South Africa's invincibles

The last time South Africa beat Australia at home was nearly 44 years ago. Four protagonists from the series remember those heady days

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Mike Procter bowling in the third Test, South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Johannesburg, February 22, 1970

Mike Procter bowls in the series-deciding Test in Johannesburg  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Ali Bacher's first taste of Test cricket at home was against Australia in the summer of 1966. At that stage, he knew only victory. He had been part of the South African outfit that had beaten England in England for the first time in 30 years, in 1965, and sensed victory almost from the moment the Australians landed in his country. Wisden described Bobby Simpson's side as carrying a "six or seven-man tail", and having an attack that was "the weakest ever to represent Australia in South Africa".
Success came by a margin of 3-1 and earned Bacher a pay cheque he will never forget. "The whole team was given bonuses when we won. We all got R75," Bacher said. "I remember it because I was recently married and my wife and I were renting a flat in Killarney [a Johannesburg suburb]. Our monthly rent was R75. We were so excited when we found out we could cover a whole month's rent just because of cricket."
Bacher's last taste of Test cricket also came at home against Australia. It was the summer of '69. Neither he nor any of his team-mates had played any international cricket in the three years since Australia had last toured South Africa, so he still only knew what it was like to win, not lose.
And it was all that Bacher would experience at the highest level. He captained the side he calls "the best I ever played in" to a 4-0 whitewash and today jokes that all he had to do was "turn up and win the toss".
Only two times have South Africa got the better of Australia in a series at home. Since South Africa's readmission, Australia have played six series in the country, and won four. The 1969-70 tour became the stuff of legend. It showed off a South African side that Bacher said was "extraordinary in that we had so many allrounders" and revealed their dominance over a team Mike Procter called "unofficial world champions". It also marked their disappearance from the international stage for two decades.
All that history meant that though it was one-sided, the series remains one of South Africa's most cherished contests.
The build-up lasted years. With such a long gap between Test series, Procter remembered being "very excited" when he was told Australia would be touring. "There was so little Test cricket at the time that we just couldn't wait to play, especially against a team who were so highly rated. They had the world's best batsman in Ian Chappell and best bowler in Graham McKenzie."
In the preceding years, Australia had beaten almost every opposition that came their way. In 20 series between October 1956 and December 1969, they had been defeated only twice. Not only did they have form on their side, they also had recent match time. Just a month before they were due in South Africa, they completed a five-Test tour of India, which they won 3-1.
The South Africans had only played domestic cricket, so they stepped up their preparation. "We trained a bit harder," Procter said. Peter van der Merwe, the former captain, writing in the official tour brochure noted: "People who saw the Springboks prepare... were highly impressed by the business-like air in their camp."
Australia's performance in India was not a cause for worry. "In those days, a tour of India was tough," said Bacher. "Now it's magnificent, but then it was a challenge, and from that, they came straight here. We were quietly confident - not arrogant - that we would beat them."
The most obvious casualty of Australia's tour of the subcontinent was McKenzie. After finishing the 1966-67 series as Australia's leading wicket-taker, and having been their most successful seamer in India, much was expected of him. "[But] he picked up a virus or something like that in India and didn't fire as he could," said Graeme Pollock. McKenzie only took one wicket and a lucky one at that - Bacher stood on his stumps in South Africa's final innings of the series - so Australia had to rely on others to do the damage.
"Barry told us that if Gleeson had a lot of fingers over the ball, it was the legbreak and if you only saw thumb and index finger, it was the offbreak. That just showed the genius of Barry"
Ali Bacher
They had a trump card in John Gleeson, the legspinner who could also bowl a deceptive offbreak. "We'd heard that he was a flick bowler, like Jack Iverson, and he was a bit of mystery bowler," Bacher said. "Australia were clever with him because in the matches against the provinces whenever one of our Test players came in to bat, they took him off, so none of us could see him."
Bacher was the first to front up to Gleeson, on day one of the series, in Cape Town, and he immediately saw why Australia were saving him. "He was bowling from the Wynberg End, and his ball to me, I thought, was an offie but it was a leggie. This kept happening and he was making me look like a clown. Eventually I decided to just put my foot down the wicket and hoist him over midwicket and it paid off. I got to 57 not knowing what he was bowling."
