Middlesex expected their fast bowler Wayne Daniel would be on tour with West Indies for the 1980 season. His replacement was a balding, 6ft 7in former teacher from South Africa, whom most people in St John's Wood had never heard of. That was in April. By September everyone knew the name of Vintcent van der Bijl.
Ian Gould (Middlesex wicketkeeper): When he first turned up, pre-season, no one knew who the hell he was. It was a filthy day at the Barclay's Bank ground in Ealing and we were having a game of football. It was pretty obvious he was never going to be signed by Juventus - put it that way.
Vintcent van der Bijl: It started off bloody cold but in more ways than one became a beautiful summer.
Simon Hughes (Middlesex): My first encounter with him was at a net session. He was so physically impressive. Huge. Six foot seven. A God-like figure. It's true he was bald but when you're 20, everyone looks old.
Gould: We all thought he wouldn't last. 'How's this old man going to cope?' we wondered. It turned out to be an outrageous signing.
van der Bijl: I mean, my God, here I was, a 32-year-old white South African playing under Mike Brearley, who was known for his strongly anti-apartheid views. What was I doing?
Hughes: At that first net session the sweat was pouring off him and he was absolutely determined. He was so accommodating off the pitch but when he was bowling, batsmen were Public Enemy No.1.
Daniel's call-up for West Indies' tour of England never came. Middlesex now had an extra bowler - and another character in a dressing room fizzing with self-assurance.
van der Bijl: It was a fascinating mix. Phil Edmonds - he was bloody interesting - was very different from Roland Butcher. Mike Selvey, the Cambridge graduate, very different from Graham Barlow. There was young Simon Hughes ...
Hughes: ... and John Emburey, the Peckham Parrot. Mike Gatting. Wayne Daniel talking about sex all day long. Vintcent was witty, though, and a very fast judge of character - which, let me tell you, was a considerable asset in our dressing room. He knew which buttons to press but he was never wicked. And it was all done with this huge, deep laugh.
van der Bijl: I got close to John Emburey and spent many hours with Ian Gould. We were the only smokers in the team, so we used to share a room together for away games.
Gould: That's right. I was on the Bensons but, because Vintcent had a few quid in his pocket, he used to smoke Dunhills.
Overseeing it all and keeping a lid on the cauldron was the captain, Brearley.
van der Bijl: We are the best of friends and have been for years. I think in those very early days perhaps Mike wasn't all that happy to see me, but he masked it quite well. The issue of South Africa was very important to him. So started an interesting relationship.
Mike Brearley: Vintcent was a breath of fresh air - not only as a terrific cricketer and a useful batsman but he was also an excellent influence on the dressing room.
van der Bijl: He bowled me first change, second change, first up, in the morning, at night, uphill, downhill. After a couple of weeks I said, "You're testing me aren't you? Are you happy now?" I think the question he wanted answering was: could he rely on me?
Hughes: There is a theory that Brearley deliberately put on moods to examine people, to see how they would react. I asked him about it once, years later, and he denied it, said it was rubbish.
Mike Selvey: What Brearley did brilliantly was to interact with other people. What he didn't do, in my memory at least, was say: 'Put this fielder there and that fielder here.' His talent was to use to the full what his players were offering him.
van der Bijl: One of the many things I liked about Mike was that he completely respected the individual, and this in a dressing room which had completely different views on life. I found him quite quirky. And I expect he'll take that as a compliment.
And so to the cricket. That season van der Bijl was used most often by Middlesex as a foil to his opening partner Daniel.
van der Bijl: Wayne Daniel was the most generous of men. Gorgeous.
Hughes: He and Daniel were unlikely pals. One was all brute force, no science, brawn and extraordinary pace, and the other had a very long run-up, a big, curving run. Low 80s I'd say, in terms of speed. But unbelievable lift. Very accurate, and a wicked yorker. Amazing control and a classic side-on action.
Selvey: It took him a little while to work out that he had to bowl fuller. He started off too short, bowling what I suppose you'd call a 'southern hemisphere length'. But when he got it, he was fantastic, relentlessly straight. He was quite one of the best bowlers I'd seen. I think he bowled like Curtly Ambrose.
Brearley: He bowled like a more attacking version of Joel Garner, swinging the ball at almost the same speed and from almost the same height.
van der Bijl: To be compared to Joel Garner is a huge compliment. But I think I was just a medium-fast bowler who developed. You know who I most wanted to bowl like? A cross between Alec Bedser and Wes Hall. I'm delighted to say that, in the urinals at Lord's, I met Alec during that season. Since then I've met Wes Hall too.
Gould: It was a cup game at Southampton, one of Vintcent's first for us on a damp wicket. At the end of his first over I ran down and looked at the marks where all six of the balls had pitched. You know they say that some bowlers can land it on a dinner plate? Well, these six deliveries would all have landed on a saucer.
