When Lee was invincible

Former South Africa batsman Lee Irvine remembers his Essex days, batting against John Gleeson, drinking with Arlott, and watching a football game with Kanhai

Luke Alfred
Lee Irvine (back row, first from left) with the 1969 Essex squad. His room-mate Robin Hobbs is sitting in the front row, first from right  •  PA Photos

Lee Irvine (back row, first from left) with the 1969 Essex squad. His room-mate Robin Hobbs is sitting in the front row, first from right  •  PA Photos

A neat undercard act rather than the main bout, Lee Irvine had the misfortune to have played in the 1960s, South Africa's golden age. Despite having a knot of heavy hitters ahead of him - Mike Procter, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, and the Pollocks - Irvine looks back on his career with breezy pride. Look carefully when he tells his stories and you can see the past dance in his lively eyes. Here is a man with no obvious regrets.
Irvine remains in regular contact with his former Essex room-mate, the legspinner Robin Hobbs, and counts Mark Nicholas as a good friend. As a designated driver in his second season at Essex, he ferried Keith Boyce back to his digs in Leytonstone in his Lotus Cortina (colour: indeterminate), and spent long hours as a schoolboy practising with the peerless Barry Richards. He has a story or two about them all.
"Don't ask me how but I once ended up watching Spurs at White Hart Lane with Rohan Kanhai," says Irvine with a wry smile.
"My second game for the county was against Glamorgan at Pontypridd. The bar was closed because of a fight between some locals. I remember John Arlott inviting me up to his room for a drink. He opened a case which contained sherry and port. 'Take your pick,' he said, and we started talking."
Irvine's Essex days were glorious, spoiled only by the fact that Essex played their home games in those days on a variety of local "shit heaps" like Southend-on-Sea and Colchester. Their secretary worked out of a Rothmans-branded caravan that he hauled across the length and breadth of the land. The Essex scoreboard was mounted on the back of a truck. The club had 12 contracted players and Irvine earned £1500 (plus little incentives and money for winning a national sixes competition) for four and a bit months of work.
In 1968 it rained on every day of the season bar three.
"We were the poorest county in the country," he says. "I lived with a couple called Gladys and Ron Mouldey in Chingford. Their daughter had left home to get married and they had a spare room. I paid one pound a day and I got food and laundry and I only paid when I was there. I used to write to them and send them Christmas cards."
Irvine wanted desperately to tour England with South Africa in 1971, he says, because it would have given him the opportunity of playing on really good pitches. It would also, he adds, have allowed him to cement his reputation in the collective cricketing mind. Alas, it was not to be. His Springbok blazer was ready at Markhams, the outfitters, and his kit was ready and marked. Only days before the scheduled departure date, the tour was called off.
Such was the bottleneck of talent up ahead of him that it took Irvine most of the 1960s to knock on the door of national selection.
In 1969 he followed work from Durban up to Johannesburg in Transvaal as it was known then. Having played good cricket for seasons at Berea Rovers, he knew the importance of selecting a competitive club side and duly joined Ali Bacher at Balfour Park, rivals to two teams from Wanderers, Old Edwardians and Old Johannians, in the tough local league.
"Solly Katz emigrated to Israel, so there was a vacancy at Balfour for a wicketkeeper," says Irvine. "Ali said: 'Sure, let's take a look.' I took the gloves and we played for about five weeks before selection for Transvaal's first Currie Cup game. Ali had a voice in selection - he didn't have a vote - and when the first Transvaal side of the season was chosen, they opted for me rather than a guy called Elton Chatterton, a neat keeper but probably not as good a batsman as I was.
"We played against Eastern Province in November 1969 and I batted at six, coming in at 119 for 4. I made 138 not out, took six catches in their first innings and made 46 in the second dig. Transvaal shared that season's Currie Cup with Western Province."
A couple of months later Bill Lawry's Australians arrived.
The South Africans were particularly worried about two of their number: fast bowler Garth McKenzie and mystery spinner John Gleeson.
"We were determined to keep McKenzie out and we were pretty good at that because he ended up being dropped for the third Test," says Irvine.
"I lived with a couple called Gladys and Ron Mouldey in Chingford. I paid one pound a day and I got food and laundry and I only paid when I was there. I used to write to them and send them Christmas cards"
