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Neil Adcock, born March 8, 1931, was a fast bowler of pace, skill and hostility who formed a lethal combination with the terrifying Peter Heine. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who became the first South African bowler to claim 100 Test wickets.
Colin Cowdrey, who had cut his teeth against the furious fire-breathing pace of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, found the South African opening duo more intimidating.
Peter Richardson felt the heat even more. Peter Heine came charging at him, black hair straggling over his eyes, a great red streak spreading out like blood on his shirt on which he viciously polished the ball. Heine was known to bowl at the batsman as often as he bowled at the wicket. When Richardson was felled by a short ball, the fast bowler approached him and shouted, “Get up, I want to hit you again.” There was humour thrown into the mix with all the hostility, but it is doubtful if the wit was appreciated by the batsman in agony.
Once when Trevor Bailey walked out to bat, Heine growled, “I want to hit you Bailey, hit you over the heart.” Sitting in the pavilion Jim Laker had felt the ripples of the tension and had christened Heine, “that bloody Dutchman.”
Neil Adcock was just one inch shorter than Heine’s six foot four inches. With his fair hair and handsome looks, he perhaps came across as a contrast — as long as there was no shining red ball in his hand.
He could be a genuinely nice guy off the pitch. However, on it, he was as scary and, according to his later new ball partner Peter Pollock, a bit quicker. With the ability to make the ball rise disconcertingly from just short of good length, he was as prone to direct bouncers at the head of batsmen. The New Zealanders, especially Murray Chapple, Matt Poore, Lawrie Miller and, above all, Bert Sutcliffe, realised this with unpleasant thuds in the very second Test Adcock played.
It is not that he did not lend his voice into the fray, adding to the painful questions asked by his deliveries — but his invectives were perhaps a bit less spicy, although not by much.
Together, the two were terrifying. Tom Graveney put it simply enough: “Two of the nastiest customers I came across.”
In the mid-fifties, England was the best team in the world. In the summer of 1955, Len Hutton led the side against the visiting South African team. In 1956-57, Peter May took his team to play them in their backyard. Both these teams had come off famous Ashes triumphs — Hutton’s side had routed the Australians in 1954-55 and May’s team had vanquished their arch-rivals at home in 1956. Yet, the South Africans, just about considered a decent team till then, fought tooth and nail in both the series, winning four Tests and losing five. They lost by a slim 3-2 margin in England and held them 2-2 at home — a remarkable feat considering their largely inconsistent batting.
The reason for this was threefold — Adcock, Heine and a great off-spinner named Hugh Tayfield.
The curious action
Adcock ran in with an almost unbelievable action. Every step was taken with the toes pointing towards the batsman, including his delivery stride. According to Wisden, “He bowls without interruption in the course of his run, swinging his arm on a trunk that is virtually upright — like a sudden gust turning a light windmill.” When he released the ball, a line joining the hand and foot would encroach onto his body.
Graveney said, “He was as near to being an arm bowler as anyone I have ever seen.” For that elegant England batsman, the fact that such an action could deliver such ferocious pace remained a constant source of wonder. When he saw him bowl in England in 1955, Fred Trueman was amazed at how he could bowl out-swingers with an in-swing bowler’s open-chested action.
As time went on, Adcock perfected his art and when he visited England again in 1960, he had become even faster with every step utilised to perfection. The ball was propelled by rhythm rather than sinew.
It was a pity South Africa played only three nations at that time. After the superb tour of 1960, Adcock had to wait for another year and a half to play the last two Tests of his career. He excelled in them as well, becoming the first South African bowler to claim 100 wickets in Tests — ending with 104. Rather consistent scores of 24, five and 17 propelled his collection of runs to 146. Earlier in his career, his forays to the wicket had been mad, merry and minuscule and had kept his Test runs just abreast of his number of wickets.
Not quite the prodigy
Adcock was born in Cape Town on March 8, 1931. His middle names Amwin and Treharne provided him with the much used acronym NAT. The rather curious second name was a hybrid of the names of his aunts Amy and Winifred. Treharne was the surname of an uncle.
Cricket was in his blood. Grandfather W. Adcock had played for Eastern Province during the last days of the 19th century. When WW Read had led the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) to the country in 1891-92, he had played against them for the Eastern Province XXII and the Port Elizabeth XXII sides. In the second match, grandpa Adcock had actually top-scored with 20 out of a total of 92.
Adcock spent the Second World War in a farm near Ladysmith. With his father away in service, he picked up cricket from the local lads.
However, he was no early prodigy. In fact, in his own words his school cricket was ‘quite undistinguished’ at St Charles at Mauritzburg, Grey High at Port Elizabeth, and Jeppe High in Johannesburg. In the last mentioned school he scraped into the Second XI as a medium-pacer but that was the height of his cricketing achievements.
Yet, his school did have an influence on his cricket. As he continued to play for Jeppe Old Boys, former left-arm spinner Cyril Vincent spotted his potential and took him under his wing. It was Vincent who advised him to increase his speed.
The Kiwis collapse — literally
The big break came when he played a club match under the renowned Transvaal batsman Eric Rowan. Recently retired from Test cricket, Rowan was one of the most influential characters in the South African game. In a fit of nervousness, Adcock ran in and bowled at a speed he himself was unaccustomed to. It surprised everyone and made Rowan take notice. By the end of 1952, the rookie pacer had made his debut for Transvaal.
In his fourth match, Adcock bowled at a scorching pace, taking six for 66 and four for 39 against Griqualand West at Kimberley. He ended the season with eight wickets against Rhodesia. His haul was 31 wickets at 14.90.
When New Zealand visited during the next southern summer, Adcock was included in the South African side. His debut was unremarkable, New Zealand batsmen were not really troubled by his offerings on a placid Durban wicket. He did get three wickets in the second innings, but South Africa won mainly due to the accurate viciousness of Tayfield.
The next Test at Johannesburg, however, announced his arrival on the dark wings of terror. Adcock charged in to produce one of the most dangerous opening spells in the history of cricket.
In his first over, Geoff Rabone and Murray Chapple were struck by balls that flew from good length.At nine; Chapple was bowled off a ball that ricocheted off his chest.
Sutcliffe walked in and played two deliveries from Adcock, before another flew for his head. He tried a desperate hook, but failed to make contact. The same could not be said about the ball. It struck him on the side of the head and according to Sutcliffe himself, he “went out like a light.” His ear was split, blood poured all over in a ghastly sight. He was carried off, and taken to a hospital where he fainted again — twice.
John Reid was the next man in and was pummelled by Adcock. Within a short span of time he was hit five times on the body. With the score on 24 for three, Lawrie Miller was hit on the chest and was forced to retire and made for the hospital following the footsteps of Sutcliffe.
Matt Poore scored 15 before Adcock made another one rise. The ball struck his ribcage and was deflected on to the stumps.
There was a twist in the story. A hero now stood up against the mayhem. Sutcliffe, “his head swathed in bandages and face looking likes a parchment”, came in at 81 for six and proceeded to play one of the most heroic knocks ever witnessed. According to the batsman, “My head was heavily bandaged, so much so I felt like a Sikh, and should perhaps be carrying a hockey stick instead of a bat. I must confess I was fortified to some extent by a generous helping of Scotland’s chief product… and I don’t mean porridge.” Applauded by the large crowd as he walked in, Sutcliffe proceeded to hit his third ball on resumption for six. He went on to score 80 with the help of seven over-boundaries, including three in one over from Tayfield.
New Zealand saved the follow on and fought back into the match by dismissing the South Africans cheaply in the second innings. However, they themselves were knocked over for 100 in the second innings, the scary Adcock claiming five for 43.
By the end of the series Adcock had 24 Test wickets at 20.20. And while the series was in full flow, he took advantage of a break between the Tests to capture five for 26 and eight for 39 against Orange Free State at Johannesburg.
The breakdown and the recovery
Adcock landed in England in 1955 with a fearsome reputation. And on that tour he was joined by Peter Heine. England won the first two Tests before Heine and Adcock captured 14 wickets between them to pull one back at Manchester. The batting line-up of Graveney, May, Denis Compton, Cowdrey and Bailey was overcome with deadly pace.
South Africa, buoyed by the bowling of Tayfield, Heine and Trevor Goddard won the fourth Test at Leeds, but Adcock broke down. His frail, 11-stone figure could not quite manage the stress of bowling relentlessly at scorching pace all through the summer. He bowled just four overs in the game before a broken bone in the foot put him out of action. He missed the final Test at The Oval. His 10 wickets in the Tests came at an impressive average but his fitness issues meant only 34 wickets in the tour compared to Heine’s 74.
However, when England returned the visit in 1956-57, Adcock bowled consistently through the Tests.
In spite of his efforts, England took a 2-0 lead by winning at Johannesburg and Cape Town. After a tense draw in Durban, South Africa came back in a striking way, riding some superlative bowling performances.
The terror twins struck fear into the hearts of batsmen in tandem, while on two successive occasions Tayfield scythed through the battered England side. The series was shared 2-2. Adcock’s 21 wickets in the series at 14.90 headed the bowling averages even as Tayfield claimed an amazing 37 scalps. Heine was not as impressive, but effective in bursts. He ended with 18 wickets at 28.72.
After the series, England captain Peter May branded Heine and Adcock the most hostile pair of fast bowlers he had ever faced. May, like Cowdrey, had been through the ordeal of playing Lindwall and Miller in Australia.
In the first Test at Johannesburg, Adcock also managed to fulfil his lifelong ambition of carting a six in Test cricket. He did it by dispatching Johnny Wardle out of the ground in the course of a merry 17.
Yet, sterner tests were ahead. Heine and Adcock were both raring to go when Australia came over in 1957-58 under their youthful captain, Ian Craig.
