August 28, 2014

The mighty Mr Pollock

Graeme Pollock has been among the top three finest players his country ever produced; and not far off that pace in the world rankings either

In his pomp: Pollock bats against the West Indian rebels in 1983 © Getty Images

Graeme Pollock is unwell. Another former South African cricketer, Lee Irvine - a man of no mean achievement himself - clarifies the situation. "Though Graeme is cheerful enough, the ailments include a tumour in the colon, which was removed last year, the early stages of Parkinson's, and minor problems with speech that are quickly improving after a recent stroke." Apparently the great man is not flush with funds either, so good people, such as Irvine and friends, are coming together to help.

Pollock was a phenomenal batsman. Honestly, unless you saw him it is hard to imagine just how phenomenal. Jacques Kallis is South Africa's finest-ever cricketer but Pollock, along with Barry Richards many would say, is that land's greatest batsman.

Hartley Alleyne, the Barbadian, bowled to him during the rebel matches in 1982-83 and was routinely pumped either side of helpless fielders to the boundary. It was like the action was on a loop - Alleyne runs in, bowls on a good length at off stump and Pollock leans forward to drive. The ball scorches across the turf. Next ball, Alleyne runs in, bowls short of a length and Pollock leans forward and.... Next ball Alleyne runs in and bowls short and Pollock rocks back and... on and on it goes. Part in shock and part in amazement, Alleyne got into the habit of stopping once or twice on the way back to his mark before turning to stare at his opponent and then shake his head as if in awe of the talent and power that was punishing him.

These matches against the rebel West Indians came in the autumn of a career that began in 1960, when at just 16 years of age he made a hundred for Eastern Province in the highly competitive Currie Cup. Like many of these freak sportsmen Pollock was a boy prodigy but is now a man running out of years. He is 70, so not hopelessly old by any means, and is loved and cared for by a marvellous girl. But life is not what it was. For a time golf was able to cover for, if by no means replace, the thrill of competitive cricket, but even that has become a strain.

Let us dwell on the figures for a moment. Graeme played in 23 Tests and scored 2256 runs at 60.97 per innings. Only Donald Bradman has bettered that. Bradman himself was a fan, so much so that at the Sydney Cricket Ground, when Pollock became the youngest South African to score a Test match hundred - he was still 19 years old and on his first tour - Bradman said to him "Next time you decide to play like that, send me a telegram."

Some of his performances are the stuff of South African folklore. The 125 at Trent Bridge in 1965 was made in two hours and 25 minutes, while only 35 were scored at the other end. A year and a bit later in Cape Town he came in at 12 for 2 and made 209 against Australia despite a thigh injury that restricted him to mainly back-foot play - this from perhaps the finest front-foot driver of the ball that the game has seen.

The most revered innings, however, remains the 274 in Durban in 1969-70, when Australia were beaten in all four Tests. Those who saw that day's play - most of South Africa, you tend to find when you visit! - regard the batting by Pollock and Richards as incomparable, though Mohammad Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar had a crack at it at Newlands in 1997 with a blitzkrieg of their own against Allan Donald and company.

He is a tall man, six feet and two inches at a guess, with immense upper-body strength and surprisingly skinny legs. He was more into boundaries than ones and twos, and famously told a batting partner, Mandy Yachad, who was eagerly pushing the deep-set fieldsmen, to "cut the athletics and concentrate on giving me the strike"! Though his stance was orthodox in the early years, it became wider and wider as time passed, and he found a method of transferring his weight forward and back without ever seeming to play through anything other than the line of the ball.

There are tales of a 60-over Gillette Cup match in which he scored 222. And a marvellous anecdote about Alleyne hitting him on the head in a one-day game in Port Elizabeth and delighting that the devil had to leave the field for stitches. Then Hartley corpses as the story continues with the devil's return to the wicket an hour or so later, after Sylvester Clarke had taken a wicket with the first ball of an over. Wearing a helmet, but without a grill, Pollock smashed all remaining five balls for four or six.

Alleyne loves that story and over a cold Banks beer or a rum and coke back in Barbados he loves to talk "Pollock talk" and laugh about Pollock's absurd level of control and domination. "That man, the man, Pollock man, that man Pollock, he could bat," he says, totally star-struck. And he adds that only "Viv" could intimidate bowlers in such a way. Probably Sir Garfield Sobers too.

Pollock was more into boundaries than ones and twos, and famously told a batting partner, Mandy Yachad, who was eagerly pushing the deep-set fieldsmen, to "cut the athletics and concentrate on giving me the strike"!

Anyway, these memories are relevant when building a picture of the man, for there is another issue that South African cricket might address sooner rather than later. Pollock was one of three truly superb cricketers denied a full Test match career because of the isolation imposed on South Africa during the ghastly years of a government that pursued an apartheid policy. The others are Richards, who played four tests, and the thrilling allrounder Mike Procter, who played seven. There were many other wonderful cricketers during the 1970s and '80s - it truly was a golden age - and they too were denied the fulfilment of their gifts. Talk about being born at the wrong time.

The shame is that these three cricketers, along with every other white player to represent South Africa prior to the ban in 1970, have been discarded by the current administrators. Their memory has been erased from honours boards and photographic displays. The numbers on the caps and shirts worn by the present team begin in 1992, when a fully representative XI first took the field after the ban was lifted. Thus Kepler Wessels is the "first" man to play for South Africa because he captained the side on its return to Test match cricket against West Indies in Barbados in 1992. This is mean-sprited and discriminatory in itself. Pollock once took this up with a senior figure within Cricket South Africa and was told to get lost. What would he have had Pollock do? Turn down the chance to play cricket for his country?

The great history of South African sport is built upon the legacy left by each generation. Pretending something did not happen is fruitless. It happened. There can be no defence for the appalling politics of the time, nor can there be an excuse for the racism that existed in cricket at all levels. Arguing the place of privileged white cricketers when millions of black people were so degraded will touch many nerves and outrage many hearts. But was not Nelson Mandela's greatest wish the wish of forgiveness? "We can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite."

Perhaps now, with Hashim Amla appointed as South Africa's first non-white captain, Cricket South Africa could reconsider their trenchant position. Amla himself, such a sensitive and intelligent man, may in time wish to lead the way. He is in charge of a fine team and players of all backgrounds are a part of that. Clearly Amla is comfortable in his own skin, as the administrators who have worked so hard for modern South Africa should now be. Acknowledging the great sportsmen of the past is the warmest hand of reconciliation they could offer.

That way Pollock, wherever this present journey may take him, will be properly recognised for the life he has given to the game and the talent that once adorned it. The last word comes again from Mr Mandela: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

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