The only South African who had the measure of Gleeson after that first sighting was Barry Richards. Although he did not face him much, Richards figured him out, which Bacher regarded as South Africa's own ace. "That night at the team meeting, Barry told us that if Gleeson had a lot of fingers over the ball, it was the legbreak and if you only saw thumb and index finger, it was the offbreak. That just showed the genius of Barry."
Despite Gleeson's four-for in the second innings, South Africa set Australia a massive target of 451 and won handsomely, by 170 runs. Richards made only 29 and 32.
That changed in the second Test, in Durban, a match where, Procter said, the crowds queued overnight "like at Wimbledon" to get in. Richards brought up his maiden Test century, scoring at a strike rate of over 85, and partnered Pollock in a stand Bacher describes as "batting you will never see the likes of again". "It was like Barry and Graeme were trying to outdo each other."
Richards only remembers being in the zone. "It was one of those days when you were just playing well. I always felt we should be attacking upfront and that's what I did."
He was dismissed for 140 but Pollock batted on. And on. And on. He set a new South African record for the highest individual score, 274.
"Barry set the tone and I think we put on 100 runs in the hour after lunch. It was one of those situations where things were going nicely," Pollock said. "My dad died two weeks prior to the Test series and he had always said to me, 'If you want to be seen as a top-class player you've got to get big scores. You've got to keep going. Don't give it away. Don't just get 100, 150 or even 200. Keep going.' So I did."
As the runs mounted, Richards and Pollock asked Bacher if he was considering declaring, but he refused. "I just thought of how in the past South African teams always got clobbered by Australia and I saw an opportunity to pay them back in some way," he said.
On 622 for 9, Bacher finally decided it was enough and his bowlers proved him right by securing an innings win.
Among Australia's failings on the tour, perhaps the most notable was Ian Chappell's. He had arrived in South Africa with a big reputation but managed only 27 runs in the first two Tests, with two ducks.
"During the first press conference, Bill Lawry said Chappell was the best batsman in the world but it didn't happen for him out here," Bacher said. "Even though he battled, West Indian bowlers who I came across later told me they rated him very highly and would rather bowl to his brother Greg than Ian."
Chappell's luck improved only marginally in Johannesburg, where he made 34 and 0. South Africa won by 307 runs to seal the series. It was there that they saw Australia deflate. "They arrived with high hopes but lost momentum and became dispirited," Richards said.
South Africa went for the kill. In Port Elizabeth they struck the final blow, with Procter claiming career-best figures of 6 for 73.
"I had a bit of flu that day and Peter Pollock had done his hamstring, but I was hungry as hell to do well," he said. "Like everyone in the team, I wanted to win bigger and win more. Everyone was just at the top of the game." Afterwards Procter did not have much strength left for the celebration but remembers the party being huge. "You cannot believe what a big deal it was," he said. And the payment? "I think we got bonuses of R150."
Back then money wasn't a motivating factor to play cricket, and most of the players had other jobs. Winning was the only thing that mattered, which is why everyone, including Bacher, felt that had there been a fifth Test, they would have won that too. But none of them got to play another Test for South Africa after that, and all have some regret.
Bacher wonders how South Africa would have done if they had toured Australia in 1971-72 and how they would have fared against Dennis Lillee. Procter and Richards knew that tour was never going to take place. In England, the winter after South Africa blanked Australia, they could see South Africa would be isolated. They were the only two who made a living from cricket thereafter.
Pollock could have done the same but he turned down county offers. "I was married with kids and I had a pretty good job," he said. "And I suppose I was expecting we would get back onto the international scene sooner. I don't think anybody foresaw isolation would be for 22 years." Instead, he played the rebel tours, and Bacher got on with his career as a doctor.
They all look back at the summer of '69 as the highlight of their careers. "There was such a great spirit," Pollock said. "We all got on so well," Procter said. "It was the best side I played in," Richards said. "We were formidable," Bacher said.
All four believe the current South African team have many of the same qualities and expect them to be the first since readmission to beat Australia at home. "Both teams have two outstanding attacks and I think the series will be decided on how the Australian batsmen deal with South Africa's bowers," Bacher said. "I'm not convinced about the Australian top order."
Neither is Procter, who said that although the Australian turnaround has been fantastic, he can't see them overcoming the South African attack. Richards believes even though Jacques Kallis' retirement "takes some of the edge off and that there are a few selection issues, barring any injuries, South Africa can win".
Whatever happens, Pollock predicts, "one hell of a series".

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent