Lee Irvine: Could have been the Adam Gilchrist of his times, but sadly belonged to South Africa’s lost generation
Lee Irvine, the swashbuckling batsman-wicket-keeper, was born on March 9, 1944. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at yet another talented cricketer whose international career ended prematurely due to South Africa’s discriminating policies.
Had Lee Irvine had a career of the duration his talent deserved, he would probably have been hailed as the predecessor to the likes of Adam Gilchrist. His fearless batting, his nimble footwork, his aggressive strokeplay, and his immense power made Irvine stand out among his contemporaries. If that was not enough, Irvine also kept wickets, and was rather good at it.
He began his career playing for Western Province Invitation XI against a star-studded International Cavaliers, led by Richie Benaud. Despite scoring 48 and 18 (and had a stumping, though he did not start the match as the designated wicket-keeper), he did not play another First-Class match for nearly three years. On his return, he had an extensive run for Natal, batting with bravado, and often scoring at an incredible pace.
He finally established himself, though, with his two hundreds in the 1967-68 season — with scores of 107 not out for North-Eastern Transvaal, and 106 against a star-studded Transvaal. He scored 504 runs at 56.00 in that season, and was, rather surprisingly, selected to play for Essex.
The first season for Essex was a rather fruitful one for Irvine. He played as a batsman, scored 1,439 runs at 32.70 with nine fifties, and more stunningly, hit 26 sixes in 50 innings, earning a much-coveted county-cap in his first season. He drew spectators to the ground with his outrageous aggression with the bat. Back home that year, he was announced the South African Cricketer of the Year, and followed it with 507 runs at 42.25. In the next season for Essex, he made his first hundred on English soil — a dominant 109 against Glamorgan.
Irvine began the domestic First-Class season with 138 not out (his career-best) and 46 against Eastern Province, and followed the performance with 88 and 34 against Transvaal, and 107 and 34 against Western Province. Naturally he was selected to play the home series against Bill Lawry’s Australia, despite the strong South African squad.
Ali Bacher won the toss in the first Test at Cape Town as Irvine made his debut as a specialist batsman alongside Grahame Chevalier, Dennis Gamsy, and Barry Richards. Coming in at 187 for four, Irvine added 94 with Eddie Barlow for the fifth wicket, and eventually fell to Ashley Mallett for an uncharacteristically dour 111-ball 42 with three boundaries. He scored a 70-ball 19 in the second innings, and though South Africa won by a whopping 170 runs, Irvine could have hoped for a better debut.
At Durban, Bacher won the toss once again. Irvine scored a 52-ball 13, and South Africa crushed Australia by an innings and 129 runs, based on Graeme Pollock’s famous 274, supported by Barry Richards’s 140, and some quality bowling by the Springboks.
Bacher won the toss for the third time in a row, this time at Johannesburg. For once, the Australians bowled well, and the score was 162 for four when Irvine walked out; they were soon reduced to 194 for seven. Irvine, irked by his earlier performances in the series, decided to play his natural game — and what an innings it was! He took the Australian attack by its horns, and he scored a brilliant 79 in 126 balls with four fours and two sixes, and was last out with the team score on 279. His 79 had come out of 117 runs scored during his stay at the wicket.
Irvine had finally arrived. After Mike Procter and Peter Pollock bowled out Australia for 202, South Africa needed to score some quick runs to be able to declare. Being promoted to No 5, Irvine walked out at 241 for three, and hit the Australian attack even harder; he scored 73 off 86 balls this time with 10 fours and a six, and South Africa sealed the series at Johannesburg with a mammoth 307-run victory.
The Australian humiliation was far from over, though. After Bacher won the toss at Port Elizabeth, Irvine, now batting at No 5, scored a 59-ball 25. Once again, South Africa led — this time by 99 — and once again Irvine was in his comfort zone, playing aggressively, first in a partnership with Bacher, and then in an explosive partnership with Dennis Lindsay, following it up with a third with Tiger Lance — during which he reached his maiden hundred in less than three hours on what was his 26th birthday.
Irvine’s brilliance matched the ferocious gale that blew across the ground towards the end of an innings, a comparison similar to the one spectators at Sharjah made during a 1998 evening. After he finally fell for a 146-ball 102, with nine fours and two sixes, Procter completed the whitewash with a six-wicket spell, resulting in a 323-run victory.
Not only were the mighty Australians battered, they were simply dusted into oblivion. Comparisons with the Australians of 1921 and 1948 had begun. What was more, Irvine was considered a permanent fixture of this champion side with 353 runs from four Tests at 50.42. Had he been keeping wickets in the series, he would probably have made the side even stronger, allowing them to play the extra batsman and bowler.
And then it arrived. Like a bolt from the blue. South Africa were banned from international cricket, and the careers of many a promising cricketer came to an abrupt end. It was heartbreak stuff for people like Irvine, who had arrived on the scenario amidst a high, and had to bow out abruptly at an age of 26 for no fault of his.
Back to domestic cricket
A distraught Irvine did not even go back to Essex. He moved to Transvaal, and played on till 1976-77, with 1975-76. He concentrated on his wicket-keeping, thereby making creating a niche of his own in the side.
In the 1970-71 domestic season he scored 514 runs at 85.66 while keeping wickets. Had South Africa been playing Tests, he would have definitely have been a permanent fixture, along with legends like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, and Mike Procter.
Two seasons later, he scored 193 out of a team score of 362 against Eastern Province. It remained his highest First-Class score. Ali Bacher pulled out in the next match, Irvine led Transvaal, and scored 102 on his captaincy debut. After Bacher’s retirement from domestic cricket, Irvine led Transvaal, and did a commendable job in 1974-75 and 1975-76. He gave up his wicket-keeping duties during this period, though, making way for David Dyer.
Dyer also assumed captaincy duties in Irvine’s last domestic season — in 1976-77. Irvine ended the season on a high, scoring 614 runs at 40.93 with three hundreds. In the meantime, he was good enough to be selected to play for the South Africans against DH Robins’s XI — a team consisting of international cricketers of the high pedigree — on their four tours (in 1972-73, 1973-74, 1975, and 1975-76), and against the even stronger International Wanderers’ XI in 1975-76. He did a commendable job in these matches.
The rebel tours then stopped, and Irvine never had a taste of playing against international cricketers barring his own countrymen. Thus ended a career which might have been among the finest across eras.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)