The Polly predicament

For so long a dead cert for the Test side, doubts are beginning to bubble up about Shaun Pollock's future as a Test player. Fanie Heyns assembles a verdict on the delicate matter

Shaun Pollock was in his pomp, he was unhittable on a flat track and unplayable on a juicy one. You had two options against this relentless machine: death by reckless driving or strangulation.
With his unwavering accuracy, Pollock would ask a stream of questions about the technical proficiency of even the best batsmen. Almost inevitably, after seven initial overs of probing, there would be few answers left.

Differently stated, he would leave many luminary batsmen in disarray and doubt - uncertain whether to prod tentatively forward or defend off the back foot. And if the length did not bamboozle them, Pollock would mesmerise them with the movement off the seam, a change of pace or a totally unexpected bouncer.

Yet, during the past 22 months, Pollock has seemingly lost his edge as a bowler. He has taken 42 wickets in his last 15 Tests at an average of 37.16. It is well below his career average of 23.42 in 102 Tests, which has produced 395 wickets. At one stage during the second Test between Sri Lanka and South Africa in Colombo in August, there was the unedifying sight of Pollock trying his hand at offspin. Pollock's lack of pace during that Test was a factor: he managed one wicket for 112 in 35 uneventful overs.

Is this the end, the beginning of the end - or the end of another Pollock beginning, of reinventing himself in a countdown to the home summer Tests against Pakistan and India?

Mickey Arthur, the South African coach, remains convinced about Pollock as an invaluable asset to the Test team. "Shaun did a fantastic job for us in the first innings [of that Colombo Test]. Because of back spasms, he unfortunately could not fulfill that role again in the second innings.

"He is a change bowler now who blocks up an end for us. He creates pressure and does the holding job - that allows Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini to strike for us. Furthermore, he is a genuine allrounder who scores quick runs for South Africa."

Pollock's role in ODIs is clear: as an opening bowler finishing his 10 overs somewhere between the 30th and 40th over, and as a hard-hitting lower-order batsman, he is one of the best players in the world. His 348 wickets (average 24.29) and 2 805 runs at an average of 25.04 would testify to that. No worries when he steps into green `pyjamas'.

It is his day job in white clothing that might prove increasingly burdensome to the selectors. They have the daunting task to balance six specialist batsmen, a wicketkeeper, three strike bowlers and a spinner and keep Pollock on the team sheet.

"It is becoming a challenge. We have to monitor what he brings to the Test team," says Haroon Lorgat, chairman of the national selectors. "In the future, the first prize would be for Shaun to move up the batting order, while fulfilling the role as third or fourth seamer. He will have to lift his game to pick up the No 6 spot. It is a big ask.

"We will have to build the bowling attack around three strike bowlers who are seamers if Shaun is not going to be making a contribution with the bat," adds Lorgat. He says there are no questions asked about the value that Pollock adds to the one-day team.

Arthur Turner, a former chief executive of Free State and Western Province, and a good cricketing judge, raised doubts about Pollock's role in the Test team. "The first change bowler has to be a strike bowler. And Pollock's pace is gone," says Turner bluntly.

The fears expressed by Lorgat and Turner are supported by statistics which, during the past three years, have left a disturbing paper trail. Pollock captured his 300th wicket at Trent Bridge in 2003, after taking his 200th wicket 24 matches earlier by dismissing Chaminda Vaas in Durban in 2000-01. But since 2003, he has played in 29 Tests without progressing to the magical 400-wicket milestone. In 2006, he managed 11 wickets in six Tests at an average of 59.36. He contributed 272 runs in 12 innings, at an average of 34.

S. Rajesh of Cricinfo, in a column after the conclusion of the Test series in Colombo in August, compared Pollock's decline with that of the other great allrounders of the 1980s and 1990s - Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan. Botham was easily the one with the most undistinguished last 15 matches; both his batting and his bowling stats dipped far below their norm. Kapil Dev became a less potent force with the ball towards the end, taking only 30 wickets in his last 15 matches, but he still managed a bowling average of 29.33.

However, the number of overs he bowled per Test came down drastically from 36 in his first 116 matches to just 27 in his last 15. Imran hardly bowled in his sunset days, recalled Rajesh, but became a giant of a batsman, averaging nearly 73. Hadlee's skills with both ball and bat remained virtually untarnished with age. And the greatest of them all, Garfield Sobers, averaged more than 50 with the bat and less than 30 with the ball in his last 15 Tests.

To be fair, though, Pollock, for so long contesting the top bowling spot with Glenn McGrath on the ranking list of the ICC, has had a complex task during his final four years. He had to be the complete fast bowler, and was forced to provide fire-power and stability to a moderate attack with little depth and experience.