"What were we going to do about Gleeson, though? We decided to have a look and if we needed to have another meeting after the first Test - which we won - we would.
"Anyway, Graeme [Pollock] says after the Test that he can read him and we all listen. Graeme says that the secret is that when Gleeson bowls the legbreak, you don't see any finger; when he bowls the googly, you can see a finger.
"So Ali [Bacher] runs himself out just before lunch as he tries to get Barry to a hundred, and Barry gets out for the famous 140.
"Eventually I'm in. I'm playing nicely and I look for the finger and because I don't see it, I assume it's the legbreak and I get bowled for 13. 'Hey, what about the finger,' I ask Graeme, and he just shrugs and says that he ended up playing him off the pitch."
Irvine became more confident as the series progressed. He top-scored in South Africa's first innings of the third Test, at the Wanderers, with 79, running out of partners before being caught by Keith Stackpole on the cover boundary, as the hosts took the series. "John [Traicos, the last batsman] was angry with me because he said he would have kept them out, but I didn't know very much about him - we were scrambling mad singles into the gully at the end."
Irvine improved on that 79 by scoring his maiden Test hundred in the fourth Test, at St George's - on his 26th birthday.
He never played Test cricket again. Bacher, comparing him to AB de Villiers in terms of all-round sporting ability, said that he was one of the most scandalously neglected cricketers of the age.
"My technique was very unlimited, if I can say that," says Irvine, "and I was always known as a fast scorer.
"In God's Forgotten Cricketers, by Andre Odendaal, Vince van der Bijl reckoned I was one of the most difficult batsmen to bowl to. Les Theobald, our cricket coach at school, used to say to opener Bruce Heath and me that we had one ball as a sighter and then we had to look for a run every ball. We were brilliant runners between wickets and that was good for Barry because he was flat-footed and he wasn't that great a runner himself."
If Irvine does have a lower-case regret, it's that he didn't return to Essex for a third consecutive season, although the reason for not doing so was obvious - he expected to be involved with the South African tour to England instead.
He is at his most animated when discussing his Essex days, whether it was a battling spell when facing Derek Underwood on a sticky in a 40-over game against Kent at Purfleet, or being cheated out in a crucial end-of-season game against Yorkshire.
"I got my county cap after a game against Yorkshire at Westcliff-on-Sea in my first season at Essex," he remembers. "They were chasing the Championship and in a low-scoring game we batted last, needing 96 to win. I came in at 38 for 3 against a proper side. They had [Fred] Trueman, [Brian] Close, [Geoff] Boycott, Don Wilson. They were talented, but Close, who was fielding at short leg, tried to cheat me out. He clicked his fingers to simulate a caught-behind and when I didn't walk - you walked in those days - I got ten kinds of lip.
"So, anyway, the bottom line was that I got 28 not out and we won the game when I hit Geoff Cope for a six. No sooner had I stormed off than one of their juniors gets sent by Close into our dressing room to congratulate me. I told him, 'If Close wants to come and say anything to me he should come and do it himself.'"
There were other bizarre occasions besides. When he played the touring Australians in 1968, a new pitch had to be rolled at Southchurch Park in Southend. In the second innings he padded up to Bob Cowper (the ball pitching outside leg) as the ball spun across him. It hit the back of his bat before being pouched by Ian Redpath at first slip. Essex were bowled out for 122.
Unlike some of his former colleagues, who seem to enjoy being swept along by almost infinite tides of bitterness, Irvine rejoices in his memories. He would have loved to have locked horns with West Indies, Pakistan and India overseas.
"The first challenge for me was to succeed at top level, but after having accomplished that, you wanted to do it away," he says. "In Pakistan and India they had their own umpires and, to put it mildly, they were dodgy. Our umpires were dodgy. They were amateurs, some who had never played the game. At least England had guys like Dickie Bird, who had first-class experience, so you could trust them.
"The biggest challenge was to play away against the top sides, against some of those guys I played on the county circuit. Eating curry with Mushtaq Mohammad one or twice a season just wasn't enough."

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg