August 23, 2012

South Africa's superstars of '76

If you think the world's current No. 1 side takes some beating, take a look at their compatriots from 35 years ago

Watching Graeme Smith's fine South African side has taken me back to Newlands in 1977, when a group of English schoolboys were taken to see the New Year Currie Cup match between Western Province and Transvaal. The cricket was unflinching and the thrill of seeing such fantastic cricketers up close and in a place of such beauty has lived with me to this day.

The seventies were a golden age. Australia gaves us Lillee and Thomson, Marsh and the Chappells. India had three spinners who captured hearts, and a little opening batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, who resisted the most ferocious bowlers on behalf of hundreds of millions of fanatics who accorded him divine status. There is not much left to say about West Indies, a team that began the decade with Sobers and Kanhai and finished it with Richards, Greenidge, Kallicharran and four extraordinary fast bowlers firing as one. Pakistan had their greatest cricketer, Imran Khan, roaring for his people alongside Majid Khan and Zaheer Abbas. Javed Miandad knocked on the door of the seventies too, an inimitable figure who knew no defeat. Tony Greig led England on a famously successful tour to India, and Mike Brearley won back the Ashes. Ian Botham arrived as Greig left - two allrounders who carried the team with courage and flair - and David Gower began his charming tale.

But the South Africans were in isolation. Apartheid broke hearts in ways that can never be fully understood. If Basil D'Oliveira were still with us, he could explain better than I. The white man's game still managed to forge exceptional cricketers from the sporting culture in which they lived. Club cricket thrived in a competitive environment, with eskies of cold beer and camaraderie at its weekend conclusion. The Currie Cup was played with the ferocity of Test cricket, because that is what it was, South Africa's ultimate test of cricket.

Some of the best players - Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow and Hylton Ackerman, Mike Procter and Peter Pollock - made appearances in World XIs who toured in place of South Africa. Their deeds caught the eye and continued to remind sceptics of the rare talent denied a global stage. Genius might not be the right word when applied to sport but let us say it is for a moment and suggest that South African cricket had its share.

The 1969-70 side that beat Australia 4-0 has become the stuff of legend but by the mid-seventies, say the season of 1976-77, South Africa would have been even better. Better than anyone. The years in isolation pushed the standard of first class cricket off the chart, producing cricketers who vied for top dog with one another as if they were playing for opposing nations, not provinces. Western Province against Transvaal was one such match - no quarter given, none asked. New South Wales and Victoria used to go at each on Boxing Day in a contest that might have matched it. And Barbados against Jamaica had a frisson given to few other Caribbean face-offs. But there was something raw and needy about the Currie Cup. It was a statement to the world and a parade ground for exposure elsewhere.

Barry Richards would have opened the batting with Eddie Barlow. Both played in England, for Hampshire and Derbyshire respectively, and both had a piece of World Series Cricket - though Barlow was running out of years. They reckon he was an inspirational cricketer, capable of lifting himself and others to seemingly impossible deeds. "Bunter" was at his best almost a decade earlier but he wins a place ahead of Kepler Wessels, Henry Fotheringham and Jimmy Cook on his unique ability to change a game with bat or ball from nowhere, even then.

Richards brooks no argument. A perfect technique shone from his output of dazzling strokes. He had time to play like no other, and brought an unparalleled grace and pleasure to the art of batting. Sir Donald Bradman chose him in his all-time greatest team.

At three is Peter Kirsten, who might just have easily played fly-half for the Springboks. Kirsten followed Barlow to Derbyshire, where he scored a mountain of runs with a sneaky efficiency. His touch play and subtle placement of the ball came from a natural ball-playing eye. Though he appeared in the South African side that was re-admitted in the early nineties, he was as much past his best as Barlow was during WSC. A pity for him, a pity for us.

In 1983, I watched the rebel West Indians play South Africa in a one-day game in Port Elizabeth. Richards made a hundred but Graeme Pollock stole the headlines with a vignette of startling bravura. Hit in the head by Sylvester Clarke, he returned to the wicket an hour or so later, well stitched above the eyebrow, to face the remaining five balls of another Clarke over. Needless to say, Clarke went at him hard. Pollock hit all five balls for four or six. If Sir Garry Sobers or Brian Lara is not the greatest left-hander of all time, Pollock is.

