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The man who battled alone

Mike Procter talks about Monkeygate and his career either side of it in his new autobiography

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Mike Procter in June 2008, towards the tail end of his career as a match referee  •  Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Procter in June 2008, towards the tail end of his career as a match referee  •  Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Player, coach, commentator, match referee, convener of selectors and passionate fan - there are few roles in cricket Mike Procter has not held. But his autobiography, which appears a bright, breezy read about a life dedicated to the game, is tinged with regret, not only because of his international playing career was limited to seven Tests but because of what might have been in many other spheres.
What if the South African Cricket Association had allowed an England Invitational XI that included Basil d'Oliviera to tour the country in 1972? What if Jimmy Cook and Clive Rice had been part of the team Procter coached at the 1992 World Cup? What if Procter had agreed to make Hansie Cronje captain sooner?
These are some of the early questions he ponders in the book, in which he comes across as wistful, non-confrontational and liberal.
As much as he, like many others, wonders what the South African team of 1970 could have achieved, he is apologetic for what the apartheid system denied non-whites even after it was abolished. "It must have been hard to see to believe that a team that was still almost exclusively white was representing a nation with a rich diversity of people - with white people being in the minority," he writes of the 1991 tour to India.
Procter was South Africa's first post-readmission coach and he experienced the thrills of the early novelty, including their big-hearted performance at the 1992 World Cup and in England in the summer of 1994, where they won at Lord's and drew the series. Heavy defeats in the ODIs and a loss to a Netherlands XI led to Procter's sacking - which he found out about from intensive care in hospital, where he had been admitted with inflammation of the muscles around the heart.
From there, he moved to commentary (he was on air when South Africa were knocked out of the 1999 World Cup) and then to match-refereeing. He experienced the bomb blast in Pakistan on New Zealand's tour in 2002 and the Pakistan team walk-off in The Oval Test in 2006.
It's from this role that the book's title comes: "As a referee, you were always in the middle, and the decisions you made sometimes had huge implications," Procter writes. Never more so than in the summer of 2007-08, from where the most compelling story in the book comes.
Chapter ten, about Monkeygate and the mess that followed is a detailed account of India's tour to Australia that season. Procter was excited to be involved in a series that he thought would present a "clash of cultures and playing styles", and relieved that he could clear Yuvraj Singh of dissent after the Boxing Day Test. Yuvraj was charged by the umpires when he hung around after being dismissed caught behind off Stuart Clark, but Procter thought the batsman had merely shown disappointment and an apology would suffice. The peace did not last long.
In Sydney, the goodwill of a new year did not extend to the two teams. Procter can "still see" Ricky Ponting bolting off the field to report that racist abuse had been directed at Andrew Symonds by Harbhajan Singh. The umpires and Sachin Tendulkar, who was batting with Harbhajan, said they heard nothing, but Australia were insistent and a hearing was set for the end of play on day five, where Procter was struck by the disorganisation of proceedings.
A videotape of the incident did not have any sound and there was no one present to record the hearing. Over three hours, Procter and Nigel Peters QC, who the ICC had requested to assist in the matter, heard testimony. Ponting said his players had told him they'd heard Harbhajan call Symonds a monkey. India's manager at the time, Chetan Chauhan, "informed Ponting that the racism charge was completely made up, because as Indians it was just not possible for them to be racist". Chauhan also produced an album of photos "with princes and princesses in regal dress but with monkey heads", and said monkeys were deities that could not be insulted. Harbhajan did not testify because Chauhan said he did not speak English.
While Procter had been "hoping there would be reasonable doubt that there had been any racial abuse involved", he concluded that Australia had several "adamant" witnesses and India offered "absolutely nothing in terms of evidence", and found Harbhajan guilty. The sanction was a three-Test ban, which was overturned on appeal, where Tendulkar revealed Harbhajan had said something unprintable about Symonds' mother in Hindi and Procter figured that the phrase "maa ki" could have been heard as "monkey". Procter writes that if Tendukar's testimony had come at the initial hearing, his decision would have been different.
Personally, the repercussaions for Procter were significant. Sunil Gavaskar, whom Procter considered a friend, wrote that Procter was "always going to go against the brown man, when he was up against the white man" - an accusation Procter took personally. "It was a massive generalisation and went against every bit of my moral fibre," Procter wrote.
Procter became persona non grata in India. The Cricket Club of India found no record of the honorary life membership they had awarded him in the 1990s, and he was prevented from officiating as a match referee in the 2009 IPL, which was moved to South Africa.
While he did not referee any more matches, Procter went to become convener of selectors for South Africa soon after, and picked the squad that beat Australia in Australia for the first time. That tenure was also marked by a standout low. Procter dropped Makhaya Ntini in early 2009, initially offering the bowler a farewell ODI series, which Ntini declined. "His story was the blueprint for what could be achieved, but the champion had lost his punch," Procter wrote.
As if what followed - a struggle to get work in cricket - is too much to bear for the Procter, the book then goes back in time to reflect on his stints with Gloucester and in World Series Cricket, which he regards as the "toughest level of cricket I ever played". What if it could have lasted a little longer?
There's also a peep into Procter's current life, and his involvement with the Ottawa Primary School in Verulam, Kwa-Zulu Natal, where many children are underprivileged and the ramifications of HIV/AIDS are rampant. What if CSA could assist? Procter's attempts to engage the board has proved futile and he continues to battle on alone. That is essentially the story of his career.
The book is available in two editions, a South African one, published by Don Nelson, and a UK one, by Pitch Publishing. The former contains an introduction by John Saunders, Procter's school coach, an additional chapter on his early years, and a tribute by former journalist Michael Owen-Smith.
Caught in the Middle: The Autobiography of Mike Procter
By Mike Procter and Lungani Zama
Don Nelson Publishers
239 pages, 2017

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent