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The Greatest Southpaw?

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Andrew Pollock kept wicket for Orange Free State occasionally in the late 1930s, but made little impact on the First Class game. He left that to his two sons, Peter and Graeme, who were integral parts of the fine South African side that had come together just as all official sporting links with the rest of the world were taken away. Peter was a hostile fast medium bowler whose own son, Shaun, went on to eclipse him. In turn Graeme had two sons, Andrew and Anthony. Andrew was an all-rounder and Anthony a batsman, both of whom have respectable records at First Class level, but neither came close to emulating their famous father.

Unsurprisingly Graeme, christened ‘Little Dog’ in light of his brother’s nickname of ‘Pooch’, was a prodigious talent as a schoolboy and owed much to the coaching of two former county cricketers. The first was the old Sussex batsman George Cox, who advised him; to hell with the coaching manual, just go out there and do what comes naturally. When Cox left his post he was replaced by a former Hampshire player, Tom Dean, who again tended to leave his pupil’s natural talents to find their own expression, although he did teach him the art of leg spin. When Pollock’s career finally came to an end in 1987 Dean was asked about his first impressions of Pollock and replied; I didn’t recognise genius because I had never seen it before, but when I saw Graeme bat I thought ‘surely this is it’.

Not yet 17 Pollock made his First Class debut for Eastern Province against Border in December 1960. It is tempting to wonder what his reaction would have been, on being dismissed for 54, had he been told that when, more than 26 years later, he walked off the field for the last time in a First Class match that that would be his career average as well. In his other four matches that season there were three more half centuries and, in the final match, a first century and the youngster was named by the South African Cricket Annual as one of its five cricketers of the year.

The season over the Pollock family holidayed in England, and stayed with Cox for part of the time. Following his old coach’s introduction Pollock played three matches for the Sussex second eleven with, in light of what was to come, surprisingly modest results. A left handed batsman, some shrewd judges maintain Pollock would go to become the best ever. Perhaps strangely in those circumstances Pollock is essentially right handed, batting being the only significant activity in which he is left hand dominant.

After returning from England the 1961/62 summer was not quite so good, but in 1962/63 there was an innings of 137 against Western Province of which 106 came in boundaries. Pollock then came within two runs of twin centuries against Transvaal, before becoming the youngest South African to record a double century when he posted an unbeaten 209 against a Cavaliers XI that boasted five Australian Test bowlers, including Graham McKenzie and Richie Benaud. The selectors decided not to risk him in the Tests against New Zealand that season and perhaps regretted that decision as John Reid’s men unexpectedly shared the series 2-2. With 3-0 reverses in their most recent encounters with both England and Australia the selectors did however pick Pollock for the tour to Australia of 1963/64 despite his still being a teenager.

It was a grim start in Australia for Pollock as he was dismissed twice by McKenzie for 0 and 1 in the tour opener, but he showed his character and centuries against a Combined XI and New South Wales made sure he was in the side for the drawn first Test. In a match remembered for the no-balling of Ian Meckiff Pollock made just 25, and followed that with 16 and 2 in the second Test.

The third Test was at the Sydney Cricket Ground. After losing the toss the South Africans dismissed Australia for 260 shortly before the close of the first day. When Pollock came to the wicket next morning his side were 58-2. He proceeded to play an innings that ‘Dick’ Whitington described as immortal, using the word because I believe it will remain so even among the great innings played in Test matches in Sydney. He went on to compare Pollock to a gunslinger from a spaghetti western before adding young Graeme struck nineteen fours and one mighty six from a cradle of disaster and many of those strokes will remain in the memory of those who watched them. With the help of Pollock’s 122 the South Africans got to 302. Only captain Trevor Goddard (with 80), and Colin Bland (51) offered any support. Another 42 in the second innings helped make sure of the draw.

Despite the brilliance of that century at Sydney it is not a well known innings, partly because it was soon overshadowed by Pollock’s contribution to South Africa’s series levelling victory in the next Test. Once again the toss was lost, but the South Africans would not have been too disappointed at keeping their hosts to 345. They made a steady start in reply, but then two quick wickets meant Pollock came in at 70-2, much the same position as at Sydney. Rather than the regular loss of partners that followed then however Pollock and Eddie Barlow proceeded to add 341 before Pollock was dismissed for 175. It took him barely two hours to get to his century. When he did so Sir Donald Bradman was purring in the pavilion, and the old curmudgeon ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly rose to his feet in the press box to applaud the young South African. A ten wicket victory followed, so Pollock was not required to bat again.

In the drawn fifth Test Pollock managed just 17 before, in the field, breaking his finger. He did not bat again and missed the first two Tests in New Zealand before rounding off his tour and, in the only Test he ever played against the weakest Test opposition available to him he scored a modest 30 and 23.

South Africa’s next opponents were England, who visited the Cape in 1964/65 for what was to prove the last time in thirty years. It was a series where England had a bit of luck with conditions in the first Test with the wicket, unusually, being of assistance to the spin attack of Fred Titmus and David Allen which was by far their strongest suit. England won that match and the remaining four were all drawn. It is said that the series was a disappointing one for Pollock, and that he struggled against England’s two off spinners. If he did he still managed to average 57.37 and make a century and four half centuries and, had Goddard not declared in the final Test in an effort to set England a reasonable target, Pollock’s unbeaten 77 at a run a ball would no doubt have been turned into a second century for the match.

Excluding that one off Test against New Zealand Pollock’s ‘worst’ series, statistically, was the three match return series with England in the summer of 1965 that followed England’s visit. It would be the last time the two countries would meet prior to South Africa’s banishment from international support and Pollock averaged a mere 48.50. The series did however contain what is remembered as one of his great innings.

The first Test of the series was a fine game of cricket. South Africa batted first and scored 280, Pollock top scoring with 56. He made just five in the second innings as South Africa left England a target of 191 in just under four hours. Wickets fell however and England had to shut up shop and ended up 46 runs short with three wickets, one of them an injured John Edrich, in hand. In the closing stages, no doubt to try and tempt the Englishman, Pollock’s loopy leg breaks were brought into the attack. Always more interested in turning the ball than maintaining accuracy it is testament to the mindset of the home side that all four of Pollock’s overs were maidens, and he also took the wicket of David Brown.

The second Test at Trent Bridge was won by South Africa and was very much a joint effort by Pollock and brother Peter, who took five wickets in each England innings. On the first morning Goddard won the toss and chose to bat, a decision he would soon come to regret as, in overcast conditions, medium pacer Tom Cartwright found enough movement to take three early wickets and South Africa took lunch uncomfortably placed on 76-4. With uncharacteristic restraint Pollock had taken an hour and a quarter to get to 34.

The fifth wicket fell almost straight after lunch and Pollock was joined by his captain, Peter Van Der Merwe, the last specialist batsman. There was a change of tempo from Pollock and, in seventy minutes, he moved his score on to 125. When he was out at 178-6 he had scored 91 of the 102 runs added since lunch and those in the press seats ran out of superlatives. In the commentary box England legend Denis Compton said; I have seen them all, Don Bradman, Stan McCabe, Walter Hammond ………. but I don’t believe I have ever seen a better innings. The abiding impression was of a team of decent batsman all struggling to score runs on a slow wicket, with the exception of Pollock, who made the game look very, very simple.

Thanks to Pollock South Africa got to 269, enough for a first innings lead of 29. Second time round Pollock added a useful 59. A target of 318 was beyond England who lost by 124 runs, hastened on their way by Pollock trapping England captain Mike Smith lbw, the last of his four Test wickets. Amidst universal acclaim perhaps the most telling comment is one from John Woodcock; not since Bradman’s day could anyone recall having seen an England attack treated in such cavalier style.

A fine series ended at the Oval with England 79 runs short of a victory target of 399 with six wickets to fall when rain robbed the players and enthralled crowd of the last seventy minutes. For once Pollock had taken a back seat, his contributions being 12 and 34.

Perhaps the trip to England left Pollock a little jaded, but he certainly wasn’t as effective in 1965/66. If there were concerns about his future form as a result those were however well and truly laid to rest the following summer when, with the Australians arriving for a full five Test series, Pollock’s best form returned. In the first Test, a South African victory, he scored 90 in the second innings, the only occasion in Tests in which he fell in the nineties.

In the second Test Australia responded to defeat by piling up an innings of 542. When South Africa slipped to 85-5, and with Pollock struggling with a groin strain all seemed over. In the event the home side did lose, but not before Pollock had scored 209 to equal his previous highest score and become, at 22, South Africa’s youngest double centurion. He added 112 with Van Der Merwe, and 85 with his brother before being ninth out at 343.

Despite the setback South Africa took the series by winning two and drawing the other of the remaining three Tests. In the final Test on his home ground at Port Elizabeth, one of the victories, Pollock celebrated his 23rd birthday by scoring his sixth Test century. Sadly there was only one more to come. For some time he looked like he may get the opportunity two years later when, initially, MCC seemed to have kept the 1968/69 tour in the schedule by omitting Basil D’Oliveira from their party. Shortly afterwards however D’Oliveira was called into the squad as a replacement, and the tour was called off.

In 1969/70 Australia returned to South Africa. They had been on a long tour of India immediately beforehand so were not as fresh as they might have been, but Australians do not lie down easily. Despite that the stunned visitors were well and truly hammered, losing each of the four Tests with the margins getting bigger and bigger; 170 runs, an innings and 129, 307 runs and 323 runs. Pollock failed in his final Test but prior to that he had recorded four half centuries and, in the second Test, the highest ever score by a South African, when he scored 274 at Durban, beating Jackie McGlew’s 255. At one point he and Barry Richards shared an exhilarating century partnership to leave South African cricket supporters with an indelible memory of what might have been.

As for Pollock he believed, for a brief period, that in fact he had played in 28 Tests rather than just the 23 that appear in the record books now. This is because he was a member of the Rest of the World squad that was assembled in England in 1970 to play a series of five ‘Test Matches’ against England in place of the South Africans. Once the series was over and the coffers replenished the Test status was, to the chagrin of some, taken away. Pollock was strangely quiet, making a significant contribution only in the final match at the Oval when he scored 114. A similar series arranged to replace the 1971/72 South African visit to Australia never did have Test status, although again Pollock was present, playing in three of the five games and, similarly to the series in England, doing nothing much until the final match, when he recorded a century.

