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Mike Procter, runaway dream

There were few feats the late great South African allrounder could not achieve on a cricket field. He was an action-hero come to life

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Mike Procter in his match referee avatar in Lahore in 2008. Procter refereed in 224 internationals between 2002 and 2008  •  Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Procter in his match referee avatar in Lahore in 2008. Procter refereed in 224 internationals between 2002 and 2008  •  Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Late afternoon on Saturday, I was on a train. Rain spat angrily at the windows. Apple lit up and the WhatsApp message read, "We wanted to share the sad news with you. Mike passed away peacefully at 16.34 surrounded by his family." The English countryside raced by, an indistinct picture of grey landscape and flooded fields. The news was a shock but not unexpected. After a complication during relatively routine surgery little more than a week ago, Mike Procter went into cardiac arrest. From unconsciousness, he never woke up. A bright and powerful flame had been snuffed out. Just like that. Proc, gone.
I had four cricketing heroes as a kid - first Ted Dexter and John Snow, then Barry Richards and Proc. At Lord's in the 1973 Gillette Cup final I heard the public announcer say, "From the pavilion end… Mike Procter", and I shivered. In he sprinted, the winds blowing back his hair as he exploded into that unique action and dramatic result. In all things cricket, Proc was the runaway dream. Gifted, good-looking and great fun, he knew no enemies. In the cricketing homes he loved most - Natal, Rhodesia and Gloucestershire - it was a love that did not go unrequited. In fact, the adoration knew no boundary and it came from spectators, team-mates and opponents alike.
He bowled those fast inswingers, and later, he lobbed up big-spinning offbreaks; he caught most things at slip and he batted as if in a hurry, smiting the ball through and over the off side with extraordinary timing and power. He is one of only three men to have made first-class hundreds in six consecutive innings, the others being Sir Donald Bradman and CB Fry.
He partied hard, married young (to the glamorous and no-nonsense Springbok tennis player Maryna Goodwin, just four months after they met), travelled widely with bat and ball, won trophies, signed for Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, and almost never failed to honour a commitment. What a franchise cricketer he would have been!
Upon retirement he tried commentary before turning his hand to coaching, international match-refereeing, and the role of South African chief selector. He was a cricketing man in its best sense, a liver and lover of life - charming, thoughtful, kind. He had his flaws, his kryptonite if you like - a drink, a fag and a punt among them, but was never judged. I imagine the Australian allrounder Keith Miller to have been the forebear of the Procter way: few thoughts of strategic plans and due process, more of sparkling performance and the shindigs that followed.
The first time I stood next to him was in the old pavilion bar at the County Ground, Southampton, after he had taken four wickets in five balls to blow away the Hampshire top order in the 1977 Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final. He actually took five in six but the umpire, dear old Tommy Spencer, simply couldn't bring himself to lift the finger yet again. Nigel Cowley, the batter who followed Gordon Greenidge, Barry Richards, Trevor Jesty and John Rice to the guillotine, said he stood gripped by fear at the bellowing appeal by all of Gloucestershire, but the execution never came.
As ground-staff kids, we helped run the scoreboard on big-match occasions and this was as big as it got. We couldn't find the numbers in time to get them up - remember, those old metal plates that hung by small hooks and were changed by hand at every run and wicket? We missed "Last Man" every time and instead settled for getting the wickets right and the new batter's name.
Anyway, the quid pro quo was a drink with the coach in the bar after the game. And there was Michael John Procter, man of the moment, of the match and of the decade for me. I swear I brushed by to touch an arm and felt the magic rub off in the warm glow of a flushed face and fast-beating heart.
Writing a piece for the Cricket Monthly a few years back, called "You Ain't Seen Nothing Like the Mighty Mike Procter" I told stories of great deeds done by this man of many talents. The greatest allrounders of existing lifetimes have been Miller, Garry Sobers, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Jacques Kallis and Procter. Truly he was that good, and dare I say it, perhaps better than a couple. His cover-drive was likened by Gloucestershire folk to the one revered in those parts years before and played by Wally Hammond. His devastating fast bowling brought myriad hat-tricks and launched a miracle or two. The place to be after the umpires removed the bails for the night was the dressing room, where Cane and coke - aka spook and diesel - was knocked back in gung-ho spirit, whether good day or bad.
There are some facts worth knowing. In the seven Test matches allowed to him, all against Australia, he took 41 wickets at 15 apiece. He scored a thousand runs in a county season nine times and took more than a hundred wickets twice. He was the first cricketer to score a hundred and take a hat-trick in the same match twice. His career-best figures of 9 for 71 came in Bulawayo with offbreaks, in a famous Currie Cup win over Natal. (See the David Lewis story in the piece linked earlier.)
But figures don't do it. His close pal and partner in numerous campaigns, Vintcent Van der Bijl, said simply, "I would have followed him over the top of the First World War trenches had he demanded it. A remarkable all-round cricketer, captain and man. I just loved who Proc was."
Barry Richards says he was "gutted" by the news. "After 65 years where our paths have so often crossed, it's hard to imagine not being with him again. A giant has fallen."
Most recently Proc founded a project that coached sport- and life skills to thousands of underprivileged children in the areas around Durban, his home town. The Mike Procter Foundation needs money and the trustees are committed to driving it on, in honour of his name.
Charismatic, colourful and swashbuckling, Proc was an inspiration wherever he went. Occasionally there was sadness around him as, oddly and unkindly, there has been around other great South African cricketers of the day - Richards, Graeme Pollock and Lee Irvine - but they brightened so many lives with the cricket they played that the memories remain gilded by their genius. It is impossible to pick a favourite but what we can say about Proccie is that few men to have played the game have been so widely respected and admired. His gifts were many, his legacy is forever.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator