The fair-haired maestro from the Veld


Graeme and Peter Pollock at a practice session, The Oval, August 25, 1965.

The entire cricket loving world would agree it was their collective misfortune that they were denied seeing the best years of some of South Africa’s most compelling cricketers due to the enforced sporting isolation beginning 1970. The boycott was necessary and the rich blend of coloured youth we now see under the South African cap is a vindication of that struggle and the jettisoning of South Africa’s then odious form of segregated governance known as Apartheid. Justice was achieved only through the sacrifice of many great men but the end was amicable, agreeable, peaceful and just. It needed two big men – one from each colour – to achieve the desired results and they both stood out as men of vision, great heart and mutual accommodation. This essay however is not attempt to discuss the dismantling of Apartheid but to trace back the career of a South African hero from my youth, who is a definite forebear of those whom we have seen since then, representing that great sporting nation with such distinction.

High praise from the Don -

At an age when many a fine Test player would still have not embarked on his Test career, Graeme Pollock at 19 was already being touted as one of the world’s most accomplished batsmen in Test cricket. At the time it was an uncomfortable thought for bowlers everywhere, that the best of Pollock was yet to come.

The South African batting for years before had been noted for its dour defensive qualities, but this image was quickly transformed during their tour of Australia and NZ in 1963/4 where they paraded a fine array of attacking batsmen. Had their fielding not let them down with such religious regularity, they may have even won the rubber as they were the superior side by far in the batting and bowling departments.

Pollock was only 19 by the time he arrived in Australia in 1963/4. Whatever he may have lacked at the time, confidence wasn’t one of them. This was the tour when the genius of his batsmanship was on display in all its glory. In his second first class match against a combined XI which had five Australian Test cricketers in it, Pollock scored 127 not out, reaching his hundred in only 88 minutes. Among the on- lookers was Sir Donald Bradman, who at close of play sidled up to the fair haired Pollock and confided "If you ever score a century like that again, I hope I am there to see it". Pollock made hundreds in the Sydney and Adelaide Tests, where his exhilarating 175 in Adelaide along with Eddie Barlow helped set up a record 341 runs in only 4 hours and 40 minutes. There was no doubting now that a young maestro had arrived.

Unshaken belief he was never out -

Robert Graeme Pollock was born in Durban on February 27th, 1944, as the younger brother of Peter by 3 years. Hailing from a sporting family, cricket contests in the backyard were par for the course. Since the backyard was soon not big enough, they gravitated to the concrete pitch in the neighbourhood to continue their Test matches. Graeme was then only 4 years old. The intensity of these contests were such, they mostly ended in fights and arguments, largely owing to Graeme’s reluctance to accept he was ever out. He hated getting out, preferring to create a dispute instead, which finally would lead to abandoning the match. From his very young days Graeme Pollock loved batting and monopolizing the crease. This was a trait he carried with him into his later years, tending to ‘farm’ the strike much to the chagrin of his partners. It was clear from the start that he was destined to become a prodigy. He was in the school side when only 13 and at the age of 16 he became the then youngest player to score a hundred in the Currie cup.

Following that Australian tour, his performances in the home series against the touring MCC were somewhat sober. Yet he made 137 and 77 not out in the fifth Test against England at Port Elizabeth in 1964/5 to total 459 runs for the series; a relatively modest season by his own high standards.

That glorious summer of 1965 -

It was however when South Africa toured England in the summer of 1965 that Pollock reached the zenith of his powers. He heralded his golden age with a chanceless 125 out of 269 in the second Test at Trent Bridge, coming in when South Africa were two down for 16. Throwing caution to the winds but never reckless, he gave full rein to his elegant off side stroke play which was studded with square drives and cover drives of immense power, precision and placement. He hit twenty one 4’s and reached his hundred in only two hours nine minutes. Along the way, he became the youngest player at the time to pass 1000 runs in Test cricket in the course of an unforgettable Test innings, despite wickets tumbling all around him. That inning paved the way for South Africa’s only victory and the winning of the rubber for the first time in 30 years. Graeme Pollock made 125 and 59 and his brother Peter took 5 wickets in each innings to wrap up what was convincingly a ‘Pollock affair’ that brought victory to South Africa. He soon thrashed 203 not out against Kent in a devastating innings of five 6’s and twenty eight 4’s and scored 122 in one minute under two hours against Sussex for good measure.

More heroics -

He left England heading both Test (48.50) and tour (57.35) averages. Then came the Australians to the Veld in 1966/7, where he made 90 peerless runs at exactly a run a minute in the second innings of the first Test at Johannesberg. That match is remembered as one of the most memorable Test matches in South African history. Pollock’s inning was all about wristwork, timing and placement as he unfurled a stunning gem of an inning that was a purist’s joy. That win helped South Africa gain their first home series win against Australia in 64 years.

Hardly a week after that epic, Pollock was forced to bat in the second Test at Newlands with a runner owing to a pulled thigh muscle. This forced him to limit himself for much of his innings to strokes off the back foot. Coming at his usual number 4 with South Africa at 12 for 2 and confronted by a blazing Graham Mckenzie at his best in reply to Australia’s 542, Pollock whacked six boundaries in his first 28 and then went on the rampage to score his first 100 off 139 balls. Thereafter he proceeded further, scoring 209 out of a total of 353 in 350 minutes, adding 85 with his brother Peter for the ninth wicket. His heroics didn’t save the match for his team, but having won the third Test and drawn the 4th, he helped South Africa to win the rubber with 105 in the 5th Test at Port Elizabeth.

The two countries next met in 1969/70 when Pollock massacred Bill Lawry’s hapless men to the tune of 517 runs in four Tests at 73. 85. In the Durban Test he scored 274, South Africa’s highest individual Test score at the time. Despite the isolation from international sport in 1970, Pollock continued his prolific form becoming the highest scorer in the Currie Cup competition. In a 60 over-limit match he once made a record 222 not out at Port Elizabeth. In 1974/5 he hit 1097 runs (78.35) and he held at the time the record for a season’s aggregate for both Eastern Province (984 runs in 1974/5) and Transvaal (961 runs at an average of 96.10 in 1978 /9). His batting prowess remained undiminished even in high company, when he recorded centuries in two of the unofficial Tests against the West Indian fast bowlers of 1983 and 1984 including Sylvester Clarke, Franklyn Stevenson and Bernard Julien among others. After the 1985/86 season, he finally announced his retirement, but not before having put to the unofficial Australian tourists to the sword by making 59 off 44 balls in a ODI at Johannesburg and 108 in the four day international at Durban. It was his 62nd first class century.

Why, so special? -

What was so special about Pollock’s batting? It was perhaps the effortless ease with which he would drive on the up or even cut, pull, or force anything fractionally short of a good length to the boundary. When in such a mood, it was near impossible to bowl at him. He never needed a half volley or a long hop to rack up his boundaries; he would instead just lean towards the path of the ball and send it racing away with effortless ease either through the covers or wide of mid-on, relying on that lovely relaxed swing of his heavy bat. When in his element, the fair haired Pollock was considered one of the most glorious sights to watch on a cricket field. They say that even though he possessed height, strength and toughness, Pollock hit the ball with the delicacy, finesse and precision of a surgeon. Sadly, these grand sights were reserved only for South African audiences from 1970 till the time he pulled stumps on his career in 1985/6. Literally, his Test career was over at 26, thanks to the enforced sporting isolation worldwide. By that time he had played in 23 Tests, scored seven centuries of which two were double hundreds and two others being more than 150. He averaged 60.97 in Tests.

There were some others too that cannot escape mention – players of character, skill and brilliance such as Colin Bland, Denis Lindsay and Eddie Barlow (without even touching on Mike Proctor or Barry Richards) but all of that – I am afraid – will have to wait for another day.


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