With the start of the country’s sporting isolation some South Africans chose to ply their trade in England, most notably Richards and Mike Procter, but they were joined by others as the 1970s wore on and isolation began to bite. Pollock had plenty of offers, but chose not to accept any. He did not consider the financial rewards to be sufficiently attractive, and a life of six days a week cricket did not appeal to him. He has said many times that if he had played county cricket he would have expected his career to have ended considerably sooner than it did. 

A broken hand ruined Pollock’s season in 1972/73 and he never got going the following year. Back to his best in 1974/75 however he averaged over seventy, a standard he maintained for a number of years. In 1976/77 he became the first South African to be awarded a benefit game and, shortly afterwards, signed a contract to join Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. In the event he wasn’t called upon to appear, Packer deciding, in the face of objections from his Pakistani and West Indian players, not to risk their wrath by playing him or Denys Hobson who, as amateurs, were unacceptable whereas, despite it seemingly being a distinction without a difference, county professionals like Richards, Procter and Clive Rice were not objected to.

It was to be 1981/82 before Pollock was able to test himself against overseas players again. This was the year of the first rebel tour and an England side led by Graham Gooch. In the three ‘Tests’ Pollock contributed an unbeaten 64 to a victory in the first, but not much in the other two. The following year South Africa and Pollock, by now 38, had two very different challenges. The first was a weak Sri Lankan side who were heavily beaten. Pollock was called on to bat just once in each of the two ‘Tests’, and scored 79 and 197. 

The second set of visitors in 1982/83 were a different proposition however, as a West Indian side under Lawrence Rowe arrived. The first eleven of the dominant force in Test cricket could not be persuaded to join the tour, but the pace attack was still impressive; Sylvester Clarke, Ezra Moseley and Franklyn Stephenson. In the first of the two ‘Tests’ Pollock led the way with exactly 100. As a result the West Indies had to follow on, but recovered well and an unbeaten 43 was needed from Pollock to get South Africa over the line. He had top scored in both innings and did so again with 73 in the first innings of the second match, but even Pollock was unable to resist a magnificent spell of bowling from Clarke in the second innings as the West Indians squared the series. The West Indians returned the following season, this time for a four match series that they won 2-1. Pollock’s contributions were 62, 102, 41 and 46, before closing with a relative failure, 0 and 42.

Pollock turned 42 during the 1985/86 season, but he had no intention of retiring. Between November and February a team of Australian rebels was due to visit the Cape with Kim Hughes as leader. Fifteen years on from his last encounter with the Australians the little dog was now a silver fox but he was desperate to play and did so, and extended his career to cover the following season as well when the Australians were due to return. The first tour comprised three ‘Tests’ and the second four and South Africa won both series 1-0.

The first meeting between Pollock and the Australians came in a one day match, not a format he had grown up with, for Transvaal. He was struggling with a hamstring injury, but played nonetheless and came in late in the Transvaal innings to score an unbeaten 59 in 46 deliveries to set up a victory. Pollock spent the rest of both tours tormenting an Australian attack that contained the likes of Rodney Hogg, Carl Rackemann and Terry Alderman. Despite the presence in the South African side of players like Ken McEwan, Jimmy Cook, Clive Rice and Peter Kirsten Pollock was still, come the end of the second summer, sat on top of the South African averages on exactly 56.00. Had niggling injuries not kept him out of two of the matches he would doubtless have had the highest aggregate as well.

At least Pollock was fit for a farewell in the fourth and last ‘Test’ of the second tour, played on a hard true pitch at Port Elizabeth. The Australians won the toss and got to 455-9 before Hughes declared. The South African reply stuttered at 64-2 bringing Pollock to the crease. His very first delivery from Hogg caught the edge of the bat and landed just in front of the wicketkeeper before running away for four. From that potential anti-climax he scored a sublime century and went on to 144 before he was dismissed. He moved from 103 to 144 in just eleven scoring shots, a single and ten fours.

The whole innings was televised throughout South Africa and the press lauded the final big innings of a genuinely popular cricketer. He was interviewed afterwards and asked the usual questions, and observed; I can see the justice of our isolation now, though it was hard at the time. The changes will have to be political now because cricket itself has done a great deal. At that point in time although the end of apartheid was just a few years in the future no one could yet see it happening and in a parliamentary debate Minister of Finance Barent du Plessis responded that Pollock should be remembered as a great cricketer, but he should not be involved in debates on constitutional developments.

After leaving the game as a player Pollock continued his involvement in cricket in administrative, selectorial and coaching roles. In recent years he has not enjoyed the best of health and, like all of his generation, has certainly not been treated in the way that a former sporting hero should by the South African Board but, at 75, he remains a hero to all who remember him in his pomp, and to plenty more who know of him only via the history books and the few clips of his batting that can be found on the internet.

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