March 2006

All the time in the world

Graeme Pollock's ease with his batting and family life was cherished by Simon Kuper

Graeme Pollock's ease with his batting and family life was cherished by Simon Kuper

'People put down their newspapers when he is batting' © The Cricketer
When I close my eyes and think back to the Wanderers, Transvaal are batting and I am queuing for an ice cream behind the stand. The man in front of me, a little bearded white guy, is throwing a temper tantrum at the black ice-cream seller, whom he accuses of being slow. "You're so stupid," the bearded man shouts, with dirty words thrown in. "You should not have this job. Quickly give me change." He enunciates every syllable, the way some white South Africans do. Even as a 10-year-old I can see he is expressing frustrations that come from somewhere else. The black man is silently getting the ice-cream and the change because he is not allowed to say anything back. As a child I am not either. Today I wonder where those two men are now.

In those days - the late 1970s and early 1980s - we used to stay with my grandparents in northern Johannesburg during the Christmas holidays. We were refugees from frozen Europe. At home in Holland the week before I would have cycled through the darkness into the west wind to school. In Johannesburg I would toddle off in mid-morning with my green scorebook for a day at the Wanderers. It was only 15 minutes' walk around the corner and I often went by myself.

Inside the ground everyone is white except for one small stand full of blacks. It is the holidays and the crowd is happy. When a pretty girl walks down our terrace towards the exit, the stand accompanies her with a concert of wolf-whistles. The Transvaal has some of the world's best players, men like Clive Rice, Jimmy Cook and, of course, Graeme Pollock. Life is good in South Africa. Pollock is at the crease. People put down their newspapers when he is batting. He is already a legend, his future behind him: he played his last Test match for South Africa as a 26-year-old in 1970, after which the country was banned from international cricket because of apartheid. His Test average of 60.97 is the highest in history after Don Bradman's. Though the man I am watching still hopes to play Test cricket again, he never will. We at the Wanderers are among the select few who will ever see him bat.

Most white South Africans I meet consider this an outrage. Among them cricket is a daily topic of conversation, not the private perversion I feel it is in England and Holland. Even my aunts offer regular updates on the score at the Wanderers. The wicket is baked and fast. The bowler - perhaps it is Robin Jackman of Rhodesia - drops the ball just short. When Pollock is batting, you get a wonderful sense of where the ball is landing, because he is already in position waiting for it. Watching him taught me that the difference between the great athletes and the rest of us is the time they have. This is true of Wayne Rooney in football or Jason Kidd in basketball: they see everything early. The only batsman I ever saw who picked up the ball as quickly as Pollock was David Gower. I remember Gower once shaping to play a backward defensive against Malcolm Marshall, and then, hearing the cry of no-ball, trying to hook him.

But Pollock's technique is better than Gower's. When the South African cover drives he does not fl ap at the ball while falling away. He stands up almost to his full regal height, lifts his bat straight back and thumps the short ball through the covers. The only batsman I have seen hit the ball as hard at the Wanderers is tiny Alvin Kallicharran, opening for Orange Free State, who proves that it is all about timing.

Pollock could thump the ball through the covers all day. Sometimes he does. It is not just that he is a genius. Unlike the sportsmen I revere in Europe, he is also an ordinary bloke. As far as I can understand, he has a regular offi ce job in Johannesburg. Cricket is his hobby. It is the same for most of his team-mates: they are part of normal white daily life. Cook is my second cousin's schoolteacher. Ali Bacher is the husband of one of my distant cousins. Xenophon Balaskas, a Springbok of the 1930s and possibly the best Greek cricketer ever, is a pal of my grandfather who gives me some nets at his house. Pollock's old team-mate Barry Richards shows up as coach of one of our local cricket clubs in Holland. He umpires a kids' match in which I take two slip catches and score seven runs, my team's highest score. Richards says something nice about me. My father invites him round to dinner as a fellow South African. Richards comes round that same evening but by then I have caught chickenpox and cannot go downstairs.

Unlike Richards, Pollock never turns pro in England. He, therefore, never falls out of love with cricket. He seems content to play out a largely unwitnessed career. He does not say much about apartheid but, according to my more liberal relatives, he is known to disapprove of it. Recently he told this magazine: "We could have made a bigger noise about apartheid at the time - I think that's a genuine criticism. In hindsight perhaps we should have done more."

There was a simplicity to the man: to his haircuts, to his batting and to the things he thought and said. It was appropriate that he and his brother Peter and his nephew Shaun and his sons Anthony and Andrew, who both played for a while, had such ordinary names. The Pollocks were not stars. They just happened to be excellent cricketers and one of them was rather more than that.

Simon Kuper is the author of Football Against the Enemy. He grew up mostly in the Netherlands but his family origins are in South Africa

This article was first published in the March issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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