No way to treat a legend

2008-01-19 00:00

Shaun Pollock has had enough of hanging round the South African dressing room. It is difficult to believe that the national team was stronger without his all-round skills and one fears that a couple of the present South African bowlers, at least, have been flattered by the weakness of this summer’s opposition.

Pollock ought to have played at the Wanderers and possibly at Centurion, the two grounds at which he has always been a handful. The failure of the selectors to pick him for either match sent Pollock a clear message that he has become peripheral to their thinking.

It was one thing for the selectors to claim Pollock continued to be in their plans, but another to give him an extended leave of absence when he was obviously keen to play. For a year we have heard much about the need to keep players fresh, but the selectors persisted with the same four fast bowlers for all five Test matches of this season and both those in Pakistan.

All the Tests were scheduled in batches of matches. The last three were played on successive weekends, but the only quickie rested, until he finally cracked a game at Kingsmead. Even then, Pollock was chosen in place of the team’s only spinner. No wonder the man who was the country’s all-time leading wicket taker decided that the selectors’ actions spoke louder than their words and opted to spare himself the indignity of carrying the team’s drinks for a further round of Test matches in Bangladesh and India.

I believe the selectors have managed Pollock appallingly in view of the role that he might have played later this year in England. It seems to me that they have placed too much hope in the promise of Morne Morkel and relied too much on the continued fitness of both him and Andre Nel. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that the absence of Pollock in England will be the ultimate difference between the two teams.

The South Africans will encounter at least one Test match pitch that would have both suited Pollock’s bowling and made the team wish for a longer batting line-up than it currently possesses.

It is sad that one of our greatest cricketers has chosen to retire a tad prematurely. I hope that he does not come to regret his decision as there is an awful lot of time left for him to ponder whether he might have left a fraction before his time.

Still, it is better to jump rather than be pushed and Pollock could certainly feel the footsteps creeping up on him. He leaves the game not quite at the top, as he might have wished, but with a splendid record that will stand the test of time. It will be some while, if ever, before a South African takes over 400 wickets and makes over 3 000 runs at an average in excess of 30.

Along with Jacques Kallis, Pollock gave the team a base of all-round skills that enabled it to enter every series for 12 years with a chance of victory. Fortified by these two, the South Africans were more than a match for most other teams, but the great prizes in cricket eluded them. Kallis and Pollock provided the core of a team that should have won the World Cup and beaten the Australians in a Test series, but it was not to be.

The 1999 World Cup was within grasping distance when Herschelle Gibbs, one of the best catchers of a cricket ball ever to have played for South Africa, dropped a sitter. I have little doubt that a torn hamstring in 1997 took Pollock out of an Australian Test match that he would have won for his country. On a Port Elizabeth pitch that he would like to find in heaven, Pollock bowled less than two overs during which he took one wicket and could have had two more, so often did he beat the bat. Had South Africa won that match, I believe the series would have been secured in Centurion where, even without Pollock, the combination of Allan Donald and Brett Schultz would have been too much for the Aussies.

Shaun Pollock was first chosen to play for his country by a selection panel chaired by his father, Peter. He was done no favours by the old man and probably had to wait a little bit longer than he should have done owing to Peter’s awareness of a conflict of interest. So quick was the boy’s impact in the team that the question of a conflict never arose.

There was a nasty moment for the two of them, however, on the first afternoon of Shaun’s debut Test match at the Wanderers. Fielding at wide mid-on, Shaun dropped an absolute sitter off the bat of Alec Stewart at a vital stage of England’s first innings. All eyes in The Long Room turned to Peter, but he betrayed not a flicker of emotion. He knew his boy would have some bad moments, but he also knew he was good enough for the long haul.

Not quite in the fullness of time Shaun became captain of the South African team. He was a good rather than great captain mainly because he expected of his team the same steely attitude on the field that he possessed. He was not one for endless rounds of net practice and gymnastics. He reasoned that he had enough to do in a match without wasting energy in the days preceding it.

Critics harped about his “poor body language”, but his results were good. His reign would have been longer had he not been most unfairly blamed for the 2003 World Cup Duckworth-Lewis fiasco. Nothing became him better than the manner in which he accepted his dethronement. He must have been bitterly disappointed, but he gave his full support to the new captain despite being something of an outsider to the Mother City mafia that runs the national team.

I first saw Shaun Pollock at Potchefstroom when he was playing for Natal Schools against the Transvaal team in a Nuffield week. I had gone down to watch the very talented local team that included Nic Pothas, Adam Bacher, the unfortunate Vic Vermeulen (the most gifted of the whole lot, but later paralysed in a swimming accident) and Shaun’s cousin, Anthony, the son of his famous uncle (Graeme). But my attention was soon caught by a flaming redhead. It was apparent then that he had inherited his hair from his mother and healthy dose of cricketing genes from his father.

Apart from a short gap of no more than a couple of years, the name of Pollock has resonated through South African cricket for nearly 50 years. All three, Peter, Graeme and Shaun, brought with them a love of the game allied to a firm conviction of how it ought to be played. On the field they gave it everything, but were never guilty of anything common or mean. They adorned the game and their country.

A wonderful era in South African cricket is all but over. The forthcoming one-day series gives cricket lovers in South Africa the chance of a last glimpse of a great talent and the opportunity to say goodbye. The cricket will be hopelessly one-sided, but I hope the grounds are packed. I trust that Shaun will not only play, but will bat well up the order in all the matches.

Shaun Pollock will be missed and never more so than during this winter’s tour of England.

•RAY WHITE is a former UCB president.

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