Garth le Roux © Getty Images
Garth le Roux © Getty Images

Garth le Roux was born September 4, 1955 — too late to play Test cricket before South Africa’s isolation and too early to represent his country after their return to the fold. But, as he demonstrated in World Series Cricket, during his stint for Sussex and in the ‘Tests’ played against the rebel sides, he was one of the foremost fast bowlers of his generation. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the playing days of the man who finished as the highest wicket taker for South Africa in the rebel ‘Tests’.

Big, fast and lethal

December 4, 1978. The evening news in the eastern states of Australia had just made way for the live telecast of the World Series Cricket one-day game from SCG.

Kerry Packer’s parallel world of cricket was at last attracting some eyeballs. The match was strategically scheduled on the rest day of the First Test between Graham Yallop’s second string Australians and Ray Illingworth’s almost full strength England being played at the Gabba.

In the traditional form of the game, Australia were doing badly. They had gone into the day of rest at 157 for 3 in their second innings after trailing by 170 in the first. The fans around the country perhaps switched their attention to something more regaling, with the WSC Australians starting their chase of a paltry 163 scored by the WSC World XI. They were in for a shock.

Clutching the new ball was a new name that did not ring any bell. And in three deliveries Garth le Roux had removed both the Chappell brothers, Greg and Ian. Breathtakingly fast, he was anything but Whispering Death. As his big brawny form hustled in to bowl, the earth almost shook as his large boots thudded on the ground. Everyone knew that he was on his way to deliver the ball.

An over later, he sent through another ball, hair-raisingly quick, and beat Bruce Laird for pace. The 23-year-old, a fresh recruit in the championships, was given a breather by skipper Tony Greig. He walked away to the outfield with figures reading 5-2-6-3.

By the time he was called back after two hours, Clive Rice, Imran Khan and Asif Iqbal had reduced the Australian team to the brink of defeat. And the young man charged in and hit Dennis Lillee painfully with three successive deliveries. Greig could hardly conceal his glee. An unhappy Lillee skied a catch off Rice. The home side were all out for 100.

It was on Greig’s recommendation that Packer had accepted le Roux, a slippery fast bowler who had taken 53 wickets for Eddie Barlow’s Western Province in the 1977-78 Currie Cup. A small complication needed to be sorted out — termed the Pollock-Hobson problem after the great Graeme Pollock and South African leg-spinner Denys Hobson. It was a political issue that plagued the West Indian cricketers. Their board had no issues about their playing in county cricket alongside or against South African cricketers. And as long as they did not play in South Africa, they could share the ground with the South African county cricketers without uncomfortable questions. However, it was politically sensitive to play South Africans who did not play in the county circuit.

This difficulty was astutely resolved. Eddie Barlow recommended le Roux for half a season with the Sussex second XI. And after a First-Class game against New Zealand, he was politically emancipated.

WSC heroics

After the showdown at Sydney, le Roux took on the WSC Australians in a Supertest at VLF Park Melbourne. Lillee had not forgotten the three stinging blows. He ran in and unleashed a quick, full delivery that thudded on the pads of the South African. The appeal that followed had characteristic Lillee menace written all over it. The finger went up. The Australian fast bowler took 4 for 53 in 32.4 overs and World XI were bowled out for 175.

Le Roux responded by bowling Laird before close of play. He came back the next day to get night-watchman Ray Bright, Ian Chappell and David Hookes, before sending down a snorter that Lillee fended into the waiting hands of Majid Khan. The South African finished with 5 for 39 and WSC Australians were all out for 150. The spinners played a bigger role as the match went on and Majid’s 6-hour 77 enabled World XI to win by 102 runs.

As the year drew to an end, the WSC West Indies took on World XI for a one-day match at the Gabba. Andy Roberts, Bernard Julien, Wayne Daniel and Joel Garner restricted the World side to 197. In response, Le Roux blew them away with the wickets of Richard Austin, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Julien while conceding just 27. With Sarfraz Nawaz charging in from the other end, the West Indians were bundled for 107. Le Roux was proving to be as fast and as good as the best of them.

On New Year’s Day, 1979, the WSC Australians were sent in to bat at Brisbane on one of the fastest pitches ever seen. Le Roux sent the ball darting across like a streak of white lightning. Barry Richards recalled, “When I caught Greg Chappell at slip off the second ball, it was like catching a razor blade at 100mph. The pitch was a Clem Jones special.” By noon, le Roux had  figures of 6.1-2-6-5. With Rice claiming 4 for 14, the Australians were crushed for just 54. The World XI got the runs in 12.3 overs.

Next, it was the turn of the World Series Cricket Cavaliers, to experience the heat generated by the South African. Facing the World XI in a two-day game, the line up consisting of Rick McCosker, Trevor Chappell, Martin Kent and Ian Redpath lasted just 54.4 overs in the first innings and 33.4 in the second as they lost by an innings. Again, le Roux was the principal destroyer, with 5 for 27 and 2 for 10.

However, the best of le Roux’s incredible displays was saved for the last. World XI and WSC Australians met at SCG for the grand final of the SuperTests series.

On a helpful SCG pitch, the South African pacemen showed the world — at least the meagre numbers who bothered to watch — what they had been missing. With Greg Chappell sitting in dark glasses in the commentary box after a sudden affliction of Bell’s palsy, Le Roux soon had the other Australian batsmen hopping all over the place. And along with him, compatriots Mike Procter and Clive Rice chipped in with regular wickets. Three hours after the 1:30 PM start, the hosts had been reduced to 80 for 7. Some rearguard action by the tail hauled the total to 172. Le Roux had 5 for 57, Rice 2 for 38 and Procter 3 for 33. Among the four-pronged pace attack the bowler who remained wicket-less was Imran Khan.

Lillee and Gary Gilmour returned the compliments for the WSC Australians, restricting the World XI to 100 for 8 by the end of the first day. The ninth wicket went early enough the following morning when Gilmour bowled Alan Knott at 104. Now le Roux, bat in hand, added 64 dogged, determined runs with Derek Underwood, keeping the Australian lead down to just four runs. Le Roux remained unbeaten with 33.

And now, when WSC Australia batted again, he dismissed the fighting Hookes for 96 and followed it up with the three remaining wickets, hastening the innings from 203 for 6 to 219 all out. Le Roux’s haul in the second innings was 4 for 44 — 9 for 101 in the match. And then Richards essayed one of his best ever innings to take World XI home by five wickets.

Le Roux had become the unknown great fast bowler. It is a pity that very few watched him in action during those incredible days. Those who did were convinced he was one of the very best in business.

Imran Khan, who shared the new ball with him for much of the World Series, was suitably impressed to recommend him to Sussex. And down the years, the two of them formed a lethal opening attack for the county, matched only by Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee of Nottinghamshire. It was quite a giant step for someone whose cricketing formative years had been largely concealed from the world.

Absence of a stage

The Pollocks, Procter, Richards and the others had at least managed to enjoy the spotlight for some ephemeral moments. But le Roux, born in 1955, was perhaps one of the most unfortunate.

He was only eight when the insanity of South African sports was revealed in the most striking manner in 1963. Papwa Sewgolum, a self-taught golfer classified as an Indian, achieved success abroad with two Dutch Open championships under his belt. He was given special dispensation to participate in the Natal Open. Sewgolum won the tournament. And as The Group Areas Act forbade a black man from entering the clubhouse except as a servant, he stood outside in the rain to receive his trophy through an open window.

Le Roux was only 13 when momentous events were shaking the world. The US Civil Rights movement was drawing to an end; it was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; there was increasing excitement surrounding the first manned Apollo Missions; Swaziland, Mauritius and Equatorial Ghana were attaining independence; the Soviet Union was meeting attempted reforms in Prague with brutal military force. And amidst all this, a Cape Coloured South African-born cricketer was scoring 158 for England against Australia at The Oval. The Basil D’Oliveira affair took place before le Roux had reached the age of cricketing maturity. The same year, the country was boycotted from the Olympic Games.

International demands for decoupling politics and sports fell on the deaf years of Prime Minister John Vorster. This was demonstrated by two tournaments under the Olympic Symbol — white South African games held at Bloemfontein in 1969 and a black counterpart in Soweto in 1970.

And by the time he was making his mark in junior grade cricket, South Africa had already played their last Test before isolation.

For the initial years, le Roux’s international exposure had been limited to one game for Western Province against DH Robin’s XI. Robins, a flamboyant businessman who had for a brief while been a Warwickshire batsman, organised private tours to the country. Although not comparable to official matches, these provided the only taste of international cricket at a time when it was most needed. This team that visited in early 1976 had stalwarts like David Lloyd, Roger Tolchard, David Steele, Trevor Chappell, Frank Hayes and Derek Randall. Le Roux bowled Western Province to a 78-run victory with 5 for 30 and 2 for 44.

Yet, for years he had been hankering for a chance to prove to the world that the new crop of South Africans were still some of the best cricketers of the world. And he used the stage of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket to perfection.

It opened the doors for a long relationship with Sussex, and le Roux enjoyed himself. As many as 81 wickets were captured in 1981. It included a spectacular combination of 65 not out, 2 for 39 and 8 for 107 in a resounding victory against Somerset. In that match, le Roux claimed Viv Richards in both innings, Ian Botham in one and then thrashed the England all-rounder for valuable late order runs.

The rebel tours

In between the county championships, bushels of wickets were taken in the domestic South African Currie Cup. From the late seventies, he could also be counted upon for some useful runs. As many as six half centuries were scored in the English summer of 1982, on the way to 737 runs at 32.04 and 65 wickets at 18.01.

Yet, for all the success, something was missing. A cricketer of le Roux’s calibre yearned to pit his skills against the best in the world. And opportunity presented itself in the early eighties, as England toured India in 1981-82 to play a series that sucked every bit of passion out of the game.

Sunil Gavaskar’s team won the first of the six Tests at Bombay and proceeded to play five draws that were as close to doldrums as possible. According to Bob Willis, even with spinners in operation, nine or ten overs were bowled per hour. “It was the most mind-numbingly tedious cricket series you could imagine.” The tourists were also upset by the standard of umpiring and Graham Gooch would later write that visiting India had bored and disillusioned him off the field as well as on.

Plans were hatched during this tour. The interested players used a chess code to arrange clandestine get-togethers: “knights and castles meet in bishop’s room at nine.” Amidst severe reprimands of politicians, press and former players from all over the world, a quiet, private tour was arranged, which soon got very loud in the media. Gooch led the side, and it featured Geoff Boycott, Wayne Larkins, Dennis Amiss, Bob Woolmer, Peter Willey, Derek Underwood, Alan Knott, Chris Old, John Lever and Mike Hendrick. The average age was over 34, the balance was perhaps lacking with Willey batting at No. 5 and Knott at 6. But, the quality of the side could not be questioned.

In March 1982, the sides met for the first ‘Test’ between the South African XI and the curiously named South African Breweries England XI. Mike Procter led the South African side, and the players were hand-picked by their last international captain, Dr Ali Bacher. In the end it was a surfeit of talent — Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Jimmy Cook, Peter Kirsten, Clive Rice, Ray Jennings, Alan Kourie, Stephen Jefferies, Vincent van der Bijl and Garth le Roux.

Having waited years for such a showdown, le Roux picked up 4 for 44 in the second innings as the South Africans won by eight wickets.

Later that year, another international side visited–limited in ability but vital for the continuation of South African cricket. Le Roux routed the Bandula Warnapura led Sri Lankans with 6 for 55 in the first innings.

Perhaps the strongest team arrived in early 1983. The West Indian rebels were led by Lawrence Rowe and included names like Alvin Kallicharran, Bernard Julien, Collis King, Colin Croft, David Murray, Franklin Stephenson, Ezra Moseley and Sylvester Clarke. The grounds were packed for every game and the black fans now discovered identifiable heroes. It was perhaps a tour that worked miracles against the apartheid system.

The series was extremely competitive. The two ‘Tests’ were tied 1-1, and the South Africans won the one-day series 4-2. Le Roux picked up four wickets in each ‘Test’ and scored some useful runs in the first. In one of the limited over games he also got into a heated exchange with Colin Croft. More than anything else, the face-off between the two fast bowlers underlined the intensity with which the series was contested.

Hat-trick and all that

The visits of the international teams continued all through the eighties.The West Indian rebels returned under Alvin Kallicharran in 1983-84 and beat South Africa in both the ‘Test’ series and one-dayers. This was followed by the visit of the Australians under Kim Hughes in 1985-86 and again in 1986-87.

In all 19 ‘Tests’ were played against these rebel teams. Batsmen Jimmy Cook and Peter Kirsten played in every one of them. Clive Rice took part in 18. Le Roux appeared in 15 ‘Tests’, capturing 59 wickets in all — by far the highest by a South African in these encounters. These came at 23.27 apiece with two five-wicket hauls.

Perhaps his greatest performances were produced within the course of a few days in January, 1986. Playing the third and final ‘Test’ of the series till then tied 0-0, Kim Hughes’s Australians needed 250 to win in the final innings at Johannesburg. And with the score on 29 for 1, le Roux bowled Greg Shipperd, got Kim Hughes caught behind and trapped Mick Taylor leg before off successive balls. The hat-trick broke the back of Australian batting and their innings tottered and crashed for 61.

A week later, at Port Elizabeth, he produced another searing, hostile spell of bowling in the third match of the one-day series, taking 5 for 13 off 8.1 overs.

When Australia returned the next season in 1986-87, le Roux produced a spectacular spell of swing bowling during the third one-day match at Cape Town, blowing the Australians away to 15 for 7 in less than an hour. They recovered, if such a term may be used, to score 85, and le Roux bagged 6 for 21 off his 10 overs. He was modest about his deed, “It was just one of those days where the ball swung nicely. It wasn’t particularly fast or aggressive but the ball just swung and they kept nicking it. It was quite bizarre. People were still coming in when the game was over.”

The final analysis

The following summer, le Roux played his last season in England. He appeared in just 14 matches and took 32 wickets at 24.00. For a big fast bowler of his times, he was getting on in years at 32. He played intermittently in two more domestic seasons before finally calling it a day, leaving the pace bowling department in excellent hands of Allan Donald and Richard Snell.

Le Roux finished his career with 838 wickets in First-Class cricket at 21.24, with 35 five-fors and 3 10-wicket hauls. He also scored over 5,000 runs in 238 matches, with 26 fifties, averaging a thoroughly respectable 25.71. For Western Province, his 372 wickets came at just 18.98. For Sussex he captured 393 at 23.16.

For a while, le Roux remained associated with the game as a selector. He later made his living as an agent selling property at an upmarket gold estate near George in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. In April 2006, he was sentenced to four years in jail for tax fraud along with his accountant Deon van Heerden. The charges involved more than R1.9 million.

The conviction was overturned by the Cape High Court overturned the conviction in September 2010 Le Roux was cleared of all charges.

However, let us stick to le Roux the cricketer. Deceptively nicknamed ‘Grumps’, during his playing days he was excellent company off the field and gave it his all when running in with the ball. While bowling, he expected to get a wicket with every ball. He was also characterised by his very low opinion of batsmen, which was often made abundantly clear.

With enormous reserves of strength and energy, le Roux could run in all day at his very peak. And on his day he could be as quick as the fastest of them. In helpful conditions, he could swing it as well.

According to Mike Procter, “Having played with Peter Pollock in Test cricket, I am certain Garth le Roux would have been a worthy successor in the business of unsettling batsmen with pace, hostility and aggressive personality.”

(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://twiter.com/senantix)