Peter Pollock, born June 30, 1941, was one of the major talents of the great South African side of the 1960s. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who claimed 116 wickets in the 28 Tests he played.
The Australians were having a pretty good time in South Africa in the southern summer of 1957-58. By the end of the fourth day at Port Elizabeth, they were on the verge of winning the series by a comprehensive 3-0 margin. The tour had marked the coming of age of two of their major all-round stars who would rule the cricket world for the next few years — Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson.
Hence, locked in their dressing room, in buoyant, bustling spirits, in heady intoxication caused by the fumes of success, they were not too charitable in their views of the South African opening bowlers Neil Adcock and Peter Heine. Their youthful room attendant, someone they knew only as Peter, was within earshot, but went largely unnoticed. They were aware he was a 16-year-old from the Grey High School, but not much else. The harsh remarks about the fast bowling duo and the questions raised about their spate of bouncers did not go down too well with Peter. The young lad, aspiring to bowl fast, sent down innumerable deliveries in his own backyard to his younger brother who would soon become arguably the best batsman in the world. Often during these backyard games, altercations between the two brothers resulted in both being sent to their rooms.
As brother Graeme was still providing his craft with the final finishing flourishes in the game’s formative stage, Peter Pollock grew to a full six foot two inch and ran in frighteningly quick, becoming the first of the family to step into the Test match arena. His limited experience had been hugely enriched by a tour to England in the summer of 1961. He went to Ole Blighty as a member of the South African Fezelas, playing alongside the brightest young stars of the land — Eddie Barlow, Peter van der Merwe, Denis Lindsay and Colin Bland amongst them. On his return, he captured six for 36 for Eastern Province against Border. The selectors had seen enough and blooded him against the touring New Zealanders in 1961-62.
His Test debut was a thriller played in Durban. He ran in fast and hostile, picking up three first innings wickets as the Kiwis replied to South Africa’s 292 with 245. However, in their second innings, the South Africans themselves collapsed to 149 all out. The 197-run target looked simple enough, but Pollock charged in again, skittling out six of the visiting batsmen for just 38 runs. New Zealand were stopped at 166. Pollock’s haul of nine for 99 was the best by a South African fast bowler in their 150 Test history.
In the final Test of the series at Port Elizabeth, Pollock did his bit with the ball by picking up six wickets and then provided a glimpse of his batting abilities as well. In the second innings, he came in at 193 for seven with the side needing 314 to win. Pollock made a desperate attempt, scoring 54 with ten boundaries, but South Africa lost by 40 runs.
The sparkling talent
Hence, when the Australians saw him for the first time during the South African visit of 1963-64, Pollock was already an exciting talent. The disparaging remarks he had heard as a stripling boy were perhaps still etched in his memory. According to Richie Benaud, now the captain of Australia, that dressing room discussion of 1957-58 had resulted Pollock in “vowing that one day he would be a fast bowler for South Africa and he’d give the Australians a bit of hurry up.”
Whether that was indeed the root cause is debatable. At school, Pollock had opened both the batting and the bowling. It had come as quite a disappointment when school coach George Cox, a former Sussex cricketer, had advised him to concentrate on bowling, and added in no uncertain terms that he would never be a great batsman.
Whatever be the trail of events that led to Pollock bowling fast, he indeed made the Australians hop on his arrival. He started with six for 95 at Brisbane, where brother Graeme made 25 on debut. Old cronies Lindsay and van der Merwe also played their first ever Tests. His other former teammate Eddie Barlow struck a hundred.
In the second Test at Melbourne, Barlow struck another hundred, but Australia triumphed by eight wickets to go one up in the series. The brothers did their best to restore parity in Sydney. Peter Pollock picked up five wickets in the first innings and Graeme hit 122 as South Africa gained a vital 42-run first innings lead. But some solid resistance by the home team during their second essay did not leave enough time for the visitors to get the runs.
At Adelaide, however, South Africa pulled one back. Pollock bowled well enough to capture five wickets in the match, including the crucial scalps of Bill Lawry and Brian Booth in the second innings. However, the heroes were brother Graeme (with 177) and Eddie Barlow (201 and figures of 5-2-6-3 in the second innings).
The last Test ended in a draw and the series was shared, but it was evident South Africa was shaping into a superb collection of sparkling talents. Peter Pollock ended the Australian series with 25 wickets at 28.40. He captured 15 more in the New Zealand leg of the tour, with six for 47 at Wellington.
