Graeme Pollock’s Golden HourGareth Bland |
There are some innings, some bowling stints and certain passages of play which retain their fascination down through the ages. Those performances have a magic and invoke an immediacy of recall which owes little to mere statistics but is a result of their impact on the senses and the circumstances in which they were crafted. Ted Dexter’s 70 against the West Indies in 1963 is a case in point. Arriving at the crease at 0-1, Lord Ted demolished a revved up Hall and Griffiths to hit 70 from 73 balls at Lord’s. As if to prove the point this virtuoso half-century has since become the signature Dexter innings, despite the fact that its maker compiled 9 Test centuries in 62 Tests. Perhaps a more notable instance, though, was the innings played by Graeme Pollock at Trent Bridge, on the first day of the second Test in 1965. England knew all about Pollock before that innings, of course, but they can be said to know a good deal more about him after he sloped off the field of play later that afternoon. This was, after all, an innings even Sir Donald Bradman thought “sublime”.
The Trent Bridge Test was the middle one in a short three Test series that took place in the second half of that summer. The first match at Lord’s had been drawn and prefigured what looked like being a fascinating series between two evenly matched sides. Lance, Lindsay, Pollock, with 56, and Bland had all scored steadily in South Africa’s first innings to post a total of 280. England, in reply, totalled 338, with a three hour 91 from Kenny Barrington being the mainstay of the innings. The aggressive left-handed opener, Bob Barber had hit 56 and Cowdrey, Mike Smith, Parks and Titmus had all shored up the home team’s first knock to give England a respectable lead. South Africa’s second attempt was a disappointment with Colin Bland’s 70 saving the tourists from almost certain embarrassment. England set about the required 191 but eventually were saved by the drawing of stumps as they floundred at 145-7. In the 100th Test match between the two countries the fielding of Colin Bland had made the significant impression as the teams headed for the Midlands and the Nottingham encounter.
On the first morning Peter Van der Merwe opted to bat after the toss had gone in his favour. The visitors immediately fell into trouble once the first change had been made. Larter and Snow had opened the bowling but Smith realised that the conditions – sticky pitch, murky overhead conditions and a damp atmosphere – would be conducive to the skills of Tom Cartwright. Sure enough both Lance and Lindsay fell with the score on 16 to leave South Africa precariously positioned and with Cartwright clearly on the rampage. Descending the pavillion steps bounded the 21 year old Robert Graeme Pollock at number four. He had looked promising at Lord’s and now, the series in the balance, his team needed him badly. There was still Bland, Bacher and Van der Merwe to come, of course, but the innings badly needed the fillip that the big Port Elizabeth left-hander could provide.
This was Pollock’s 13th Test match and he had already hit three Test tons, the biggest being his 175 against the Australians eighteen months earlier as a 19 year old. The previous winter against the 1964/65 MCC tourists the colossus had only sparked into form in his hometown in the final Test, hitting 137 and an unbeaten 77 in the second innings. Throw in his Lord’s first innings knock and here was a player of whom England were wary. Nothing, though, could have quite prepared them for what was about to follow. For Pollock himself, however, these were conditions quite unlike any he would have witnessed in his homeland. Larter and Snow provided the speed injection, Titmus the off-breaks and Barber added variety with his leg-breaks. The ace in the pack in these conditions, though, was Cartwright. Purveyor of a kind of medium-pace bowling that was then viewed as being quintessentially English, and with his modus operandi being particularly well suited to northern hemisphere conditions, this was surely going to be some test for the young giant.
Pollock’s quality was well known in South Africa, of course. The Australians, too, had been on the receiving end of the broad bat. After some jumpy forays in the first four matches of the previous winter’s series, it seemed that all eyes turned towards Nottingham that day awaited confirmation of his true talent. In cold statistical terms, when Pollock arrived the score was 16-2. When he departed some 139 minutes later it was 178-6. Graeme Pollock had scored 125 of the 162 runs scored while he was at the crease. It is a staggering percentage; a fraction over 77% of the runs scored while he was out in the middle came from his bat alone. Classically, almost, the innings can be said to have come in two distinct acts: seventy minutes prior to lunch and the seventy minutes after. In Act I Pollock played himself in; measuring the bowling and conditions to reach 34 by lunch. Act II, however, laid the foundations for the Pollock legend and provided the young left-hander with the innings which he himself regards as his finest. Of the 102 runs made between the resumption of play and his dismissal, Pollock made 91 of them. He was particularly severe on Cartwright, the bowler who had been seen as a potential tormentor.
There are certain similarities between Pollock’s knock here and Ian Botham’s at Old Trafford in 1981. Botham’s 118 was initially watchful, barely outscoring Tavare at the other end for a time. When Lillee and Alderman took the new ball, however, Botham’s pre-tea reconnaissance paid off as he savaged the Australians with 13 fours and 6 sixes. Pollock was similarly watchful and guarded up to the lunch interval. His responsibility for the bulk of the scoring thereafter was even more impressive than Botham’s, though. However, it is in the execution and shot selection that the younger Pollock brother differs hugely. Graeme hit 21 fours in his 125; 84 runs in boundaries to be exact. Moreover, in the words of the South African Cricket Annual 1965 those strokes “sped along the carpet, penetrating an astutely-placed field”. Watching highlights of that knock the overwhelming impression is of an awesome power being checked; as if the batsman was aware of the power available at the turn of the throttle and that, in most cases, only a fraction of that might was necessary. The off-side hitting was staggering; the ball being sent on its way as a result of an unusually sinuous and controlled method of propulsion.
From an aesthetic and technical perspective Pollock looked a phenomenon. One element in particular is worth mentioning. In his 2008 Wisden essay commemorating the career of Brian Lara, Mike Atherton expounded on the similarity between the backlift of Sir Garfield Sobers and that employed by Lara. Atherton wrote:
“Barry Richards once said of Garry Sobers that he was the only 360-degree player of the game. He was referring, I think, to his back-lift and follow-through, which routinely travelled through a full arc. Lara might well be described so, too, not just for the back-lift, which reached the perpendicular when he was “on the go”, but also for where he could hit the ball – if not quite 360 degrees, then as near as dammit”
Those having seen Pollock flay England that August day almost 48 years ago and subsequently plunder other attacks will be of no doubt that this description did not apply to the South African. In terms of back-lift and follow-through Pollock was the anti-Sobers. It all comes back to the notion of checked power, of restraint. Having pierced the outfield or played straight down the ground rarely did the bat come above shoulder level in the follow-through. His placement, too, was uncanny. Despite Pollock’s immense physical strength there was seldom any crude thrashing of the bat to send the ball on its way, rather, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins once observed, he picked off the bowling and found the gaps in the field with the “delicate finesse of a surgeon”.
In the 1966 edition of Wisden Norman Preston, certainly not one given to hyperbole, wrote “This was one of the finest Test displays of all time”. With his judgement of length Pollock was able to adjust and strike to the boundary deliveries that were beyond the scope of those lesser gifted. Ted Dexter observed “he could hit the good-length ball, given only a modicum of room outside the off stump, actually harder than he could hit the half-volley. Now that takes some doing”. With a slightly crouched stance and feet set wide apart Pollock did not present the most elegant of sights at the crease, not that this had the slightest effect on his efficacy, though. Since his retirement and the return of South Africa to the international fold his reputation has soared. Now recognised as perhaps the greatest left-handed batsman ever, with the possible exception of Sobers, Graeme Pollock’s talent has undergone a major retrospective, maybe because of and not in spite of, his country’s return to international competition.
In 1999 his own country acknowledged his talent by anointing him as their leading cricketer of the 20th century. Nowadays similarly deified by an international cricketing cognoscenti who place a veteran of just 23 Tests alongside Sobers in the pantheon of left-handed greats, Pollock appears to have jumped the queue to surpass even the great Brian Lara in the all-time list of willow-wielding southpaws. Elite cricketing opinion helps, no doubt, in conferring such lofty judgements. Sir Donald Bradman thought Pollock the greatest of the left-handers, while Ian Chappell reckoned him to be only fractionally behind Sobers among all the batsmen he encountered. This seems a far cry from when, after his retirement in 1987, the following year’s Wisden underlined a photograph of Pollock with the caption “He could have been one of the game’s greats”. Graeme Pollock is now, of course, very properly acknowledged as one of the game’s batting greats. His truncated Test career of 23 matches perhaps even enhances that reputation, his average of 60.97 never having been sullied by extending the elite playing days into the years of declining eyesight and weakening reflexes. Of that day in 1965 when this son of a Scotsman demolished England’s finest in the East Midlands, perhaps the words of his brother, Peter, himself also instrumental in winning that Test for South Africa, are most appropriate:
“Graeme took the England attack, particularly Cartwright, in his teeth and shook it like a dog does a rag doll. Before his innings ended, Graeme was being compared with legends like Stan McCabe and Frank Woolley. Personally, and I am sure all the other Springboks agreed, our Graeme Pollock on that day was beyond comparison with anyone. His 125 was brutally brilliant and yet, you could never use the word brutal to describe such charm and elegance”
There is, of course, a certain poignancy in reading Wisden’s 1966 celebration of Graeme Pollock as one of its five cricketers of the year, when it asserted that “It is a comforting thought for his host of admirers that probably the best of Graeme Pollock is still to come”. By 1970, however, that Test career was snuffed out; a victim of his nation’s execrable Apartheid system of governance and the international sporting community’s response to it. The one memory of his Test career that will never dim in the English imagination, however, is that 125 at Trent Bridge, the latter half of which the television commentator that day, Brian Johnson, described as “a golden hour”