to his famous uncle, Graeme.

Not many will admit to it now, but many believed the great allrounder's career was drawing rapidly to a close 18 months ago. A year ago the talk behind the scenes was of how to end his time at the top with dignity because he showed no inclination to step aside voluntarily and his bowling had the fizz of tap water. He appeared to be lending himself and his reputation a disservice.

So what has changed? Simple. Pollock is now, at the age of 33, fully fit for the first time since he entered his thirties. He carried on playing with back, shoulder, neck and ankle injuries for several years because like most bowlers he can hardly remember a day he hasn't performed with some part of his body hurting.

"It's part and parcel of the game," he said recently. The trouble is, or was, even a man as educated in the ways of his own body as Shaun Maclean Pollock can make a mistake and he misjudged the extent of some of them. Or at least, the extent of the effect they would have on his performance and that of the team.

If someone is contributing in a big way to the team's success then he gives everyone else confidence when he walks to the wicket or takes the ball to bowl another over. You remove him from the team and everyone else feels a bit jittery

It's all very well to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that he might have considered withdrawing from international cricket for a while in order allow his body sufficient recovery time, but that's not the way it felt to him at the time. And right now Pollock is facing an even more painful prospect than playing in pain. Not playing while fully fit.

Controversial selection convenor Haroon Lorgat is determined to implement a series of rotational moves in order to rest key players during the imminent series against Pakistan and the two men he is most determined to rest are Pollock and Makhaya Ntini. Both men, needless to say, are looking forward to the prospect of missing a Test match as much as they would a trip to the dentist.

"Rotation is not a perfect science but a player's form has to be taken into consideration," says Pollock. "If someone is scoring runs or taking wickets you really don't want to be taking him out of the team and making him watch from the sidelines. If someone is contributing in a big way to the team's success then he gives everyone else confidence when he walks to the wicket or takes the ball to bowl another over. You remove him from the team and everyone else feels a bit jittery and, perhaps, plays with less confidence and more caution," Pollock says.



With only two days between the first and second Tests against Pakistan, the South African board is likely to rest either Pollock or Ntini for the second Test © Getty Images

"It's easy to talk about rotation but the fact is that everybody wants to play every game and when you talk to the players there is no doubt that the chance to perform and represent your country is not something they will give up lightly or happily. It's easy to say 'just sit this one out and you'll feel better for it' but it's a lot harder to actually do."

Both men are assured of a starting place in the first of three Tests at Centurion on January 12, but with just two days to recover before the start of the second in Port Elizabeth, one is almost certain to be asked to step aside for the long-term good of the team. The prospect is enough to raise the hackles of both men.

"I don't need a rest and I don't want one," says Ntini. "My body needs work. I want to play."

Pollock, however reluctantly, does acknowledge that rest is as important as playing and treatment: "If a rotation policy is carefully structured and it allows certain key players to have a break and remain fresh then perhaps it's not a bad idea. But willy-nilly rotation for rotation's sake is not something I'm in favour of particularly if the series hasn't been won. Every team needs confidence to be at its best and winning is what gives you confidence," Pollock says.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency