TOUR TALES | When Polly's boys went 'zero to hero' Down Under

Shaun Pollock (Getty Images)
Shaun Pollock (Getty Images)

South Africa's sterling flip-around in fortunes in unforgiving Australia during the eventful cricket summer of 2001/02 remains, I believe, one of the most underappreciated events in our post-isolation history.

It was also a heart-warming, thoroughly deserved pick-me-up for their embattled captain Shaun Pollock: I was pleased to have been there to witness - an inadvertently, beautifully timed intrusion - the rosier part of that safari.

The background?

Then as editor of a well-known monthly sports magazine (RIP!), I flew Down Under to gather material for features toward the back end of round-robin play in the traditional VB Series, an extended annual one-day international triangular in that country featuring the host nation, the main multi-format tourists that particular season (South Africa) and an additional side (trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand that year).

Despite their already well-rooted reputation as a 50-overs force, Pollock's troops weren't significantly fancied to win it ... not only given an already mounting feeling that they were prone to "choking" at pivotal moments against the formidable Aussies, but because of the unseemly mess, frankly, that had been the just-completed Test portion of the tour and the risk of demoralisation and foreign-shores fatigue only setting in deeper for some players.

The Baggy Greens, under that iron figure Steve Waugh, had blitzed SA (not yet rebranded the Proteas) for a 3-0 sweep of the Tests, the gulf in quality at the time pretty clear in the margins of triumph: 246 runs in Adelaide, nine wickets in Melbourne, 10 wickets in Sydney.

While Australia boasted such heavyweight cricketing "bullies" as the Waugh brothers, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, their foes were still in the aftershock phase of the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal and further bedevilled by injuries to veteran pace spearhead Allan Donald and the young sensation they had so hoped to unleash on Aussie soil: Mfuneko Ngam.

So Pollock was burdened not only by the captaincy against the Aussie juggernaut - a situation hardly aided by the much-publicised Justin Ontong-Jacques Rudolph flashpoint just ahead of the SCG clash, in which then-United Cricket Board president Percy Sonn had overruled the selectors on transformation grounds to facilitate the former's hasty debut ahead of his roommate and friend - but also a gargantuan personal workload as senior bowler.

In vintage Aussie fashion, too, they had cunningly "targeted" senior pro Pollock for criticism: I remember their television commentator and former skipper Mark Taylor repeatedly making reference to the flame-haired all-rounder's "lack of zip off the pitch" in a series where big Matthew Hayden blasted centuries in all three matches.

It was unjustified, really, considering "Polly's" own injury legacy that had forced him into shedding a good few km/h on the speed-gun after his more hostile youth and the volume of overs he had to get through in that series (yet ongoing ability, all the while, to keep the run-concession rate against his name well in check).

Still, with just a tweak or two to their squad personnel, South Africa began delicately stopping the rot, clawing back a semblance of self-respect, in the early portion of that fast-follow-up VB Series.

Two previous SA cracks at trophy-lift in the Oz triangular jamboree had floundered: in 1993/94, when it was branded the Benson & Hedges World Series, and again in 1997/98 (Carlton & United Series): the hosts the champions each time, which only really rubbed it in.

By the time I got to Perth from Johannesburg for SA's two closing league-phase fixtures (first against New Zealand, then Australia two days later), they were still in contention, though only just, to make the cut for the two-leg (and a third, if required) final.

The triangular had been marked by a particular pattern: those dastardly Aussies still tending to knock over South Africa more often than not, but New Zealand just as frequently upsetting their neighbours (in all of the first three bilateral tussles, for example) while tending to play second fiddle to Pollock and company.

In my first experience of live cricket at the legendary, pace-friendly WACA, it quickly seemed we were going to bow out of the tournament with a bit of a whimper even before the Australian encounter as the big wicket of Jacques Kallis saw the New Zealanders, who had won the toss, rapidly put their opponents on the ropes at 35 for four.

There and then, I gloomily suspected my scheduled onward trek to both Melbourne and Sydney for the respective finals was going to be for purely Australia v New Zealand combat - and I wouldn't be alone in that possible anti-climax, if so.

Although media-accredited, I was travelling as part of a "trade exchange" by the magazine with then-SuperSport Travel, and in the midst of a couple of dozen SA supporters, including a particularly affable pharmacist from Stutterheim and an Eskom man and his wife from Empangeni.

But that's when the indefatigable Jonty Rhodes would lead a blistering South African turnaround: he struck one of his own most priceless ODI centuries, and with increasingly cavalier back-up from half ton-makers Mark Boucher and Pollock, SA eventually posted 270 for five.

On the true surface and with the ball coming onto the blade typically briskly, Pollock's clean-striking reputation came hugely to the fore, as he ripped into the Kiwis' left-arm seamer James Franklin for three towering sixes on the trot - they did always say games "moved forward" at the famous venue.

Already assured of their own ticket to the finals, NZ were possibly a little complacent in their chase and were curtailed to 203 for eight, ensuring a sound SA victory by 67 runs.

