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'What's a Test career compared to the suffering of millions?'

Mike Procter played just seven Tests for South Africa, but thinks that was a small price to pay to help change an unjust system

"I just ran in and bowled as fast as I could. All the coaches just stood there shaking their heads"  •  Getty Images

"I just ran in and bowled as fast as I could. All the coaches just stood there shaking their heads"  •  Getty Images

Once described as man who bowled "at 100mph from mid-off off the wrong foot" Mike Procter's international career was limited to just seven Tests due to South Africa's exclusion from world cricket during the apartheid years. Instead he plied his trade for Gloucestershire and in the Currie Cup, before forging a high-profile career as a match referee, selector and broadcaster. He tells ESPNcricinfo about his career.
Who taught you to bowl?
No one! No one would teach anyone to bowl the way I did. I was a batsman, really. At school I kept wicket and bowled a bit of offspin. It was only during my last year or two of school that I grew and started to bowl. I just ran in and bowled as fast as I could. All the coaches just stood there shaking their heads. But it worked for me: I found that the further I ran in, the more pace I generated. And that chest-on action felt natural to me.
How close did you come to playing for England?
Not very. I qualified in 1980 but my body was a bit tired by then. My mind was still fresh, but I was 34 years old. It was more a ploy to allow Gloucestershire to sign another overseas player.
Was your bowling ever timed?
Yes, a whole group of us were timed during World Series Cricket. I was timed at about 92-93mph if I recall correctly, but I reckon I had lost a yard of pace by then. I'd had a few injuries.
If you had your time again, would you still encourage "rebel" teams to tour South Africa and play against them during the years of the apartheid ban?
I can see it from both sides. Yes, the system was unjust and it had to be changed. Whatever brought about that change had to be positive. But at the same time, we wanted to keep cricket alive in South Africa. Cricket desperately needed those rebel tours.
I'm not sure we did keep Test cricket alive, you know. When South Africa returned to international cricket, in the early '90s, the country was absorbed by one-day cricket. The interest in Test cricket died a bit in those years. I know people still care, but it seems we can't even get people to come to the Wanderers for a Test against Australia.
Is it hard for you to reconcile yourself to the fact that you lost what may well have been a fantastic career as an international cricketer?
Not, it's not. Yes, I lost a Test career. But what is a Test career compared to the suffering of 40 million people? Lots of people lost a great deal more in those years, and if by missing out on a Test career we played a part in changing an unjust system, then that is fine by me.
At the time South Africa was barred from international competition, did you know that you would never play Test cricket again?
Yes, I always thought that I wouldn't play again. It was no surprise. Actually in April 1971 [after the South African government had intervened to stop the South African selectors picking non-white players for a tour of Australia] a group of us - Graeme and Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, Denis Lindsay and I - walked off the field at Cape Town after one ball of the game between Transvaal and the Rest of South Africa and issued a statement supporting selection by merit regardless of skin colour. At the time we did that, I thought we wouldn't play again. And we didn't do that to save the tour to Australia, as some have claimed. We did it to try and change the whole rotten system of the country. We were opposed to the government.
How good was the 1969-70 South Africa side?
Oh, it was very, very good. The Australians arrived, having just beaten India and were claiming they were the world champions, in the way that Australians do. But we thrashed them 4-0. We really did have a fabulous side. I'd say the three best sides in Test history were the West Indies side of the 1970s and '80s, the Australian team of 1948, and that South African side.
"I always had a great relationship with India, but after the Harbhajan Singh incident I've had huge problems in the country"
In the absence of a Test career, you really threw yourself into life with Gloucestershire. Do you have happy memories of those years?
Oh, yes. I lived there for 13 years and had some wonderful times. I couldn't play international cricket, so I gave everything I had to Gloucestershire, Natal and Rhodesia. I played some of my best cricket for Gloucestershire. The people there were very kind to me and I made some great friends. I'll be going back to visit this year and there's a little bit of me that will always feel like a Bristolian. It wasn't a big club, so it was hugely satisfying to win trophies with them.
I don't think the standards in county cricket are as high now. When we played Somerset back then, their side contained people like Brian Close, Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham. Hampshire had [Andy] Roberts and [Gordon] Greenidge and Barry Richards. Every county had top-quality players, so the standard was very high. The amount of international cricket around now means that isn't possible.
Tell us about the time you settled an argument with your Gloucestershire team-mates by wrestling.
Ha! That story just keeps improving over the years. It wasn't wrestling, it was one-on-one rugby. We had a Sunday off, having played in Warwickshire, and went to the pub at lunchtime. If I remember correctly, we'd been to the pub the previous night too. David Green - who had just joined us from Lancashire - and I were arguing about who had the best rugby side - South Africa or England. So we marked out a pitch on this field at the back of the pub and decided to settle things with a game of rugby. We went at each other for about three quarters of an hour, but in the end we gave it up as a 0-0 draw. Yes, it's fair to say we'd had a drink or two that day.
