Graeme Pollock: Genius shrouded by isolation


Graeme Pollock, born February 27, 1944, was one of the greatest batsmen to play the game and one of the many South Africans of his day whose careers were brutally cut short by international isolation to his country’s then apartheid policies. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who is second only to Don Bradman in batting average.

In the 1930s, Don Bradman played many a Test match against Eddie Paynter. During his post-War days he led a team that contained batsmen of the calibre of Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey.

Bradman was fascinated by Morris — especially during his final series in 1948. Young Harvey was just making his mark in Test cricket, and during the following decade, as a selector, The Don followed his career closely.

However, when it came to choosing the best left-handed batsman he had ever watched, Bradman singled out two for the supreme honour. The soaring genius of Garry Sobers, clubbed together with the broadsword of a bat wielded by Graeme Pollock.

Anyone who had watched Pollock make 274 at Durban against Bill Lawry’s Australians could vouch that Bradman’s cricketing judgement was as peerless as ever. It was an innings that made cricket lovers go dizzy with delight, their gladly beating hearts almost certain that such entertainment could never bow to any obstacle, however politically combustible.

Greatness in miniature

Sadly, Pollock could play just two more Test matches after that. The evils of apartheid paid the price of seclusion, and the brilliant cricket team was lost to the world forever.

The side of world-beaters, who had just trounced Australia 4-0, disbanded and disconnected. Flickers of their splendour appeared in various English counties, Australian Sheffield Shield sides, South African summers of First-Class cricket and intermittent rebel tours undertaken by a few mercenary cricketers. However, the side that could have ruled the world disintegrated. The highest level of cricket saw little of the Pollock brothers, Graeme and Peter, Mike Procter, Barry Richards, Denis Lindsay and Eddie Barlow.

In a Test career that ended at the age of 26, Pollock plundered 2256 runs in 23 Tests at an average of 60.97 with 7 hundreds. Of all players who turned out in at least 20 Tests, Pollock’s batting average stands second only to Don Bradman’s 99.94. The Don did not have to look too far behind him to discover the greatest left-handed batsman he had ever seen.

What might have been if he had been allowed to continue on the highest stage of cricket? That is best left to conjecture. However, 20,940 runs in 262 First-Class matches at an average of 54 with 64 centuries — these do provide some indication. Graeme Pollock was no flash in the pan, a meteoric rise destined to plummet down to mortality. He was touched by greatness, and the contact had been substantial. His 26 Tests had been played over six years, due to the few countries who had cricketing ties with South Africa in those days. In its small way, his record had stood the test of time.

The young master

“He does not need a half-volley or a long hop to score fours: he will drive on the up, or cut, force and pull anything even fractionally short of a good length.” This was how Christopher Martin-Jenkins described the phenomenal stroke-making of Pollock.

One of the first batsmen to use a heavy bat, Pollock scored freely off good deliveries. That did not make him lenient towards the bad ones. Ali Bacher, his final Test captain, added, “One thing that was absolutely certain about Graeme. If you bowled a bad ball to him, it went for four.”

Standing upright at his full six feet two, Pollock used his reach to perfection. The long right leg would go down to the pitch of the ball, and the heavy bat would come down on it — sending it screaming through the off-side. If it was a wee bit short of good length, his excellent balance would help him transfer the weight onto his back foot and cut it away through point.

During the first phase of his career, Pollock had some problems in getting the ball away to the leg side. In spite of this limitation, he scored 122 in his very third Test at the age of 19, against Graham McKenzie and Richie Benaud. Don Bradman, an instant admirer, commented, “Next time you decide to play like that send me a telegram.”

In the following Test, at Adelaide, he scored 170 joyous runs, flinging his bat at anything loose and several that were not. The innings contained 18 fours and three sixes, and his association for the third wicket with Eddie Barlow yielded a rollicking 341. Brother Peter Pollock, a formidable fast bowler, picked up a few wickets alongside Trevor Goddard, and South Africa won by 10 wickets to square the series.

Graeme (left) and brother Peter Pollock © Getty Images

Graeme (left) and brother Peter Pollock © Getty Images

By the time England visited in 1964-65, a fierce pull and thudding drive between mid-on and mid-wicket had been added to his repertoire. They bore fruit at Port Elizabeth as he hammered 137 and 77 not out.

During the tour to England that followed, the Trent Bridge Test saw Pollock play an innings that he considered his best ever. Under overcast conditions, with the ball moving around and Tom Cartwright making life difficult for the batsmen, Pollock walked out at 16 for 2 and departed at 178 for 6. In between he scored 125 runs in 139 minutes with 21 boundaries. Using his long legs to reach out and negate the swing, he batted watchfully till lunch before launching on a furious attack that left the Englishmen shell shocked. In the second innings too he made a vital 59. Peter Pollock took 10 wickets, and in a fraternal feat seldom equalled, the brothers combined to beat England in a fascinating Test match.

In The Cricketer, John Woodcock wrote of this innings: “Not since Bradman’s day could anyone recall having seen an English attack treated in such cavalier style.” EW Swanton was as effusive, calling it an innings “which in point of style and power, of ease and beauty of execution is fit to rank with anything in the annals of the game.” Due to his exploits on the tour, Pollock was named by Wisden as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year.

In the South African summer that followed, Bob Simpson’s Australians came on a visit. The first Test at Wanderers ended in a miraculous win after trailing by 126 in the first innings. Pollock scored 90 from 104 balls in the second essay. Wisdennoted: “[he] looked without peer and his timing, placing and wristwork were an object lesson for the purist.” In the Second Test at Newlands, Pollock batted with an injured groin, cramped in style, movement and running, and scored 209.

Another century followed in the final Test at Port Elizabeth, happily coinciding with his 23rd birthday. South Africa won the match by seven wickets to clinch the series three Tests to one. By then he was a sensation. Ken Barrington and Garry Sobers had similar averages, but the former was almost ending his career and the latter was into his thirties. Pollock was a phenomenally-talented youngster for whom only sky was the limit.

However, Pollock had to wait three years for his next Test match. With the Basil D’Oliveira affair creating a fatal chasm with the rest of the world, the series against 1968-69 England was cancelled.

Pollock was still at the peak of his powers when Bill Lawry’s men came to play the final four Tests South Africa would appear in before their isolation. In the second match at Durban, Pollock hit 274, then the highest ever by a South African. His amazing partnership with Barry Richards has gone down as the final brilliant sparkle before the diamond country was expelled from the cricketing world for 22 years. Lawry remarked: “Never have I seen the ball hit with such power by two players at the same time.” South Africa famously won the series 4-0. Pollock and the rest of the galaxy of talented men never played Test cricket again.

Post-Test days

Pollock was a member of the Rest of the World side who played five ‘Tests’ against England. He did not have a very good time with the bat, but made 114 in the final match at The Oval, adding 165 with Garry Sobers in what must have been a day in left-handed heaven.

In 1971, the Pollock brothers, along with many other South African cricketers, took part in a protest against the apartheid policy organised by Barry Richards and Mike Procter. It was staged during a match to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the formation of the Republic of South Africa. The players of both the teams walked off after one ball.

He also made a rollicking hundred at Adelaide for the Rest of the World against a strong Australian side at Adelaide in early 1972, putting on 146 with Zaheer Abbas in another display of synchronous strokeplay.

Pollock went on to play 16 unofficial ‘Tests’ against rebel teams from England, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia. In these matches, played with every ingredient of serious Tests but for official sanction and limelight, he scored 1376 runs, with five centuries, at an average of 65.52.

He continued to play First-Class cricket for Eastern Province and Transvaal, but unlike many of his countrymen, did not opt for county cricket. According to Pollock, he did not enjoy the ‘domestic grind’.
His prodigious powers of hitting also brought him the first double hundred ever scored in List A matches. It came in 1974-75 — a stunning 222 not out for Eastern Province against Border in the Gillette Cup.

Pollock retired from cricket in 1987, at the age of 42. With his usual perfect sense of timing, he called it a day after scoring 144 against an Australian rebel team. His class was permanent, the style, technique and panache did not desert him till his final day on the field.