REMEMBERED | Purring precision of Transvaal 'Mean Machine'

Clive Rice (Getty Images)
Clive Rice (Getty Images)
Allsport UK /Allsport
  • Transvaal's cricket team led by David Dyer and then Clive Rice became perhaps the most iconic SA provincial outfit ever.
  • In a roughly 10-year period, they gobbled up 17 trophies across the three main competitions.
  • Veteran Graeme Pollock's mastery at the crease and the strike hostility of Sylvester Clarke were key features.

All-conquering periods of extreme dominance by sports teams provide memories - especially to their specific supporters, of course - that last a lifetime.

In English football, for example, the Liverpool sides of the Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley managerial peaks, the Manchester United of the Alex Ferguson era ... and back home in rugby, the unprecedented five-consecutive-year Currie Cup-winning spell Western Province while Jan Pickard was the boardroom supremo at Newlands and Dawie Snyman the head coach are prime cases.

But for domestic cricket, certainly of the then-SACU fold of just over a decade preceding unity, the name of the mighty Transvaal "Mean Machine" jumps out at you in a flash if you were a witness to that era.

Led initially by opening batsman David Dyer and then onward to the deeper tenure of combative all-rounder Clive Rice, the Transvaal side of the period between 1978/79 and 1987/88 more or less steamrollered all before it.

Exceptions to the rule popped up along the way, but Transvaal hogged the Currie Cup first-class title seven times out of 10 opportunities in that spell and also won the major limited-overs crown, the Datsun (later branded Nissan) Shield a staggering seven times in eight between 1978/79 and 1985/86.

All that interrupted that heady spell in one-day cricket was a Western Province triumph - the final was routinely staged at Transvaal's Wanderers headquarters regardless of participants - in a stormy showpiece against Natal in 1981/82, marked by the respective

controversial run-outs of Allan Lamb and Paddy Clift in perceived breaches of the "spirit of cricket" by both teams, and unusually frosty scenes at the after-match presentation.

Then there was the infant, though highly popular Benson & Hedges night series, into the bargain: Transvaal won three of the first four titles on offer in that 45-overs competition, beginning in 1981/82.

Broadly speaking, then, if any other provincial comers at the time aspired to major glory, they certainly knew they had to somehow get through, or around, the imperious Transvaal first.

The beginnings of their title gluttony came under the on-field stewardship of Dyer, a tall and lean opening batsman born in Durban and formerly of Natal's Currie Cup outfit.

Now 73, his own batting statistics, as he entered his thirties, were already dropping off at the time but he was almost a South African equivalent in several senses of a Mike Brearley (the revered England captain who averaged only 22.88 in 39 Tests) for tactical and other forms of mastery in leadership.

Renowned for his spectacles and a trademark puka-shell necklace, Dyer commanded a useful enough batting line-up with a rapidly emerging Jimmy Cook as his partner upfront and gnarly others like Peter de Vaal, Rice and happy-hooking, almost always helmetless Kevin McKenzie in the mix.

The pace attack was penetrative too, with Rupert "Spook" Hanley - also a renowned artist - a fiery figure and Doug Neilson a willing seam workaholic.

They also had Ray Jennings as the most agile, acrobatic of wicketkeepers, while another player who would shift onward into the period of continued battery of opponents under Rice was burly left-arm spinner and fly-catcher extraordinaire at slip Alan Kourie.

From a top-flight baseball background in sport as well, Kourie was in inelegant batsman, with one pad tilted out on his front leg at an untidy angle, but capable of great obduracy and important runs from No 7 or 8: he became something of a nemesis to fierce southern rivals Western Province at helpful Newlands with his flight rather more than pronounced turn.

That Transvaal were already building a solid head of steam toward the end of Dyer’s captaincy was indisputable: when they won the respective Currie Cups of '78/79 and then '79/80, they were by notably wide margins on the table: 115 points to next-best WP’s 77 on the first occasion, and a record 131 points to their 103 on the second.

A massive strengthening development in 1979 was the dual acquisition of two batsmen who would become consistently heavy scorers for many seasons: Henry Fotheringham from Natal (a middle-order strokeplayer they would eventually, successfully shift into an opening berth with Cook) and, especially, the incomparable Graeme Pollock from Eastern Province.

By the time the left-handed maestro - later to be named SA Cricketer of the 20th Century in early 2000 - joined the Highveld fold, his legend was already well established, as his official Test career (there were subsequent appearances against various controversial Rebel tourists) was long over.

Scorer of 2 256 international runs at an eye-catching 60.97 in only 23 Tests between 1963 and 1970, Pollock was around 35 when he moved to Johannesburg, so there might have been some raised eyebrows.

Transvaal administrative guru Ali Bacher, captain of the immortal SA side which had clean-swept Australia 4-0 in 1969/70, recalls Pollock's arrival in his book with Rodney Hartman "Ali: The life of Ali Bacher" (Penguin): Graeme came up for business reasons and was talking about giving up the game ... I went to see him when he got here and talked to him about it.

"He was still an excellent player and had a lot to offer; I suggested to him that this would be another challenge for him and that he would help us draw crowds ... he was the key."

As it turned out, Pollock remained blessed with a magical touch at the crease right through to age 43, so gave some eight years of prolific service to the Mean Machine - including promptly smashing a double-century (233) in the traditional, jam-packed New Year tussle against WP at Newlands in season one under his new cap.

Bacher was never renowned for shying away from tough decisions and, in 1981/82, he was involved in the decision to replace an increasingly runs-shy Dyer with Rice as skipper of the fast-rising 'Vaal force - despite the strong-willed pair not always seeing eye to eye on issues.