The finished product
This was followed by a lukewarm series against MJK Smith’s Englishmen in 1964-65. It was evident that Pollock was trying to bowl too fast, sacrificing subtlety and variation at the altar of flat out raw pace. However, as the team made it to England for the away series in the summer of 1965, perfection and maturity were built on to the base art of fast bowling.
After his lack of success in the home Test series, he was advised to reduce his long run. The primal poetry of his action had its attractions, but there was a fear that it might tax his stamina and reduce his number of overs. In the end, he maintained his full run up but varied his pace. The fastest deliveries were used sparingly, as sudden, surprise weapons, unexpected and explosive. With the pitches and atmosphere lending enough help, he worked on his control and reduced the number of bouncers. Soon, he was moving it in the air at sharp pace, with enough variations to keep the best batsmen guessing. The cooler climate also nourished him, allowing up to 30 overs a day, a good eight more than his normal workload in South Africa.
Nottingham was the scene of the brothers-in-arms, conquering the foreign land for their country. Graeme Pollock played a superlative innings of 125, scored out of 153, singlehandedly taking the visitors from the brink of collapse to a respectable total of 269. Peter Pollock then ensured a 29-run first innings lead with five wickets for 53. Brother Graeme hit another 59 in the second innings as South Africa piled 289 in the second innings. And Peter Pollock ended the English challenge with scorching figures of five for 34 from 24 overs. It was his first — and ultimately only — 10-wicket haul, and the victory allowed South Africa to regain the rubber that had been taken away by MJK Smith’s men.
Throughout the tour, Pollock bowled sustained long spells without breaking down under the strain. In the three Tests, he scalped 20 wickets at 18.30. In six of the 12 matches on the tour he captured five wickets in an innings. By the time he returned from England, he had become the undisputed spearhead for South Africa. The increased levels of maturity seeped into the other departments of his game as well. At Lord’s he scored a crucial 34 from No 10, and his throws from the outfield were noted for their bull’s eye accuracy. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of 1966.
The end at the very peak
Unfortunately, he would play only two more Test series over the next four and a half years before South Africa would be isolated from the cricket world. Both these series were against Australia. During the 3-1 triumph over Bobby Simpson’s men in 1966-67, Pollock was not overly successful with the ball – although he did have his best moment with the bat, scoring an unbeaten 75 at Cape Town. But, when Bill Lawry’s side came along in early 1970, he had been joined by a phenomenon by the name of Mike Procter. The resulting new ball combination was lethal and promised to become another of the famed fast bowling combination in history.
Australia were blown away in all the four Tests. Procter picked up 26 wickets at 13.70 and Pollock 15 at 17.20. Pollock was excellent throughout, his experience and skill providing the right foil to Procter’s raw youthful pace. He earned another five-wicket haul at Johannesburg. However, his last over in international cricket remained incomplete. In the second over of the final innings of the tour, Pollock pulled a hamstring and limped out of the international arena for ever. Procter bowled South Africa to their 4-0 win six for 73, but that was the end of their brief and brilliant collaboration. It was also the end of the Test careers of all the South Africans except a young off-spinner named John Traicos who would reappear for Zimbabwe after 22 years and 222 days.
Pollock ended with 116 wickets from 28 Tests at the excellent average of 24.18, with nine five wicket hauls to go with his Nottingham 10-for. As a batsman, he was more than useful, managing 607 runs at a decent average of 21.67 with two half-centuries.
After it was apparent that the seclusion would not end soon, Pollock retired from First-Class cricket in 1972, but did play a major role in conserving the future of cricket before that. In 1970-71, while Ray Illingworth’s team went to Australia to recapture the Ashes, Tony Greig spent his time playing Currie Cup for Eastern Province alongside the Pollock brothers. It was during the game against Transvaal that, in the thrill of being near his roots, Greig stayed out till the early hours, and collapsed upon getting up the next day. In spite of his condition he played the match, and held a couple of slip catches. But suddenly, he threw his head back, turned two helpless circles and fell to the ground. Only Peter Pollock had been aware of Greig’s epileptic bouts, and had warned Transvaal captain Dr. Ali Bacher about the ailment. The doctor now ran into the ground, and recognising the symptoms of a fit, administered an injection. It perhaps saved Greig from grave complications.
A trained journalist in his life away from cricket, Pollock served as the convenor of selectors for South Africa in the 1990s after their return into the international fold. It was under his guidance that a formidable attack was developed based primarily, and understandably, on pace and seam with the focus on absolute discipline. Of course, his contribution to South African cricket goes much further than that. Son Shaun Pollock emerged as one of the greatest fast bowlers of his era, one of the world’s top all-rounders and the captain of the national team.
(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)