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'What's a Test career compared to the suffering of millions?'

Mike Procter played just seven Tests for South Africa, but thinks that was a small price to pay to help change an unjust system

Interview by George Dobell

May 3, 2012

Comments: 21 | Text size: A | A

Mike Procter, the referee in the eye of the storm at The Oval, back in action, England v Pakistan, Cardiff, August 30, 2006
"I just ran in and bowled as fast as I could. All the coaches just stood there shaking their heads" © Getty Images
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Once described as man who bowled "at 100mph from mid-off off the wrong foot" Mike Procter's international career was limited to just seven Tests due to South Africa's exclusion from world cricket during the apartheid years. Instead he plied his trade for Gloucestershire and in the Currie Cup, before forging a high-profile career as a match referee, selector and broadcaster. He tells ESPNcricinfo about his career.

Who taught you to bowl?
No one! No one would teach anyone to bowl the way I did. I was a batsman, really. At school I kept wicket and bowled a bit of offspin. It was only during my last year or two of school that I grew and started to bowl. I just ran in and bowled as fast as I could. All the coaches just stood there shaking their heads. But it worked for me: I found that the further I ran in, the more pace I generated. And that chest-on action felt natural to me.

How close did you come to playing for England?
Not very. I qualified in 1980 but my body was a bit tired by then. My mind was still fresh, but I was 34 years old. It was more a ploy to allow Gloucestershire to sign another overseas player.

Was your bowling ever timed?
Yes, a whole group of us were timed during World Series Cricket. I was timed at about 92-93mph if I recall correctly, but I reckon I had lost a yard of pace by then. I'd had a few injuries.

If you had your time again, would you still encourage "rebel" teams to tour South Africa and play against them during the years of the apartheid ban?
I can see it from both sides. Yes, the system was unjust and it had to be changed. Whatever brought about that change had to be positive. But at the same time, we wanted to keep cricket alive in South Africa. Cricket desperately needed those rebel tours.

I'm not sure we did keep Test cricket alive, you know. When South Africa returned to international cricket, in the early '90s, the country was absorbed by one-day cricket. The interest in Test cricket died a bit in those years. I know people still care, but it seems we can't even get people to come to the Wanderers for a Test against Australia.

Is it hard for you to reconcile yourself to the fact that you lost what may well have been a fantastic career as an international cricketer?
Not, it's not. Yes, I lost a Test career. But what is a Test career compared to the suffering of 40 million people? Lots of people lost a great deal more in those years, and if by missing out on a Test career we played a part in changing an unjust system, then that is fine by me.

At the time South Africa was barred from international competition, did you know that you would never play Test cricket again?
Yes, I always thought that I wouldn't play again. It was no surprise. Actually in April 1971 [after the South African government had intervened to stop the South African selectors picking non-white players for a tour of Australia] a group of us - Graeme and Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, Denis Lindsay and I - walked off the field at Cape Town after one ball of the game between Transvaal and the Rest of South Africa and issued a statement supporting selection by merit regardless of skin colour. At the time we did that, I thought we wouldn't play again. And we didn't do that to save the tour to Australia, as some have claimed. We did it to try and change the whole rotten system of the country. We were opposed to the government.

How good was the 1969-70 South Africa side?
Oh, it was very, very good. The Australians arrived, having just beaten India and were claiming they were the world champions, in the way that Australians do. But we thrashed them 4-0. We really did have a fabulous side. I'd say the three best sides in Test history were the West Indies side of the 1970s and '80s, the Australian team of 1948, and that South African side.

"I always had a great relationship with India, but after the Harbhajan Singh incident I've had huge problems in the country"

In the absence of a Test career, you really threw yourself into life with Gloucestershire. Do you have happy memories of those years?
Oh, yes. I lived there for 13 years and had some wonderful times. I couldn't play international cricket, so I gave everything I had to Gloucestershire, Natal and Rhodesia. I played some of my best cricket for Gloucestershire. The people there were very kind to me and I made some great friends. I'll be going back to visit this year and there's a little bit of me that will always feel like a Bristolian. It wasn't a big club, so it was hugely satisfying to win trophies with them.

I don't think the standards in county cricket are as high now. When we played Somerset back then, their side contained people like Brian Close, Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham. Hampshire had [Andy] Roberts and [Gordon] Greenidge and Barry Richards. Every county had top-quality players, so the standard was very high. The amount of international cricket around now means that isn't possible.

