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Colin Bland: Arguably the greatest fieldsman of all time

Colin Bland: Arguably the greatest fieldsman of all time

The Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1966, Colin Bland (above) at the crease during the third and final Test at The Oval against England in 1965. One of the finest fielders of all time, nicknamed the ‘Golden Eagle’ © Getty Image

Colin Bland, born April 5, 1938, is arguably the greatest fielder of all time. For good measure, he also averaged 49.08 with the bat. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the great fieldsman on his 75th birthday.
 

The two run-outs

It was the third afternoon at Lord’s during the Test match of 1965. Replying to the South African first innings score of 280, England were 240 for four, heading towards a match-winning lead. Ken Barrington was on 91, looking impregnable as ever, with the bespectacled skipper Mike Smith at the other end. Now arrived the moment that changed the fate of the series. Barrington pushed to the vacant square-leg and scampered down for what looked like an easy single. Smith was already making his way fast to the striker’s end. From mid-wicket, the lean, rangy form of Colin Bland was seen darting towards the square-leg umpire.

The naked eye strained to capture the blur as in one magnificent motion the Rhodesian  swooped on the ball, swung his torso at that hurtling speed and unleashed a throw with not a part of the body in touch with earth. It travelled like an arrow, along an absolute horizontal trajectory, and hit the stumps at the non-striker’s end. A bemused Barrington walked back, way short of his crease. A dazed Smith edged a catch at the same score. The hopes of a sizeable first innings lead were dashed with this spellbinding work on the field.

The Sunday’s rest perhaps helped England overcome their befuddlement, and on Monday Jim Parks and Fred Titmus carried the English score beyond the South African total. At 294 for six, a considerable lead was still on the cards when Parks turned towards the leg and ventured out.The Lord’s crowd was greeted to another burst of brilliance. Bland took off again, in the flashiest of flashes, pounced on the ball and threw in the same action — towards the bowler’s end while running full throttle towards square-leg — and the stumps were hit again. The English boat was rocked by a sense of déjà vu. South Africa fought back to draw the Test, Bland playing an important hand of 70 in the second innings. The visitors won the second Test riding on Graeme Pollock’s brilliance at Trent Bridge. And at The Oval, Bland batted four and half hours for a remarkably patient 127, setting a target of 399 for England and enabling South Africa wrap up the series.

In Sporting Century, Frank Keating later wrote: “On that thrilling full-house Saturday afternoon at Lord’s, it was the English batsmen who should have been forewarned about Bland — for only the winter before, on that same club ground at Salisbury, the tall, athletic, dead-eyed fieldsman had similarly and dramatically thrown out with direct hits two England batsmen, [Mike] Brearley and [Ted] Dexter, on MJK Smith’s MCC tour.”

Magic on the field

Bland stood deep in cover or mid-wicket, his very presence cutting singles off as no batsman wanted to chance his arm. And on that tour, he batted brilliantly as well, demonstrating a welcome tendency to loft the ball. An early six in the innings was his signature. He scored 286 runs in the Tests at 47.66, and was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of the year.

Reticent by nature, Bland modestly underplayed the fanfare surrounding his fielding. “All this publicity has been embarrassing. Apart from Lord’s I haven’t equalled my standard at home.”

It was perhaps true. Bland had been brilliant on occasions in the English fields, but he was known to be continuously spectacular in South Africa. Crowds flocked to the grounds to watch him field.

Besides, the performance with the bat that summer, good enough to make him one of the five Wisden Cricketers, was in fact one of his less prolific shows.

The previous South African summer, he had amassed 572 runs against England at 71.50, with an unbeaten 144 at Johannesburg.

A year earlier, the Proteans had toured Australia and New Zealand. In the Australian leg of the trip, Bland had scored 367 at 61.16 against an attack comprising of Graham McKenzie, Neil Hawke and Richie Benaud, with a hundred and three fifties in four Tests. And after crossing the Tasman Sea, he had managed 207 runs at 69.00 in New Zealand. All the while he had continued to set the grounds alight with his electric fielding.

Hence, for all his fame and stature as the best fielder of the world, Colin Bland could bat too — and as a genuine world class batsman with brilliant drives and superb lofted shots. His Test average ended at 49.08 for 1669 runs in 21 Tests. That was class. And if we add the 20-30 runs he cut off in each innings on the field, the figures are more than formidable.