That was when it became apparent that Pollock's increasingly emboldening outfit wouldn't necessarily have to beat the Aussies shortly afterwards to join the Black Caps in the showpiece phase: they would just have to ensure they only lost by a reasonably narrow margin (ie, avoiding a bonus-point reverse) to pip the host nation to a ticket.

So when the Australians posted a pretty menacing 283 for seven, South Africa simply had to ensure they reached a magical number of 226 to be sure of onward passage, even in defeat.

It was fascinating eavesdropping on a few Aussie scribes muttering about SA's "lack of ambition" and "negative mode" and the like as they clearly - but why the hell not, frankly? - set their minds on the less risk-requiring, "minor" target.

This was a clear case of a bigger-picture focus: most sides would have adopted their approach under the circumstances, I am pretty sure.

SA were duly beaten by 33 runs on paper, but effectively "won" as they breezed to that precious 226 with the surrender of only five wickets (they ended 250 for five).

A measured, unflappable century by such an obvious architect in that scenario, Kallis, did the trick.

Incredibly, what the outcome did - with the hosts now nudged out of the event by a whisker - was simply sharpen knives in the unforgiving Australian press for "Tugga" Waugh's head as captain of their limited-overs side, despite his masterminding of the Test-level butchery of South Africa a few short weeks before.

Having crossed the pitch from the far side in time to attend the SA portion of the post-match press conference, I unwittingly walked into the media room just as Waugh, his face like thunder after clearly having to defend himself against scribes' hostility, was exiting it with a belligerent stomp.

He brushed my shoulder (a bit "Rabada-Smith" for contact level ... that's all) as I walked innocently enough the other way in the tight, middle alley.

A long-time admirer from a more distant land, I almost fancied wailing in slightly pathetic protest "hey, what did I do, Steve?" and I will never forget the words he muttered beneath his breath as he passed: "This room's full of f**king c*ckheads."

While they couldn't claim to have triggered revenge over Australia more specifically or directly, just eclipsing them into the finals was a major tonic for Pollock and his previously embattled side.

You could sense a huge lightening of their mood, a fresh spring in their collective step, as everyone flew onward, across the barren Nullarbor Plain and the sparkling waters of the Great Australian Bight, to Melbourne for game one of the finals.

There was an unmistakable feeling among the SA players, I strongly suspect, the relieved SuperSport Travel supporters (clearly aware they were now getting better value for their tour money) and certainly yours truly that South Africa may now "have got this one".

The national team positively thumped the New Zealanders at the MCG - I found it a slightly soulless colosseum, myself, though perhaps partly because of the inevitably modest, notably Aussie-lacking attendance - with major features being Boeta Dippenaar's illuminating, stroke-playing majesty for 79 not out ... and a poignant, first-time overseas five-for in ODIs for a certain, fast-budding Makhaya Ntini.

"Makkie" was visibly over the moon about it, and he charmed the media at the after-match briefing (I recall he was in just a vest and shorts, and munching through a quite formidable pile of toasted-cheese sandwiches) with his sheer effervescence if not necessarily tops-for-eloquence quotes.

For the second final at the Sydney Cricket Ground, I chose to sit with the travelling fans, to savour the crowd atmosphere rather than settle for the more sanitised environment of the media centre (I wasn't needing to file any immediate copy).

The occasion was marked by a pre-game hailstorm to make the Highveld proud, the stones teeming down so stingingly that those on open-air seats had to scurry for cover.

But in a slightly curtailed, Duckworth/Lewis-method encounter, South Africa again made pleasingly short shrift of things, winning by six wickets for a 2-0 sweep and handsome rights to the silverware.

The extent of the balcony whooping and high-fiving said so much about how a tour that had once threatened to be only an apocalyptic horror show had blissfully swung around into a redemptive, thoroughly laudable sting in the SA tail.

An earlier climate of paranoia and aversion in the camp to the relatively small group of accompanying South African reporters had turned appreciably for the better, too: a reflection of that hallmark was that the next day (a gap one before the long flight home), the UCBSA's then-communications officer Bronwyn Wilkinson treated scribes Neil Manthorp, Fanie Heyns and myself to a leisurely beachside lunch in Manly.

Afternoon blurred agreeably into evening, and I recall we finished off with a possibly Dutch courage-fuelled amble into a "pokies" joint, where Manners and I made a handy few dollars on the horse-racing slots (we can't have been too disgracefully oiled: it's still clear as anything in my mind that the winning nag was called Twebby Twotter).

There was a tangible sense of lingering bonhomie as we boarded the Qantas Boeing 747 for Jo'burg, too.

The SA players were already settling into their business-class seats - joking, pranking, beaming - as we filed past to get to the humbler sections of the cabin toward the rear.

For my sins, Polly threw a pillow at me, and I believe (players tend to think press are lousy fielders ... and batsmen, and bowlers) that I may even have clung onto it.

Ah, happy days ... it was a venture that had once looked like ending enormously more gloomily.

I was especially chuffed for Shaun Maclean Pollock.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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