Tell us about the time you settled an argument with your Gloucestershire team-mates by wrestling.
Ha! That story just keeps improving over the years. It wasn't wrestling, it was one-on-one rugby. We had a Sunday off, having played in Warwickshire, and went to the pub at lunchtime. If I remember correctly, we'd been to the pub the previous night too. David Green - who had just joined us from Lancashire - and I were arguing about who had the best rugby side - South Africa or England. So we marked out a pitch on this field at the back of the pub and decided to settle things with a game of rugby. We went at each other for about three quarters of an hour, but in the end we gave it up as a 0-0 draw. Yes, it's fair to say we'd had a drink or two that day.

How do you see this summer's Test series between England and South Africa?
I'm looking forward to it. It should be a high-quality, competitive series. England have a very good bowling attack, and after what happened in the UAE, they will be champing at the bit to do well. I was amazed by that result: Pakistan played really well and they've left England with a bit to prove. I think South Africa are the favourites, though. Both sides have strong fast-medium bowling attacks - they are the two strongest bowling attacks in world cricket, I think - but Dale Steyn is a magnificent bowler and gives South Africa an edge. He can't be described as fast in comparison to some of those a generation or so before, but he would have been a very good bowler in any era. I think Imran Tahir could be important too. He hasn't had a chance to show what he can do in helpful conditions yet, but when he does, he could be a match-winner. And I expect Graeme Smith to grind out the runs too. Batting could be hard work in this series, but when you look at the South African line-up, with Smith to open and [Hashim] Amla and [Jacques] Kallis to come next, they have the players to do well.

Is it a worry that South Africa have lost players to England?
People tend to exaggerate the South African influence on the England team. It's ridiculous to say that someone like Andrew Strauss is South African. The two who you might reasonably say were South African are Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen.

I think Trott would have played for South Africa - though it may have taken a bit more time - but I'm not sure KP would have done. I wouldn't say he was an ordinary cricketer, but he was primarily an offspin bowler when he was in South Africa. It was only when he went to England that his batting came to the fore. Maybe that wouldn't have happened if he'd stayed in South Africa. England gave him a chance in their ODI side and he just thrived.

It's a difficult situation. You can only pick 11 guys for a Test team and you can't blame the others if they want to go and make a living playing domestic cricket elsewhere. I don't blame the players at all. They are professionals and they get paid more in England.

As an ICC match referee you were placed in some very difficult situations.
I was, and in the end it cost me. I had an agreement that I was going to be a match referee at the IPL but that was withdrawn. I always had a great relationship with India, but after the Harbhajan Singh incident [Procter banned Harbhajan for three matches - a ban and verdict that were subsequently overturned - for allegedly making racist comments to Australian Andrew Symonds] I've had huge problems in the country.

The situation at The Oval in 2006 [where Pakistan refused to resume after tea, when the umpire, Darrell Hair, accused them of ball-tampering] was difficult. The ICC has changed now - there's no way a match referee would be expected to decide on their own what should happen in a situation like that - a situation which would decide whether a Test could continue or not.

But it was the Harbhajan Singh incident that really did for me. I've replayed that episode quite a lot in my mind. I've thought about what else I could have done. All I can say is this: I would do all the same things again.

As I say, I had a signed contract with the IPL. But one or two board members didn't want me and that was that. It's been a very costly incident.

Mike Procter in his delivery stride, June 14, 1971
Procter bowls for Gloucestershire: "Test cricket was barred to me and I knew I would never get back in. So county cricket was my ultimate" Ken Kelly / © Hulton Archive

Were you backed by the ICC?
Very much so.

At the time Sunil Gavasker made some pretty strong comments about you. He questioned whether it was a case of a "white man taking the white man's word against that of the brown man". Did you ever make up with Gavaskar?
I tried. I walked up to him and we shook hands. I didn't get much back from him - put it like that. It still seems pretty unbelievable that I was called a racist. After everything that has happened, that really hurt.

Your role as South Africa selector ended quite suddenly too.
It did. It was a total surprise. I relinquished my role at the ICC to take up the position. I was never given an explanation or anything. I was just phoned up one day and told the whole panel was going to be sacked. We had only been in place a little over a year, so I didn't really think there had been time to judge what sort of a job we were doing.

What do you do these days?
I was a match referee at the Bangladesh Premier League - it was a very successful event - and I did a bit of coaching at under-privileged schools. I'd like to get back into TV at some stage too.

When you look back on it all, what are the highlights that spring to mind?
Winning the Tests was special. It was never about averages or statistics for me. But winning games, representing my country and being part of a great team was a special experience. It was never the same in World Series Cricket. The standard was good, but the feeling wasn't the same.

And the other thing is winning trophies for Gloucestershire. I took that as seriously as any cricket I played. Test cricket was barred to me and I knew I would never get back in. So county cricket was my ultimate. I really identified with the club and, just as they welcomed me as one of them, I wanted to pay them back for their loyalty and warmth.