The only series in which he never quite hit form with the bat was his first one, against New Zealand in 1961-62. Even in that, he had left his mark.

Batsman applauds the catch

Bland had been an all-round sportsman who hadopted for cricket after he had already been offered a rugby scholarship to Stellenbosch University. Like Jonty Rhodes after him, he was also a hockey player of note, and represented his country with distinction in that sport. By the time the New Zealanders arrived, he had been knocking on the doors of selection for a while with strong batting performances and almost mythical fielding ability.

A 98 for Rhodesia against the touring Kiwis in Bulawayo ensured his selection for the Test matches.
He managed just 205 runs in nine innings with a highest of 42, but his legend was already in the making. In the fourth Test at New Wanderers, Johannesburg, New Zealand skipper John Reid was striking the ball superbly, having moved to 60 in 84 minutes in the first innings. ‘Goofy’ Lawrence, the six foot five inch fast bowler endowed with the endearing nickname, pitched one in the slot. Reid struck it hard and low, a boundary written all over it. Bland flew and swooped, the very motion which earned him the tag ‘Golden Eagle’, and came up with the ball as the players and spectators pinched themselves. According to surviving eye-witnesses, for all the flying feats of Jonty Rhodes, this would rank as the catch of the century. Reid paused to applaud before leaving the field.

Bland’s international career came to a tragic end when in the first Test against Australia at Johannesburg in 1966-67, he damaged his knee badly, crashing into the boundary fence while chasing at full tilt. He did not turn out for South Africa again, but continued to play domestic cricket. With time, he had become one of the best slip fielders of the land, and played perhaps his best innings while captaining Rhodesia against Border on a sub-standard East London wicket, batting three hours for 197.

The art of fielding

During his playing days, Colin Bland was acknowledged as the greatest outfielder since the beginnings of Test cricket. His entire career overlapped with the phenomenon of Garfield Sobers, and if he was ranked above the West Indian great, that was saying a lot.

Before him there had been people like Gilbert Jessop, Percy Chapman, Jack Hobbs, Don Bradman, Neil Harvey and Leary Constantine. Since then, we have had the young Clive Lloyd, the mercurial Viv Richards, the dashing Derek Randall, the gangly Roger Harper, the amazing Mohammad Azharuddin, a plethora of modern-day livewires and — of course — Jonty Rhodes. Bland walks tall among all these glorious outfieldsmen. And his all-round versatility scores above most, according to the most knowledgeable opinions.

Bland was characterised by his uncanny ability to hit the wicket whilst running at full pace, often in the opposite direction. Most of his run-outs were achieved from cover or mid-wicket, and he often hit the wickets from a side-on position with only one stump to aim at. Another tactic made possible by his brilliance was to place mid-off much deeper than usual, lull the batsman into the security of a safe single from a gentle drive and then have Bland rush across from cover to throw down the bowler’s wicket.
He was also outstanding on the fence — whether placed there by the captain or having reached in pursuit of a travelling ball with panther-like strides. His throws from more than 80 metres travelled in a blink, traversing the whole distance at the level of the bails.

A retiring and shyindividual, Bland was often embarrassed by the adulation he received for his fielding exploits. The secret of his brilliance was rather mundane as most such secrets are — relentless hard work. He was known to train obsessively for hours at the local sports club, throwing at a single stump placed inside a hockey goal-net. And much like golfer Gary Player he would sometimes utter self-effacing statements amounting to: “The more I practise, the luckier I get.”

On that 1965 tour of England, the same one in which he dismissed Barrington and Parks with his bull’s-eye accuracy while engaged in greyhound dash, the South Africans were at Canterbury when a wet wicket held up play. Colin Cowdrey, the captain of Kent, requested Bland to entertain the restless crowd with a fielding exhibition. There are stories of his having been engaged in a similar demonstration with Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, but Bland was normally loath to become the centre of attraction. In this case, perhaps influenced by Cowdrey’s affability, he agreed.

A set of stumps materialised on the outfield. Several times a ball was driven — at different speeds and angles. Bland swooped down from around 20 to 30 yards, and in 15 tries hit the stumps an incredible 12 times. He was a master of the art.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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