With the accuracy came wickets - lots of them. During his career in South Africa van der Bijl had set many first-class bowling records for Natal. For Middlesex he seemed to carry on where he had left off.
van der Bijl: I was not a Mike Procter who would go from five to eight wickets as the tail came in. I was a five-for specialist! A stock and shock bowler.
Five wickets against Nottinghamshire. Four at Old Trafford. Six against Sussex and then five at Surrey. Wisden decided that van der Bijl bowled a "stump-riveting" line. As the season went on, Middlesex had the chance to win all four trophies.
van der Bijl: The Championship game at Uxbridge against Derbyshire was a biggie. Low scores and I got ten wickets. Before then, at Southend I got eight in a similar game against Essex. I was very relieved to succeed. At the beginning of the season I had asked Mike Brearley what he expected from me and he replied: "Win three or four Championship matches and the same number of one-day games." He was very specific.
Against Sussex in August van der Bijl put in his best Championship performance - 6 for 47 in the first innings which caused Sussex to follow on.
John Barclay (Sussex): We were very aware of Vintcent by then but it was not the first time I had seen him. I had played against him when I was 15 at Roehampton when he toured with Wilfred Isaacs' XI. This time around he was the ideal bowler for English conditions: accurate, quickish and able to use the seam.
The South African helped keep Middlesex at the top of the table above Surrey throughout the summer. In 18 of van der Bijl's 20 Championship games that season Middlesex took maximum bowling points. Their overseas player was enjoying himself off the pitch too.
van der Bijl: I came to England with my wife Bev and our two girls. We lived near Bank in central London, in the Mappin and Webb building. A top floor flat provided by a Middlesex benefactor.
Sympathetic team selection added to the English experience.
van der Bijl: Against Cambridge I was made 12th man, so we could take the children punting. The kids were at a great school and we were often allowed to take them with us. They got their education from visiting Hove, Bristol, Leeds. Bev and I had this very strong sense that we were in the heart of a wonderful, diverse, free society. I think that summer was the happiest six months of our family life that we'd known. I would wake up tingling with excitement about what England had to offer. Because I was a history teacher I had an enormous respect for and interest in the English and the nation's achievements.
By the beginning of September, Middlesex were celebrating a couple of achievements of their own. They had won the County Championship and a few days later beat Surrey in the Gillette Cup final at Lord's. The "double" had never been done before. Along with a third place in the John Player League and a Benson & Hedges semi-final, it was the most successful year by any county since four trophies had been introduced.
Selvey: That Middlesex team was actually one of the great county sides, I'd say. Through the years they talk about the magnificent Surrey and Yorkshire sides but I'd put our team right up there - especially in the bowling.
Brearley said van der Bijl had been "the biggest single factor" in Middlesex's success. He had taken 86 first-class wickets at 14.72 runs each, plus another 25 limited-overs wickets.
Barclay: He stayed fit, which for a big man was quite an achievement. I think his fine, rhythmical action helped him there. And I don't remember him ever bowling bouncers. He bowled just the right length, and of course, in English cricket repetition is the key to success.
van der Bijl: What did I learn with Middlesex? In a way, despite the success of my career in South Africa, I learned to bowl again. I don't usually follow the stats but one I am proud of is the season after Middlesex I took 54 wickets in eight matches at 9.50 for Natal. That was because of what I had learned in England.
And far too quickly it was over. After one season Vintcent was gone.
van der Bijl: I had left teaching and had begun work for Wiggins Teape, a paper merchant owned by British American Tobacco. To have stayed in England for more than a season would have meant breaking a promise to the firm. Also, Bev had fallen pregnant with our third daughter, Louise. It had been an amazing, and probably unrepeatable, season and its success actually helped shape our decision to go. The adventure remains an amazing highlight in our lives.
The cricketer would be missed. So would the man.
Hughes: I didn't know what I was doing in those days and Vintcent was a father figure - benign, sociable and warm. I think he showed what could be achieved through a combination of desire and fun. He loved talking about the game, a game I was finding pretty easy in those days, so I didn't learn anything technical from him, but what I did take on was his sense of joie de vivre. And that has stayed with me.
Gould: Charming, funny, kind, thoughtful. One of the world's greatest, he was.
Selvey: I always found him a very hearty chap. So optimistic. He kept things bubbling up.
Brearley: He was effervescent, positive, and also capable of taking responsibility for things he didn't do right, whereas many of the rest of us tended to find fault elsewhere. He held no grudges, as far as I know, about his bad luck in not being able to play Test cricket. He was, and is, a generous man.
Gould: This is how good he was: he became a Middlesex legend and he was there for only a season.
This article was first published in the July 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here