Mike Procter will be in the UK for this summer, from June to September, and is available for media work, endorsements, after-dinner speaking, motivational speaking and other engagements. Contact Louisa Hayes at Champions (UK) Plc on 08453 313031 for details

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by chris54 on (May 4, 2012, 21:40 GMT)

I remember seeing him in live action around 1969/1970. For my money he is second only to Sobers as an all-rounder: A better batsman than any of the quartet from the 80,s and as quick a bowler as Imran. I also remember rushing home to catch the B&H semi-final in 1977 and switching on the t.v. just in time to see him take a hat-trick. Funnily enough after seeing him live I decided to try and copy his bowling action. I took 4 for 0 in the first over. I think the pitch must have been rather dodgy because noone got into double figures

Posted by jon_ramsbottom on (May 4, 2012, 13:01 GMT)

I've often read that Mike Procter bowled off the 'wrong' foot. But video evidence shows otherwise. Yes he had a very front-on action, and an action that involved whirling his delivery arm, which maybe created an optical illusion. This you-tube clip opens with a beautiful slow-motion sequence showing that as he delivers the ball, he plants his left ('correct') foot as his front foot. Perhaps about the only 'normal' thing about his action.

I hesitate to lay down the law, so maybe I've just misunderstood ?

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (May 4, 2012, 7:22 GMT)

Just one extra datum about Mike Proctor. His bowling stats suffered a lot laater in his career because he had a lot of scar tissue from rugby around his shoulders. That meant that in early-season conditions in England he was never able to get up to full pace... he needed warmer weather to loosen-up that tissue. That would not have bothered him in Australia, the Caribbean, or India!! Incidentally, if you add his Packer numbers to his Test record (he was often 5th bowler for the RoW) you might have another think about "what he achieved" in Test-level cricket. It was a lot more than generally recognised.

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (May 4, 2012, 7:18 GMT)

Dinesh, statsitics are not everything, but his 7 Tests were against the then strongest side in the world at the time. He was a youngster on the up and, as his results in First Class cricket demonstrated, he peaked years later. Look at his results. If you use the standard all rounder criterion of runs + 20*wickets that has traditionally been used to compare value to a side, his average (149.4) was far higher than any other all rounder in Test history. That was before his batting develeoped - he never managed a Test 50 - into the murderously effective scoring of the mid and late '70s. I saw him take a hat-trick of lbws v Hampshire with three brutal, toe-crunching, inswinging yorkers. On days like that no one could lay a bat on him and he hardly ever used the bouncer... in fact, he was as likely to bowl it while delivering off-spin to keep the batsman alert as he was off his full run because, then, he didn't need it.

Posted by melbourneben on (May 4, 2012, 4:37 GMT)

"Yes, I lost a Test career. But what is a Test career compared to the suffering of 40 million people? Lots of people lost a great deal more in those years, and if by missing out on a Test career we played a part in changing an unjust system, then that is fine by me. "

Astounding. Makes me respect him even more.

Posted by Meety on (May 4, 2012, 0:28 GMT)

@Chris_P - I'm Ozzy too, & the way they whipped our boys 4 zip was horrendously awesome. Due to the small sample size of tests only, I can't place them in the top 3, but I often think about that team & how the 70s would of turned out for test cricket had it not been for apartheid. Imagine that Saffa team taking on Oz & the Windies in the mid 70s - England had a pretty good side as well then! @johnathonjosephs - mate, he was talking about UMPIRING!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by johnathonjosephs on (May 3, 2012, 19:42 GMT)

@Dinesh.. Wrong article buddy. This guy is 65 years old, why in the world would he even think of joining the IPL? Not everything is about Indian cricket, mate

Posted by   on (May 3, 2012, 19:30 GMT)

I think perhaps the most unsung of the South Africans to miss out on a test career was Vincent van der Bijl. Astonishing record in first class cricket.

Posted by CharlesCrasto on (May 3, 2012, 18:04 GMT)

A great cricketer and a wonderful human being, this Mike Procter. Why am I not surprised that the interviewer is George Dobell?

Posted by   on (May 3, 2012, 17:08 GMT)

I can't believe that the IPL barred Procter from the league. That is simply shoddy behaviour and is indicative of the narrowmindedness of, presumably, the BCCI. This is very disappointing to hear.

Posted by   on (May 3, 2012, 13:53 GMT)

Mike Proctor used to come to my high school and coach on Wednesday afternoons and was a great coach. He was tough but always very encouraging. I started playing aginst him in league cricket when I was 15 and eventhough it scared the hec out of me to bowl or bat against him, it was an amazing experience. He always took time to say something encouraging off the field and help younger players believe they could be bigger and better.