He says Rice was "wanted because he was such a fierce competitor and truly outstanding all-rounder who, in my opinion, was in the Procter/Goddard/Barlow class".

It was to be an inspired choice, as Rice not only led from the very front and possessed both hunger and a ruthless streak, but was also cricket scribes' dream for the way he was prepared to publicly rile and goad opponents ahead of big matches.

I remember several occasions before the New Year "south v north" humdinger where I was among the two or three Capetonian newspapers scribes routinely invited to his room at the Newlands Hotel: he knew us all by name, would ask how WP preparation was looking, and then rattle off some suitably bellicose soundbites for us.

Whatever else he might have been wearing at the time, Ricey (sadly to later die in 2015, aged 66) would always ensure he had that ubiquitous, sponsored Avis cap firmly attached to his increasingly balding head.

He was an audacious businessman, too: years later he was still ringing me to offer fax-to-email solutions, perhaps not realising he was dealing with the original, pretty disinterested techno-klutz.

But on Rice's watch, the Mean Machine only tightened the noose on everyone who dared stand in their way.

Rice and Hugh Page had formidable "throat balls" of their own when the mood grabbed them, but Transvaal only went up a few more, intimidating notches when pedigreed Caribbean stars Alvin Kallicharran (left-handed top-order batsman) and the fearsome, ribcage-rattling shock bowler Sylvester Clarke joined the party to suddenly give Transvaal something of a "galacticos" feel.

Diminutive, Guyanese former Test staple "Kalli" became a popular figure, only beefing further their already famed ability to get a first-innings crack-on in pursuit of bonus points under the old system of one for every 25 runs - from the 175-mark onward - in the first 85 overs of Currie Cup contests.

There was even one visit to Newlands, I recall, where WP were so obsessed with the old "Kourie hoodoo" over them that they clean forgot Kallicharran's occasional usefulness as a slow bowler himself ... and he duly picked up an unexpected five-for in the first innings with his offies.

As for Clarke, everyone already knew that every single other Test team on the planet would have found a gleeful place for the barrel-chested, often snarling quickie; he was just never guaranteed a West Indies berth because they had so many other legends of the pace trade at the time.

"Big Sly" was always a special handful in Transvaal's favour at the fast, bouncy Bullring; he had a sadistic bouncer that was said to "follow the batsman" as he tried to weave out of the way, like a heat-seeking missile.

Just trying to survive the Barbadian was such a trauma for batsmen that they would often enough take on the bowler at the other end as some kind of pressure-easing quest ... simply meaning plenty of slashes into a predatory Jennings/Kourie-led cordon behind the stumps for wickets to Messrs Page, Rice and Neal Radford.

Even in a rare, non-Currie Cup-winning season for the 'Vaal, in 1985/86, they came within a dramatic whisker of snatching it.

Forced into second place on the round-robin closing log by Adrian Kuiper's WP, the rules at the time meant that Newlands would thus have rights to the final ... and even a draw would suffice for Province to lift the cup, ending three prior seasons of Transvaal hogging of it.

The hosts duly started in exemplary fashion, posting 368 for six declared, and then having the rare luxury of enforcing a follow-on as the Highvelders subsided to 212 all out - more than 150 behind.

An improved second dig (298, with a Cook century) still meant WP would only require 143 for victory, with ample time left on closing day four to do so.

Instead quite dramatic carnage ensued: Page, Radford and Clarke to the tails-up fore, Newlands was stunned into silence as they collapsed like a house of cards to 49 for eight.

The primary need, of course, had now swung to mere "hang-on" mode ... with all of 20 overs left as wicketkeeper Richie Ryall joined skipper Kuiper at the crease.

Blocking out wasn't exactly Kuiper's most renowned skill, of course, but he found a dogged partner in the straight-batted tail-ender Ryall and somehow they kept the onslaught at bay to close on 80/8 and eke out the stalemate.

It did give WP's trophy triumph a slightly hollow, part-humiliated feel ... but also summed up the character accompanying the plentiful other positive hallmarks of the Mean Machine. Various major-name players not mentioned here contributed fulsomely at either the front or back ends of the Mean Machine's majestic reign.

There was also the odd, rare instance of a high-calibre Transvaal player of the time being lured elsewhere after aiding the Bullring cause at its peak.

Broad-shouldered all-rounder Brian McMillan, for example - later to become a prominent figure in South Africa's immediate post-isolation internationals - was "poached" by WP in 1989/90 when Lawrence Seeff, also an influential figure in the property industry, assumed the Newlands captaincy.

But if you asked me to assemble the Mean Machine team I most remember as being near-unstoppable - and perhaps best-balanced - in the heady period for them, it would probably look like this:

Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham, Alvin Kallicharran, Graeme Pollock, Clive Rice (capt), Kevin McKenzie, Alan Kourie, Ray Jennings, Hugh Page, Neal Radford, Sylvester Clarke.

In a sure sign of just how juggernaut that team was, I recollect more than a few occasions where "Springbok" sides were chosen for Rebel clashes and the only three "intruders", if you like, from elsewhere to the huge, self-picking Transvaal core of players would be Peter Kirsten for West Indian Kallicharran at No 3, and another WP pair, strike bowlers Garth le Roux and Stephen Jefferies, in place of Clarke and the later England-capped, Zambian-born lively seamer Radford.

Yes, the Mean Machine were of premier-level Test calibre: quite likely more than a match for most global powers of the time, save perhaps the particularly imperious Windies of the Eighties.

That said enough about them, didn't it?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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