They were perhaps a bit too eager. With their frightening reputations looming over the batsmen, Heine and Adcock were rather prone to pitch a bit too short and a bit too often. Besides, the aggression that had won the Tests against England and respect from their batsmen was somewhat cruelly shackled by captain Clive van Ryneveld, who stressed on a more friendly approach to the Tests. The two bowlers were asked to cut down on their bumpers. And a young Australian batting line-up gleefully hooked and pulled them when they did err in length. Towards the end of the series Adcock suffered from physical stress as well.
As a result the series was lost 3-0. Adcock’s only major performance came in Durban in the third Test when he captured six for 43 in the first innings. But, with the home team pressing for a win in the second innings, he went wicket-less and Australia held on for a draw.
By the fifth Test at Port Elizabeth, the fast men were frustrated enough to go against the captain’s orders. Jim Burke and Richie Benaud were hit by short balls. Craig himself was whisked off to the hospital for a precautionary X-ray.
With Australia requiring 68 to win in the second innings, the two men tore in with pent up fury. Colin McDonald just about managed to avoid three Adcock bouncers veering for his head. This saw van Ryneveld run up to Adcock, asking him to take it easy. Adcock went back to his bowling mark, charged in and sent in another venomous bouncer which had McDonald caught in the slips.
Heine was successful again with 17 wickets at 18.88, but Adcock’s 14 scalps came at a rather expensive 29.28 apiece.
The final English tour
The narrow shoulders and their relative weakness had resulted in a physical breakdown in England in 1955. Hence, when the tour of 1960 approached Adcock spent nine months working diligently at home, going through a course of exercises and weight training. He was way ahead of his times in this regard.
Heine did not tour, and all of England heaved a sigh of relief. Adcock was partnered by young Geoff Griffin, immortalised in infamy after being called for throwing in the second Test at Lord’s. Soon Griffin broke down with an injury, and Tayfield proved strangely ineffective. It left Adcock the only penetrative bowler on a largely dismal tour for South Africa.
And he excelled. He bowled fast, swung the ball, and remained fit throughout the tour. When the team had played their last tour match in Sacrborough, he was overjoyed at getting through the tour without breaking down — in spite of bowling 737 overs. “I left the field only three times, because I had burst the seams of my trousers,” he quipped. Many thought he was the fastest bowler in cricket at that time, a phase that included Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith.
By now, Adcock’s pace was generated from his action rather than physical effort. His stamina was amazing for a man who been unable to bowl more than four or five overs at a time when he had made his mark on the game.
Yes, he did still pitch short quite often. But, the ball often took off from length and was extremely awkward for batsmen.
In the second match of the tour against Derbyshire, Adcock claimed match figures of 10 for 74. He never looked back. He picked eight for 119 in the first Test at Edgbaston. He was taken for runs at Nottingham, but captured seven wickets in the fourth Test at Manchester and six for 65 in the first innings of the final Test at The Oval to skittle England for 155.In that fifth Test as many as five catches went down off his bowling.
In all, he took 26 wickets in the five Tests at an average of 22.57, equalling the record for a South African in England set by Tayfield in the 1955 series. On the tour he claimed 108 wickets at 14.03, a huge improvement on the 34 of 1955.He was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of 1961.
It was also during this tour that Adcock looked at the ancient architecture of Canterbury and remarked, “These English. They get so caught up with their old bits of bricks and mortar. They should come to Johannesburg and see what we can do with steel, glass and cement.”
On his return to South Africa, Adcock was in imperious form in the domestic season, capturing 35 wickets at 11.65 apiece for his new province Natal. It helped his adopted province win the Currie Cup. However, this brilliant fast bowler continued to struggle with his fitness.
He played only two more Tests, in the home series against New Zealand in 1961-62. At Johannesburg, he bowled for the final time with Heine as his partner. When Adcock trapped Dick Motz leg before in the second innings, he became the first South African bowler to capture 100 wickets in Test cricket.
He signed off with three for 60 and one for 25 in his final Test at Port Elizabeth, opening the bowling alongside young, Peter Pollock.
Adcock picked up a few wickets in the 1962-63 season as well, helping Natal to another Currie Cup triumph. After that he retired from First-Class cricket.
In 26 Tests Adcock captured 104 wickets at a superb average of 21.10 with five five-wicket hauls. His batting lacked substance but never sensation. His runs managed to just about stay abreast of his wickets before surging ahead in the last two Tests and ending with 146 at 5.40, with a top-score of 24.
In the First-Class scene it was a similar race between his bat and ball. In the paltry 99 matches he played, Adcock claimed 400 wickets at 17.17. His runs stood at 451 at an average of 5.50. He never scored a 50, although he did live a charmed life once to hit 41.
After retirement, Adcock became a successful travel agent in Pietermaritzburg. He was moved to the commentary box, with fascinating insights about the game voiced on the radio.
Neil Adcock passed away on January 6, 2013.
(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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