How do you see this summer's Test series between England and South Africa?
I'm looking forward to it. It should be a high-quality, competitive series. England have a very good bowling attack, and after what happened in the UAE, they will be champing at the bit to do well. I was amazed by that result: Pakistan played really well and they've left England with a bit to prove. I think South Africa are the favourites, though. Both sides have strong fast-medium bowling attacks - they are the two strongest bowling attacks in world cricket, I think - but Dale Steyn is a magnificent bowler and gives South Africa an edge. He can't be described as fast in comparison to some of those a generation or so before, but he would have been a very good bowler in any era. I think Imran Tahir could be important too. He hasn't had a chance to show what he can do in helpful conditions yet, but when he does, he could be a match-winner. And I expect Graeme Smith to grind out the runs too. Batting could be hard work in this series, but when you look at the South African line-up, with Smith to open and [Hashim] Amla and [Jacques] Kallis to come next, they have the players to do well.
Is it a worry that South Africa have lost players to England?
People tend to exaggerate the South African influence on the England team. It's ridiculous to say that someone like Andrew Strauss is South African. The two who you might reasonably say were South African are Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen.
I think Trott would have played for South Africa - though it may have taken a bit more time - but I'm not sure KP would have done. I wouldn't say he was an ordinary cricketer, but he was primarily an offspin bowler when he was in South Africa. It was only when he went to England that his batting came to the fore. Maybe that wouldn't have happened if he'd stayed in South Africa. England gave him a chance in their ODI side and he just thrived.
It's a difficult situation. You can only pick 11 guys for a Test team and you can't blame the others if they want to go and make a living playing domestic cricket elsewhere. I don't blame the players at all. They are professionals and they get paid more in England.
As an ICC match referee you were placed in some very difficult situations.
I was, and in the end it cost me. I had an agreement that I was going to be a match referee at the IPL but that was withdrawn. I always had a great relationship with India, but after the Harbhajan Singh incident [Procter banned Harbhajan for three matches - a ban and verdict that were subsequently overturned - for allegedly making racist comments to Australian Andrew Symonds] I've had huge problems in the country.
The situation at The Oval in 2006 [where Pakistan refused to resume after tea, when the umpire, Darrell Hair, accused them of ball-tampering] was difficult. The ICC has changed now - there's no way a match referee would be expected to decide on their own what should happen in a situation like that - a situation which would decide whether a Test could continue or not.
But it was the Harbhajan Singh incident that really did for me. I've replayed that episode quite a lot in my mind. I've thought about what else I could have done. All I can say is this: I would do all the same things again.
As I say, I had a signed contract with the IPL. But one or two board members didn't want me and that was that. It's been a very costly incident.
Were you backed by the ICC?
Very much so.
At the time Sunil Gavasker made some pretty strong comments about you. He questioned whether it was a case of a "white man taking the white man's word against that of the brown man". Did you ever make up with Gavaskar?
I tried. I walked up to him and we shook hands. I didn't get much back from him - put it like that. It still seems pretty unbelievable that I was called a racist. After everything that has happened, that really hurt.
Your role as South Africa selector ended quite suddenly too.
It did. It was a total surprise. I relinquished my role at the ICC to take up the position. I was never given an explanation or anything. I was just phoned up one day and told the whole panel was going to be sacked. We had only been in place a little over a year, so I didn't really think there had been time to judge what sort of a job we were doing.
What do you do these days?
I was a match referee at the Bangladesh Premier League - it was a very successful event - and I did a bit of coaching at under-privileged schools. I'd like to get back into TV at some stage too.
When you look back on it all, what are the highlights that spring to mind?
Winning the Tests was special. It was never about averages or statistics for me. But winning games, representing my country and being part of a great team was a special experience. It was never the same in World Series Cricket. The standard was good, but the feeling wasn't the same.
And the other thing is winning trophies for Gloucestershire. I took that as seriously as any cricket I played. Test cricket was barred to me and I knew I would never get back in. So county cricket was my ultimate. I really identified with the club and, just as they welcomed me as one of them, I wanted to pay them back for their loyalty and warmth.
Mike Procter will be in the UK for this summer, from June to September, and is available for media work, endorsements, after-dinner speaking, motivational speaking and other engagements. Contact Louisa Hayes at Champions (UK) Plc on 08453 313031 for details

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo