So long, and thanks for the memories: Andre Nel and Graeme Smith chair off Pollock after his last Test © Cricinfo Ltd
 

"There's no way we're settling for that," Shaun Pollock growled at the umpire. "We didn't come here for a draw - I want this thing settled, I want a play-off. Nobody's going to bed yet."

The venue was the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar on the 1998 tour of Pakistan and the competition involved putting golf balls into strategically placed glasses along the corridor. The umpire was coach Bob Woolmer and Pollock, as competitive as ever, was disputing his call of "tie" when Dave Richardson holed a tricky left-to-right eight-footer through bright yellow, damp stain where a room-service waiter had recently dropped a bowl of korma.

"Fine then, you win," said veteran wicket keeper Richardson. "I'm going to bed."

"No you're not, Grandpa," Pollock said. "We're going to have a play-off. I want to win fair and square..."

If it was worth playing, it was worth playing to win for Shaun Pollock. And if it wasn't worth playing to win, it wasn't worth playing. From table tennis (at which he excelled) to tennis, bowls and Trivial Pursuits - at which he also excelled, being one of the very few members of the squad with tertiary education once Richardson retired.

But what made him different to other sportsmen with an ultra-competitive streak was that he was gracious in victory and, after a few minutes to recover, equally gracious in defeat.

He made the play-off putt.

Woolmer rued his enjoyment of puddings and ice-creams, especially the fact that his sweet tooth demanded more the higher the tension became in the dressing room. He would sometimes help himself to a second bowl of chocolate pudding and then mutter something about not doing it again.

Pollock loved and admired Woolmer, but was equally merciless with his comments about diet and weight control. The situation presented a perfect opportunity to combine two of his favourite pastimes - practical jokes and practical help. Having safely confirmed that all the squad were finished with the ice-cream and pudding, Pollock would pour a cellar of salt over it and then quietly tell the dressing room attendant not to clear the leftovers away. Eventually Woolmer could resist the temptation no longer and Pollock was on hand to cherish the grimace on his coach's face and to tell him that bad habits always end with a sour taste.

When Woolmer died during the World Cup [coaching Pakistan then], Pollock knew he would be asked to comment. Too emotional to do so live or in person, he wrote a statement by hand and asked team manager Goolam Raja to distribute it to whoever asked. He was devastated, yet was the first - along with fielding coach and fellow Woolmer friend Jonty Rhodes - to urge the rest of the players to increase their efforts on the field for the sake of the former coach rather than be deflated by his tragic death.

Pollock's easygoing nature helped him deal coolly with a sticky situation on a flight a few months ago, when he was squeezed snugly into the middle seat with his wife, Trish, to his left, and a fellow traveller to his right. The three of them became engaged in conversation, and at one point Trish waved an arm across her husband to illustrate a point. All well and good. Except that Pollock sat with two opened cans of soft drink in front of him as she did so. A long moment passed as the three of them thought about Pollock's suddenly - not to mention strategically - soaked trousers, and what to do about them.

Between whispered apologies, Trish fussed with paper towels. But as she was in a public place with a public figure, there wasn't much she could do without adding to the spectacle. "Don't worry," Pollock said quietly after several damp seconds. "It's fine." The conversation promptly resumed, with Pollock happy to sit on the wet spot.



Pollock loved and admired Woolmer, but was equally merciless with his comments about diet and weight control © AFP
 

Few South Africans and Australians will forget Pollock's heroic performance in the Adelaide Test in 1998. Having assumed the spearhead mantle that had fallen from the shoulders of the injured Allan Donald, the then callow red-headed fast bowler sent down 41 overs in the first innings and took 7 for 87.

The travelling South African media had organised a braai (barbecue) for that evening, and the players had been invited. A fair sprinkling showed up, among them youngsters such as Makhaya Ntini and Adam Bacher, as well as older hands including Daryll Cullinan and Gary Kirsten. No-one expected Pollock to arrive, not after his gruelling day. But he duly did and behaved not like the flavour of the moment that he was, but like the proper human being he always will be.

Let's not mistake Pollock for some sort of fop who happened to be blessed with a load of blue-chip cricket genes. There's real inner strength under all those freckles.

There was no doubt about that in the fraught days that followed South Africa's dreary first-round exit from the 2003 World Cup, when they fritted away a winning position against Sri Lanka and tied the match in the rain at Kingsmead. The then United Cricket Board demanded Pollock's resignation. He refused, and quite rightly: why should he have to carry the can for a dressing-room full of people who failed to read a Duckworth-Lewis sheet properly?

"You'll have to fire me," Pollock said. He was duly axed, and he held a press conference where he calmly sat making notes while the media bustled around him until they were ready to ask their questions. He answered them all clearly, and managed to let slip the still unconfirmed news that Graeme Smith would be his successor.

Neil Manthorp and Telford Vice are writers with the MWP media agency in South Africa