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Come to Think of it

Was Shaun Pollock as good as Imran Khan?

It might sound preposterous, but we should be rating the South African allrounder a lot higher than we do

Saurabh Somani
Shaun Pollock the allrounder has always lived in the shadow of Jacques Kallis  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Shaun Pollock the allrounder has always lived in the shadow of Jacques Kallis  •  PA Images via Getty Images

In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week, we ask why one of the premier allrounders of all time hardly gets his due.
When cricket's greatest allrounders are discussed, some names are always part of the conversation. Garry Sobers, Jacques Kallis, Imran Khan and Keith Miller have the standout numbers. Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev always find a mention, courtesy their membership of the fabled '80s quartet.
Shaun Pollock doesn't often feature. By any reasonable measure, though, he shouldn't just be part of the discussion but counted among the elite.
Take the difference between batting and bowling averages. Among allrounders who have played at least 50 Tests and taken at least 100 wickets, Pollock is in the top five. He's second only to Khan among those who have done the double of 3000 runs and 300 wickets.
"Second only to Imran" could well be the title of the Pollock biopic. And even that might be underselling his case, because, leaving the intangibles of captaincy aside, Pollock is more Khan's equal than in second place to him.
Before you shut this page in disgust, hear this out.
Both were bowling allrounders, in the sense that while they were capable batsmen, they didn't usually bat in the top order. Khan took 362 wickets in 88 Tests at an average of 22.81. Pollock finished with 421 wickets in 108 Tests at 23.11. Park those numbers in your head, because we'll come back to them.
With the bat, Khan made 3807 runs at 37.69, while Pollock made 3781 at 32.31. Pollock comes off slightly worse on the surface, but only on the surface. Khan batted 28 times in the top six in Test cricket - while playing as a specialist batsman in a number of these games - and Pollock only five times. Pollock batted at No. 9 on 20 occasions, and Khan on just four. Khan's most frequent batting spot was No. 7 (63 innings) while Pollock's was No. 8 (79 innings).
In innings where they batted at No. 7 or lower, Khan averaged 32.33 and Pollock 32.59.
Their final batting numbers, therefore, reflect the kind of batsmen they had to be. In a South Africa team filled with allrounders, Pollock spent nearly two-thirds of his career at Nos. 8 and 9. He's the only batsman to score more than one century from No. 9 (and that doesn't include his unbeaten 113 against India in the Centurion Test of 2001, which was deemed unofficial in the fallout from the Mike Denness affair). At No. 9, Pollock averaged an absurd 41.07. Only one other No. 9 (with at least 500 runs in that position) has averaged above 30.
Pollock's batting calibre clearly belonged higher in the order, and in any other team, he would have been a locked-in No. 7 who occasionally batted one or two spots higher. For South Africa, he batted behind not just Kallis (who was an entirely different sort of allrounder in the top order) but also Brian McMillan, Lance Klusener and/or Nicky Boje among a host of others.
There's further evidence of how close Pollock was to Khan as a batsman when you look at the numbers for allrounders coming in to bat at No. 7 or lower with their team's score not yet 200, signifying either a top-order collapse or favourable bowling conditions or both.
Against most teams, once you have taken six or seven wickets, you have one eye on the change of innings. Against South Africa in Pollock's time, you simply couldn't do that. Take his first Test century, for example. He entered with South Africa 204 for 7 against Sri Lanka on a first-day Centurion pitch. By the time he was out for 111 off 106 balls, they were 359 for 9 - enough, as it turned out, for an innings win, and don't discount the dispiriting effect of that swift and seamless counterattack on Sri Lanka.
Watch it here. The feet move decisively while he drives, bat close to pad, left elbow high. He's at ease rocking back to pull or cut. If you blanked out the score and the face under the helmet, you'd think this was a No. 4 batting, not a No. 9. And he did this sort of thing throughout his career. In Durban against India in the Boxing Day Test of 2006, South Africa, trailing 1-0, had slipped from 99 for no loss to 143 for 6, and their lead was a could-go-either-way 231. The door to a series win was open, and India were poised to barge in, but Pollock slammed it shut, steering South Africa to a declaration with a lead of 353.
What about the bowling, though? Sure, the numbers are great, but how was Pollock anywhere near the equal of Khan? Wasn't he just this gangly, medium-fast, line-and-length guy - yup, this guy - who did the holding job for Allan Donald and Co?
That perception partly stems from Pollock's career trajectory. He arrived on the scene as a bustling quick with a mean bouncer to go with his accuracy and seam movement. A search for "Shaun Pollock" on photo agency websites for pictures to accompany this article threw up a vast number of images with Pollock not even in the frame, instead featuring various batsmen awkwardly contorted by that bouncer. He lost some of that pace as he went on. Exactly like Glenn McGrath. But no one shrugs away McGrath's numbers because he wasn't as fast as Brett Lee.
Maybe it's to do with their personalities. McGrath was the archetypal snarling fast bowler. Pollock seemed an all-round nice guy who might have used "snarl" only in games of Scrabble. But as bowlers, they were very similar. Comparing the two in his autobiography Opening up, Mike Atherton wrote: "Shaun Pollock was virtually a carbon copy - quickish, close to the stumps, plenty of bounce and just doing a little with the ball either way."
Just how good Pollock was when he began is sometimes not fully appreciated. His start was unlike anything the cricket world had seen. He is the only bowler in history to average below 20 after playing 50 Tests.
The years went by and the pace came down, but the effectiveness didn't. Look at that career record again: 421 wickets in 108 Tests at 23.11. That average puts him among the cream of the world's bowlers during the span of his career: better than Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. And none of his fellow bowling chart-toppers could aspire to his batting chops.
Pollock also remains one of only three bowlers in Test history to average less than 30 on five continents. The other two - with a minimum of 20 wickets in each continent - are Donald and McGrath.
The only blot, perhaps, is his record against Australia, the best team in the world by a distance during his career. But he was hardly alone - only Makhaya Ntini among South Africa's specialist bowlers in that period averaged under 30 against Australia. And even against them, Pollock had his moments. His Test best, in fact, came in Adelaide in 1998, and all the qualities that made him such a difficult bowler to face were on display: seam movement, awkward bounce off a length, the bouncer that seemed to follow the batsman even as he tried to get out of the way.
It's just Pollock's luck to have played for South Africa when they were blessed with outrageous bowling riches. From Donald, the baton of premier fast-bowling great went to Dale Steyn, just when Pollock's career was winding down. Add to that Pollock being an allrounder in a team full of allrounders, including another all-time great in Kallis.
But don't let that blind you to the fact that Pollock was one of cricket's top-rung performers right through his career. He's a perceptive commentator now, more insightful than most of his tribe. He's generous, as he showed in bringing a bottle of champagne to gift to Dale Steyn in anticipation of passing on South Africa's Test wickets record to him, repeating the act twice more due to Steyn breaking down injured in Perth in 2016 and Cape Town in 2018.
AB de Villiers recalled that warmth in his autobiography: "He's talented, competitive and smart, and has the ability to extract movement out of any pitch. Above all, he's got a great heart. On the night before my first Test, I found a handwritten message of encouragement pushed under the door of my hotel room. It was written by Shaun Pollock, and I still have it today."
What we should all still have today is a deep appreciation of Shaun Pollock the cricketer, one of the game's finest.
With stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo