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Shaun Pollock: Living up to the name – Almanack

by Neil Manthorp 12 minute read

Shaun Pollock, one of the greats of South African cricket, turns 46 today. Neil Manthorp wrote this tribute in 2003 after Pollock was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

Shaun Pollock has not had an outstanding year. He has had seven. Sport’s holy grail is consistency, and Pollock found it as soon as he entered international cricket. Whatever happens in his thirties, he will go down as one of the game’s great all-rounders. His bowling is as straight, tight and incisive as Glenn McGrath’s, and he is also an elegant, sometimes explosive batsman who averages 59 at No. 9. And all this consistency was sustained through the daunting business of succeeding Hansie Cronje as South Africa’s captain.

Few players in history had as much to live up to as Shaun Maclean Pollock, born in Port Elizabeth on July 16, 1973. Father-son combinations at first-class and even Test level are not uncommon, but in most cases one or other is a fringe player. Shaun’s family was already among cricket’s two or three richest gene pools. His uncle Graeme was one of the greatest batsmen ever, and his father Peter was one of South Africa’s finest fast bowlers. The young Shaun shouldn’t have had a chance, especially with a shock of red hair making him stand out even further.

His childhood memories are understandably mixed. “It wasn’t easy being a Pollock at school. I remember a lot of suspicion every time I was selected – people would say ‘it’s only because of his name’ and then I’d have to play twice as well as everyone else just to justify my place.”

But selected he was, year after year through the ranks of junior school, high school, university and then his province, KwaZulu-Natal. In South Africa the annual Schools Week has always been seen as an avenue to the national side and when Shaun was chosen for that too, in 1991, people finally sat up and took serious notice.

Graeme had two sons of his own, Anthony and Andrew, and all three boys embarked on careers together. Was there really room for three Pollocks in South African first-class cricket? The answer was no, and as Shaun’s career quickly took off with a Natal B debut as a schoolboy, followed by a First XI call-up the next year, his cousins battled to make a lasting impact with Transvaal and Easterns.

A medium-pacer with an upright action that earned him bags of wickets on Kingsmead’s green, grassy pitches, as well as an uncanny ability to find the meat of the bat immediately in the middle order, Shaun was regarded as very, very useful. The truth is, however, that while he was being taken seriously, no one spoke of him as an international prospect.

The season after his debut, in 1992-93, Natal signed Malcolm Marshall as overseas professional. It was to be the making of Pollock. “He was my mentor,” Pollock says with deep affection. “Everything I’ve learned about bowling since then has just been a refinement of something he taught me.”

Perhaps Pollock’s finest achievement as captain of South Africa was to secure a 2-1 series victory on their first full tour of the West Indies in 2000-01. Although Marshall died before the tour, his influence was crucial. “I was desperately keen to see his resting place in Barbados. I wanted to bowl on the wickets he bowled on, to meet the people he spent time with and to see where he grew up. Sadly I had to pay tribute to his grave rather than have dinner with him.”

Pollock celebrates a captain’s knock of 106* during the tour of the West Indies in 2001

During Marshall’s fourth and final year at Natal, Jonty Rhodes came of age, Lance Klusener was set on his way to becoming an international all-rounder and Pollock was ready for international cricket. There was just one problem; his father, Peter, was convenor of the national selectors.

“The team for the first Test against England…” Peter announced on November 14, 1995, “is: Andrew Hudson, Gary Kirsten, Hansie Cronje… Craig Matthews, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.” He did not look up until he had finished.

“Shaun still has a lot to learn,” he added a little later, a touch awkwardly. “But he is having a useful season and we think he can do a job for us…” Finally, he was asked how he felt as a father: “Umm … yes. As a father I feel proud.” Peter always played it pretty straight.

So, as usual, Shaun had had to produce 10% more than anyone else to prove himself, and even then the plaudits from Dad were grudging. At least in public. “He always supported me,” Shaun says now. “He was always there if I wanted a chat or some advice. But generally he believed it was better for me to find my own path, to do things my way.”

For most of that rainy first series, Shaun was, as his father predicted, useful. Then, at 0-0 going into the final match, Allan Donald took five wickets in the first innings and Pollock 5-32 in the second as England were crushed by ten wickets. It was the beginning of a fast-bowling partnership that would go down among the best of all time, and not just in South Africa.

One of Pollock’s assets is the position from which he delivers the ball – tall and upright, and so close to the stumps that he often dislodges a bail. The height exacerbates any bounce in the pitch while the gunbarrel-straight, wicket-to-wicket approach means that even the slightest seam movement can be fatal. His pace has undoubtedly dropped in recent years. But his economy-rate has become even more parsimonious and his career average remains phenomenal, at under 21.

There have been three other magical spells since that one against England. His 5-37 helped dismiss Pakistan for 92 when they were chasing just 146 in the deciding Test at Faisalabad in October 1997, still among South Africa’s greatest triumphs. Three months later, with Donald injured, Pollock bowled 41 overs in the brutal heat of the Adelaide sun and finished with a Test-best 7-87. Finally, against India at Bloemfontein in 2001-02, he took 4-91 and 6-56 in a comfortable victory, and was told he had become the first South African captain to bag a ten-for. “Thank you,” he whimsied. “And how many other captains have been bowlers?”

Shaun Pollock accepts an award from his father, Peter, after his final appearance at his home ground in 2008

He does tend to be referred to as a bowler, because he is so good at it, but the figures are unmistakably those of an all-rounder. By January 2003, he had a batting average of 33.45 with two Test centuries and 278 wickets at an average of 20.71. Ian Botham averaged 33 with the bat and 28 with the ball. Pollock had also worked hard to earn a coveted place in the slip cordon, a precious prize for the man more often than not bowling the most overs in the innings.

One job no one thought of giving him was the captaincy. (In 1991 his SA Schools captain was Nicky Boje. The vice-captain was Pollock – Anthony Pollock, Shaun’s cousin.) Then, in 1998, Gary Kirsten suddenly quit as Cronje’s deputy. It was an odd decision that cost him kudos as well as cash, and he never explained it, leaving others to wonder if it might have had anything to do with Cronje. Pollock was named as the new vice-captain, not because he was being groomed for the job, but because he was cheerful, presentable and clean-living. His first taste of captaincy came in October 1998, when South Africa beat Australia to win gold at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. But everyone knew that Cronje was impregnable, brilliant and fit: he missed only two matches out of 185 in his crowded reign. Some even thought Pollock’s career would end before that of Cronje, who was four years older but a batsman-who- bowled rather than one of the hardest-working men in the game.

Then the world fell in on South Africa.

When Cronje was exposed, Pollock not only had to take charge of the team, but – with all due respect to the country’s political, religious and “moral” leaders – of the sporting nation. Every time a plaintive call of “say it ain’t so” was made, he was the man who had to answer. And answer he did, time and time again, proving himself over and over as a man with sensitivity, feeling and respect for others.

He made a mistake in dedicating the team’s first victory to Cronje because he sowed the seed for what was to become an insidious weed of selective judgment among many South Africans in the years to come. But again, it showed the sympathetic side of Pollock’s character, both a strength and a weakness in his captaincy.

Before his elevation Pollock was always among the jokers on the team bus, in the changing room, on planes and in hotels. He would squirt drinks, throw bread rolls, pour salt in Bob Woolmer’s third bowl of ice-cream – anything for a laugh. Then, on April 11, 2000, he was suddenly in charge of a shattered, confused squad of players in desperate need of comfort. “There were tears,” Kirsten remembers. “We were stunned. The last thing we wanted to do was play cricket.”

Despite being a practising Christian and the son of a lay-preacher, Pollock’s approach was down-to-earth and practical. This was a mess the Lord wasn’t going to clean up. The players had to, and they had to do it by playing winning cricket. “There was definitely a point where things could have gone badly wrong for the team,” Pollock said early in 2003. “But we were also lucky in some ways because people didn’t expect too much from us, given what had happened. People expected us to fall apart – it was almost like a honeymoon period in which we could just get on with the game.”

Faced with a three-match one-day series against Australia beginning the day after Cronje’s confession, South Africa won. Then the scandal began to sink in. The King inquiry into match-fixing revealed nothing except that Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams had accepted offers to underperform. A week later, Pollock was leading the national team – minus Gibbs – on a three-Test tour of Sri Lanka. On the field, he was a disaster. He could handle an intimidating press conference with nearly 200 scandal-seeking, bloodthirsty journalists on arrival in Colombo, but he could not handle Sanath Jayasuriya on the first morning of the series in Galle. Jayasuriya raced to 96 not out at lunch while Pollock played a game of chicken, maintaining rigidly attacking fields and just hoping. Nothing happened, and his team were hammered by an innings inside four days.

“When a guy starts out as captain, he probably feels like he has to make something happen – that he has to score runs, take wickets, take charge of everything,” Pollock says. “That was the case with me. But you quickly learn… Basically it comes down to one word: patience. And I learned it the hard way.”

South Africa fought back to draw that first series and went on to win every other Test series under Pollock except the one they wanted most – in Australia in 2001-02, when they were annihilated 3-0. Those defeats brought heavy criticism of Pollock’s captaincy, but there are several points to remember. His own form never suffered, he was let down by his normally reliable match-winners and no one ever suggested a better man for the job. He handled every trial and tribulation with dignity and never once turned on his players, even when they turned on him. The formulaic approach he adopted in one-day matches was a direct inheritance from his predecessor, something the critics somehow forgot. Finally, he was the first to admit he wasn’t perfect and was never shy to ask advice.

There were many high points too, none greater than the series victory in the West Indies. “No question,” he says. “A highlight of any cricketer’s career.” With his team teetering in no man’s land at 315 for 8 on a perfect batting wicket in Barbados, Pollock played an innings that not only protected a 1-0 lead but ultimately set up the series win. His previous century, reached in 95 balls against Sri Lanka at Centurion in January 2001, had been a kaleidoscope of tall drives and swatted hooks. His second showed meaner, tougher qualities. Pollock and his partner, Donald, changed from poachers to gamekeepers, adding 132 for the ninth wicket.

He went into a World Cup that South Africa’s fans expected to win, looking as if he would be captain as long as he wanted. Instead he was “relieved of his duties” because South Africans needed someone to blame for their collective misery at missing half their own party. Unlike his predecessor, he left with honour.

Personally and professionally, Pollock is one of the most balanced cricketers to represent South Africa in the modern era. He is approachable, honest and thoughtful. He also has a temper and can be a sulker, although captaincy curbed both tendencies. He has grown up in other ways too. The jokes about him being the only member of the squad to use his UCB travel allowance to bring his mum and dad on tour are over: Shaun married Trish in July 2001, so Peter and Inez now pay for themselves. During the World Cup, it was announced that Trish was expecting their first child in September. And if it’s a boy? Shaun smiles. “He won’t come under any pressure from me to play cricket.”

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