Carrying the South African attack for four years in tandem with Ntini has left Pollock with tired legs and an aching body. Few fast bowlers have had such a thankless task for so long. Mickey Arthur disagrees with the notion that Pollock's presence weakens the attack in Tests. He says the South African bowling line-up is still fairly balanced with Steyn, Ntini, Pollock and Kallis hunting as a quartet. "Jacques swung the ball very well against Australia, so he fulfils the role of a strike bowler.

"And Shaun can be a strike [factor] on any wicket that has a bit of juice in it. I am very confident we have the fire-power to discard any questions about the line-up."

Kepler Wessels, a former South African captain, says he would persist with Pollock in both Tests and ODIs for the time being. "The South African attack needs stability because we don't have a spinner of world class. Somebody has to build pressure, and that person is Pollock.

"Also, he could perform a role as No 6. batsman in Tests. His technique is good enough," adds Wessels. Wessels, with his no-nonsense approach to playing or broadcasting, was critical, nevertheless, of Pollock's bowling in the second Test in Colombo. "The fact that he turned to bowling offspin was ridiculous."

Allan Donald, Pollock's former new-ball partner in a lethal combo, says he, too, would be thinking of using Pollock as a genuine allrounder and bat him higher up the order. Intriguingly, he still sees a possible role for the forgotten fast bowler of South African cricket, Mornantau Hayward, in the Test set-up. "Asking an in-form Nantie to bowl as a third strike bowler would alleviate the pressure on Polly."

What about Pollock himself? He says it was extremely difficult to get straight into the Test arena in August after four months without a warm-up game. And spasms haunted him in the second innings. It was difficult, too, he says, to adjust to the new role mentally as first-change bowler with an older ball doing a holding job instead of attacking with the new cherry.

The role as first-change bowler is a fairly new one, with which he was entrusted during the final Test against Australia last summer at the Wanderers. Andre Nel replaced Pollock as new-ball partner for Ntini in that Test - and famously flattered to deceive. "I will take each season as it comes, and re-assess my role at the end of the Cricket World Cup. I am pretty flexible, and will see how the rest of the season unfolds," says Pollock.

Two of South Africa's finest allrounders of any generation, Clive Rice and Brian McMillan, gave their unwavering support to Pollock. They rejected the idea that he should be replaced in the Test team. `Mac' even says Pollock should be reunited with the new ball in Tests. "You need to make batsmen play. We have tried every Tom, Dick and Harry. Pollock can make batsmen play and miss against the new ball better than almost anyone.

"If Steyn does not force the batsmen to play with the new ball, he should be given the older cherry. He acquitted himself quite well in that role in Sri Lanka."

Rice says he would want both Kallis and Pollock to fulfil an even bigger role as allrounders in Tests. He wants Pollock to bat higher up, preferably at five or six so that the Proteas can get more out of him. And Kallis should be encouraged to bowl more overs per day in Tests. He has heard the "crap" about Pollock not being fast enough for five years; he takes the pressure off the other bowlers and builds pressure from one side.

"Pollock fulfills exactly the same role in Tests as Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and Courtney Walsh did. When I played with Hadlee [for Nottinghamshire] I bowled all Richard's bouncers. And when Brian Statham and Fred Trueman played for England, Statham tied up one end. That gave Trueman the freedom to attack from the other side. Shaun can bowl with anybody. He is accurate and, with that discipline, it gives the other bowlers the freedom to attack. Thank goodness we have him in the side.

"I would pencil Jacques' and Shaun's names onto the team sheet first. Then I will select the rest of the Test team," added Rice.

Daryll Cullinan, one of South Africa's finest top-order batsmen, post-isolation, sees a genuine allrounder role for Pollock in Tests. There is still plenty of scope for his cricketing skill, Cullinan says. The only concerns should be if Pollock can realistically bowl 20 overs per day, and whether he still has the hunger to play Test cricket.

"He needs to tighten up his game as a Test batsman, though. He has been an underperformer and should shoulder more responsibility and achieve more than his statistics have revealed," says Cullinan.

With 376 wickets in 45 Tests in tandem at an average of 23.15, Pollock and Donald are South Africa's best-ever combination statistically, and one of the four best new-ball pairs of all times. As new-ball partners, their names can be mentioned in the same breath as those of Neil Adcock and Peter Heine, or Peter Pollock and Mike Procter.

Pat Symcox, former South African offspinner and commentator, says he has witnessed an alarming drop in the quality of South African Test performances over the past 12 months. The team spilled a number of catches, while there was no consistency in the specialist batting performances.

To remove Pollock's rich experience from such an unsettled team would be tantamount to committing hara kiri; you would be courting disaster, warns Symcox. The majority sentiment, then, seems to be that dropping Pollock from a South team would be as unimaginable as discarding Os du Randt or the ANC jettisoning Nelson Mandela.

This article appears in the October 2006 edition of The Wisden Cricketer (South Africa)