He is at four then. A litany of options follow. Allan Lamb was in Kirsten's vintage and a while away from adventuring to England. Kevin McKenzie was as good a back-foot cutter and puller of the ball as South Africa ever knew. Kenny McEwan had a delicious range of strokes and could put any marginally off-colour attack to bed in the blink of an eye. Hylton Ackerman had a rare talent confused by a raffish disposition. I'm going with Lamb, the one controversial choice, I expect. It's back to the genius thing and he had a hint of it. Risk or reward with Lamby, but given those around him, it is a risk worth taking. How lucky England were.

Lee Irvine comes next, to bat and keep wicket with the sort of musketeering joyousness that Adam Gilchrist brought to the game. He was really very good, with fast hands, neat footwork, and no fear of the consequences. Ray Jennings might have been the stumper; Denis Lindsay might have come out of retirement for the chance, but Irvine it is, for sheer class.

Then two of the most formidably gifted and competitive allrounders that any age of the game has seen. Clive Rice and Mike Procter. More different fellows you could not meet. More trusted comrades you could not find.

Procter made the heart race. He bowled super-quick off a long, dramatic run, with a quirky, near-wrong-footed burst of energy in the delivery stride that brought devastating inswing from both over and around the wicket. He took four in five balls against Hampshire in a cup semi-final in 1977 - Gordon Greenidge fell to the first ball of the over, middle stump ripped from the ground; then a single by David Turner, then mayhem. First, Procter's compatriot, the mighty Richards; then Trevor Jesty and John Rice in a breathtaking hat-trick. If you ever come across the current first-class umpire, Nigel Cowley, ask him about it. He was next and freely admits to being stone-dead lbw to make it five in six for Proccie but, unbelievably, Cowley will tell you, the umpire of the moment, Tommy Spencer, said no. Oh for the DRS in Procter's day. He could bowl big-spinning offbreaks too, catch most things at slip, and was a lovely off-side batsman who scored six consecutive hundreds playing for Rhodesia in the Currie Cup. Only CB Fry and Bradman had ever done that, anywhere.

Procter at eight, though, Rice at seven to mop up in case of a tumble. Rice played uncompromising cricket - sort of a Steve Waugh, but if not as good a batsman, a better and certainly faster bowler. He wound up opponents and the opposition spectators in a way that condensed each match into fight-club intensity. With a vicious, skidding bouncer and a defiant, if not always pretty, manner of batsmanship, Rice did as much for Transvaal and Nottinghamshire as Procter did for Gloucestershire, Natal and Rhodesia. Which is saying something.

Garth le Roux was/is a huge man with a personality to match. Strong, aggressive, dynamic, he had an exciting ability to swing the ball out at real pace. His captain at Western Province that year was Barlow, who demanded the young bull went faster, higher, longer. And the bull responded in kind. Batsmen felt the shock of his deliveries through their thumb and forefinger, into their wrist and all the way along their forearm. Often beaten, they would look up and see Garth standing there, telling them it wouldn't be long before the sanctuary of the dressing room.

Le Roux, Procter, Rice, Barlow, all complemented by Vintcent Van der Bijl, the best fast-medium high bounce bowler going around. He took his wickets so cheap, you'd say they had been on sale. Length, line, movement a little away in the air with a wicked nip back off the seam. Big Vince - 6 feet 8 inches of him - big heart, big record: 767 first-class wickets at 16.54. Exceptional bowler, wonderful man.

And finally to the least known of this illustrious band. The legspinner Denys Hobson. A bounder, nearest, I guess, to Abdul Qadir, though without quite the flurry of arms and legs. Hobson truly spun the ball, searching always for wickets and never containment, a perfect approach in this team. His finest hour actually came a year later when he ripped 9 for 54 out of Eastern Province on his home turf at Newlands. It blew a gale in his favour that day, but he knew how to use favour, and with the attack around him - not least Procter's offspin - he would surely have created havoc when the opportunity arose.

Richards, Barlow, Kirsten, Pollock, Lamb, Irvine, Rice, Procter, Le Roux, Van der Bijl, Hobson. And plenty of bench strength. Back against them at your peril. In the impossible argument, we can safely say that this would have been a champion team, with all bases covered and a delighted audience wherever it was on show.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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