Mike Procter © Getty Images
Mike Procter © Getty Images

On July 18, 1972, Mike Procter managed the fantastic feat of scoring a century and following it up with a hat-trick. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the astonishing achievement and dwells on the other South Africans of that era for whom county cricket was the only stage to play alongside reputed international cricketers.

July 18, 1972

This day is auspicious in the history of cricket. This very day in 1848 saw the birth of the father of cricket — the great man, who, with his triumphs in the field, apocryphal tales that surrounded him, miracle of resuming his innings after being declared out and the most famous flowing beard of his times, would stride the cricketing firmament much like the Almighty of the Old Testament. It is said that apart from playing a pivotal role in the development of the game, WG Grace, along with his brothers and cousins, made up most of the Gloucestershire XIs of those days.

However, exactly 124 years after his birth, when the cricket team had travelled to Chalkwell Park, Westcliff on Sea, to take on Essex, the county was often referred to as Proctershire. And there were excellent reasons.

That morning 40 years ago, Gloucestershire had started the third and last day of the match at 184 for 6. Mike Procter, the side’s imported genius was unbeaten on 85, following a first-innings 51 and a haul of 3 for 43. The century was soon completed, with characteristic briskness and power backed up by sound technique, before Stuart Turner and Keith Boyce quickly ended the innings to set up a chase of 245.

Taking off his pads, Procter charged back into the ground like a raging bull, bowling open chested, off the wrong foot and frighteningly quick. With the score on 10, he trapped Graham Saville plumb in front with a late in-swinger; 8 runs later he got Brian Edmeades, Brian Ward and Keith Boyce, off consecutive deliveries, all leg before wicket and all curiously while bowling round the wicket.

Essex folded for 137, Procter finishing with 5 for 30.

Scoring a century and taking a hat-trick in the same match is a very rare feat, and Procter repeated it seven years later against Leicestershire at Bristol.

And yet, the wider world saw very little of this phenomenal all-rounder. His career was limited to just 7 Tests before South Africa was banished from the world of international cricket. Procter ended with a tally of 41 wickets at an average of 15.02, the ninth lowest for any bowler with 10 or more scalps.

The English escape for the Proteans

For his teammates of different seasons — be it Sadiq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas or, later, Chris Broad — county cricket was to fine tune skills as they took a break from, or geared up for, the hallowed field of Test matches. In sad contrast, for Procter, county was the best that it got, the only platform where he could flaunt his extraordinary talent that might have constructed an international career as glorious and glittering as that of an Imran Khan or an Ian Botham. “I lived there for 13 years and had some wonderful times. I couldn’t play international cricket, so I gave everything I had to Gloucestershire. I played some of my best cricket for Gloucestershire,” he recalled.

According to Procter, the standard of county cricket was exceptional. “When we played Somerset back then, their side contained people like Brian Close, Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham. Hampshire had Roberts, Greenidge and Barry Richards. Every county had top-quality players.”

The English summer was the only available pasture to transform many a frustrated Protean talent into international reputations.

Barry Richards, who had taken the world by storm in his four Tests, piled up runs for Hampshire. Clive Rice shared the dressing room and much of the glory with bat and ball with Richard Hadlee.

Peter Kirsten used to room with John Wright while they batted together for Derbyshire. Left-handed all-rounder Stephen Jefferies played a year for the same county, and then three years for Lancashire and two for Hampshire.

Jimmy Cook scored more than 7,500 runs in three seasons as an opener for Somerset, and was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1990. The hunger for international exposure of this clutch of cricketers is summed up by his words, “It gave me a chance to face bowlers like Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram — people we’d only ever heard about. That was an unbelievable challenge. When we as a county used to play against international teams that was like my Test match.”

Of these, only Cook and Kirsten managed to sustain their careers till 1991, when South Africa was finally accepted back into the cricketing fold. Way past his prime by then, Cook made little impact in his three Tests apart from the dubious distinction of becoming the first man to be out to the first ball of a Test match on debut. Kirsten did have a great time in the 1992 World Cup, and performed reasonably in the 12 Tests that he played.

Disappointment, but for a greater cause

Coming back to Procter, his other stint with the top players on the world stage came during World Series Cricket in Australia. Although he finished on the winning side in the Super Tests, he hardly felt the same tingle of excitement as while taking wickets and winning matches for South Africa. In 1980, he became eligible to play for England, but by then he was already 34 and Ian Botham was firmly established in the all-rounder’s spot in the English team.

However, he waves his disappointment away when one asks. ”Yes, I lost a Test career. But what is a Test career compared to the suffering of 40 million people? Lots of people lost a great deal more in those years, and if by missing out on a Test career we played a part in changing an unjust system, then that is fine by me.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)