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I first saw Michael Procter on the Imperial Ground, Bristol, in 1965. He was not playing, just watching - not even watching Gloucestershire. Somerset used to have an occasional home match at the Imperial Ground, which is in the Somerset part of Bristol (or was until the county of Avon was invented). Sitting next to him was another young South African, Barry Richards. They had come over for a season's trial with Gloucestershire Second XI, and had taken the opportunity to watch what was left of a first-class game. It was not a very good one - Somerset beat Middlesex easily - but they saw Brearley bowl.
When I say that season was a trial, it was less the young men than the county system which was on trial: not a question of whether they were good enough, but whether they wanted to play it. The Gloucestershire Second XI averages that season were headed by Procter (for batting) and Richards (for bowling). They did not seem to like the prospect very much, but they returned to England in 1968, after the qualification rules had been changed. Procter came back to Gloucestershire, and Richards went to Hampshire. In the meantime, the future of South African Test cricket had become increasingly doubtful.
Before the 1968 season began, I had my first news of Procter as a player, from David Green who had also just joined Gloucestershire, from Lancashire, and had batted against him in the nets and trials. "This man is extraordinary," David said. "He bowls at a hundred miles an hour from extra cover off the wrong foot." The two men were to become fast friends, though this did not prevent Procter giving him a fearful bouncer when they were playing against each other in Rhodesia. David went for the hook, missed, caught it with his head, and was laid out. Procter unperturbedly began his long walk back, throwing scarcely a glance over his shoulder, until about halfway through it came the casual query, You all right, Greeny?
As to bowling off the wrong foot, that is a matter difficult to define, but Procter's action, with its long run and the last-moment whip-through of the arm, was certainly an unusually testing one. It says much for his strength and stamina that he was able to keep it up for so long. He suffered strains and injuries but, looking back on his career, not much more than most really fast bowlers suffer. When he could not bowl fast, he took wickets with off-spin, which he learnt to bowl with increasing skill and enjoyment. And there was always his batting.
His batting was underestimated, at least in England. His bowling took the eye. However, it was Gloucestershire that made him more of a bowler than a batsman, because they needed, at that time, his wickets more than his runs. When Hammond came into the Gloucestershire side, nearly half a century before, Parker and Goddard were there to take the wickets and his bowling was supplementary. Otherwise, Hammond might have been remembered as much as a bowler as a batsman. Procter's batting method was not unlike Hammond's. It was classical, included a majestic cover drive, and was correct even when he was attacking, as he usually was. He could give even to 40-over bashes a touch of dignity and beauty. So could Barry Richards. There were times when I thought Procter, technically, the equal of Richards. I suppose he was not, quite: but then Richards bowled comparatively little and, I think it fair to say, had not the same constant day-to-day zeal for the job of digging his side out of trouble.
Indeed, of all the overseas cricketers who have decorated our domestic game, I know of none who has identified himself with his adopted county more whole-heartedly than Procter. In Gloucestershire he is regarded as a native. He is Our Mike, as Goddard used to be Our Tom and Hammond Our Walter. At first he was a little shy and withdrawn, but he was naturally a friendly man, and soon responded to the friendliness about him. One of the major disappointments of his career was when he just failed to take Gloucestershire to what would have been their only Championship this century. They had to win their last match, against Hampshire at Bristol, and looked very much like winners at lunchtime on the third day. But on the last afternoon they were frustrated by Greenidge and Turner, after both had given fairly easy chances. The Bristol Evening Post published a picture of Procter, coming off the field at the end carrying his youngest child, with the caption Left Holding the Baby? It was an engaging habit of the Procter children to rush on to the field when they felt like a word with Daddy. He had the consolation of winning the Benson and Hedges that year. In the semi-final at Southampton he took four wickets in five balls at a crucial time - Greenidge, Richards, Jesty and Rice - and afterwards said that he did not think he had ever bowled faster in his life.
He was, of course, sad that he was unable to play more Test cricket. When he first came over here, his attitude to coloured people was, to say the least, reserved. His views changed. Though not an effusive man, he struck up happy relationships with many of the coloured players he met. I have heard him, more than once, say how much he enjoyed the 1970 series, England v the Rest of the World (which has been so ridiculously deprived of Test status) when he played under the captaincy of Sobers. One of the side-benefits of that rubber was that leading cricketers of various races grew to know and appreciate one another better. He has since been influential in the increasingly successful efforts to integrate South African cricket.
In 1980 he became qualified for England, as the rules stood. I thought he should have been picked. The rules may be silly, but so long as they are there you should play within them. There was no doubt that he was still good enough. Indeed, with Botham in trouble, and Brearley's return unforeseen, he looked by far the best choice for captain. Not that it was ever likely to happen. I suppose he took up his English citizenship only because it gave Gloucestershire a chance to sign another overseas player. But if Roland Butcher could play for England, as he did, and as Allan Lamb presumably will, there was no logic in not choosing Procter. He would have liked to play. He had more of an affinity with English cricket than Tony Greig ever had.
When the Packer business arrived, it seemed possible that Procter's days with Gloucestershire were over. What we feared might be a farewell lunch for him was held in Bristol. Graham Russell took the chair, and the Duke of Beaufort came to pay his respects. It was an occasion of sadness, yet of deep warmth. There was no mistaking how the county had taken him to its heart. As it turned out, we were to see him again for a few seasons, and had hoped for one or two more yet, but in 1981 a prolonged leg injury decided him to call it a day. He did not rule out further cricket, in South Africa or, entirely, with Gloucestershire. He must have been pleased with the progress of several young men such as Childs and Bainbridge, who have developed under his captaincy.
Where does he stand among the all-rounders of cricket? I suppose Sobers must come before him, because Sobers was three different sorts of bowler, Procter only two. Sobers also had far more opportunities of demonstrating his skills at the highest level. Rhodes has a mighty pile of figures, in a very long career, but his best years as a batsman did not coincide with his best as a bowler. Sobers and Procter had to do both at the same time. Their careers were more concentrated. George Hirst, in 1906, scored 2,385 runs and took 208 wickets, something nobody had done before; and never will again while anything like the present system lasts. There can scarcely have been, ever, a better simultaneous all-rounder than Hirst was in 1906. I doubt if Sobers could have done it, even had he grown up to that sort of grind. He would have become bored. But Procter might have done. He had the strength and spirit for it.
Another great all-rounder, it is sometimes forgotten, was Grace. He towered above all other batsmen, in his prime, and by the time he had finished (giving himself, it must be admitted, lavish helpings of the bowling when he thought it appropriate) had taken more than 2,000 wickets. At the Bristol ground you enter the Grace Gates. You can visit the Hammond Suite, and stroll across to the Jessop Tavern. Within this century, I prophesy, you will be able to sit in the Procter Stand.
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