Posted by Chris_P on (May 3, 2012, 13:07 GMT)

Whoops. I said he scored 4 consecutive centuries, of course it was 6. Not bad for an all rounder whose main claim to fame was his pace bowling. @Dashgar, it is all conjecture, agreed. But he was an awesome talent & I have seen all these guys play (except Miller), & Sobers not at his peak. No doubt he was up on their level, IMHO, equal to Imran. He did have principles & was quite vocal at the time against the policies of his country. Cricket is blessed that he is still a part of the game & contributing.

Posted by Chris_P on (May 3, 2012, 11:37 GMT)

This guy was a tremendous talent, almost unheard of at the time. He would stand head & shoulders as the premier allrounder if he were around today. Express opening bowler, good enough batsman to score 4 consecutive centuries for Gloucester & outstanding fielder. And this coming in at #8 after Graeme Pollock & Barry Richards had batted! @Dashgar. I'm an Aussie, but I would back the South African team of the late 60's as equal to Waugh's team. Ali Bacher was a splendid captain but not quite up there as a test batsman while John Traicos was just beginning his test career. These 2 were probably the only ones not in the "outstanding category". As talented as Waugh's team was, Richards & Graeme Pollock were 2 of the greatest batsmen in test history, (albeit with limited opportunities), and far ahead of the best we had to offer. But that is another topic for discussion. Thanks for this article, enjoyed reading it.

Posted by S.h.a.d.a.b on (May 3, 2012, 9:55 GMT)

South African team in 70s 80s was as good as West indies of that time. Players like Procter, G.Pollock, P.Pollock, E.Barlow, B.Richards, Allan Lamb, P.Kirsten, C.Rice, J.Cook, K.Wessels.. there were other players too who i can not remember right now. It was a great loss for cricket fan too.

Posted by Dashgar on (May 3, 2012, 9:04 GMT)

@Cricketing Stargazer, he probably would have been up there but the word undoubtedly is a few steps too far. Would he really have achieved more than Garry Sobers, Imran Khan, Keith Miller or Jacques Kallis? Doubtful, but of course we will never know.

Posted by   on (May 3, 2012, 8:06 GMT)

the south african team of 1970 was one of the best of all time they had barry richards if he played test cricket would have been been seen as good as tendulkar, pollock even better one of the hardest batsmen to ever get out if you look at both there feets of achievement pollock was 40 when he took a part an australian x x1 in 1986/87 and barry richards if u ever seen what he done in world series cricket where for the world x1 at glocester park demolised an australia attack like it had never seen before then you had denis lindsey the wicket keeper he was the gilchrest of his time a phenomonial run scorer, then was eddie barlow got 12 wickets and a hatrick against england for the world 11 and he also open the batting then there was proctor one of the best of all time then peter pollock how many champions can you have i forgot lee irvine another champion what a team

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (May 3, 2012, 7:56 GMT)

One o my happiest childhood memories? Watching Mike Proctor motoring in almost from the Jessop Tavern at the county ground in Bristol in a futile attempt to dislodge Gordon Greenidge and win the County Championship for Gloucestershire in 1976. It was the only time that I saw him off his long run live although, of course, I had seen him many times on televisio and seen him often on a Sundayafternoon off his short runn. A wholehearted cricketer who gave life and soul to Gloucestershire in the most talented line-up that the side has ever had. there are so many things that this article does not mention: his 6 consecutive centuries: the Walter Lawrence Trophy for the fast 100 of the season; the fact that he was a brilliant slipper and when the wicket didn't favour pace also won matches with his off spin; etc. Undoubtedly he would have been the greatest all-rounder ever in Test cricket.

Posted by Nuxxy on (May 3, 2012, 7:25 GMT)

@muski: He did play international cricket, and was more than good enough there (41 wickets in 7 tests, average of 15 and strike rate of 37). He just did equally well in county cricket. He just had more batting opportunity and success in the English game.

Posted by Dashgar on (May 3, 2012, 6:56 GMT)

One of the best 3 teams? I'd back Steve Waugh's Australians to beat any of those. One on one rugby? That is wrestling. Good article, sounds like he is a really interesting guy who has been through a lot.

Posted by muski on (May 3, 2012, 6:50 GMT)

Its quite unfortunate that these guys whom we have heard of having great talent could not play International Cricket due to political compulsions. Good to know that these white skinned men did try to take up the cause of their black skinned colleagues. Be that as it may, any amount of great performance in County cricket for however long a period is no indication of automatic International success. Ask Grame Hick if you want the right answers.

Posted by SamRoy on (May 3, 2012, 4:06 GMT)

Best line I have heard from a cricketer in a long time. Cricket is a just a game which provides entertainment to human beings. But is it more important than human beings? Can't be and shouldn't be. Well said Mike Procter.

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