Confessions of a cricket tragic

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa's number one ranking

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa’s number one ranking

To be a South African cricket supporter residing in Australia is to be a true cricket tragic.

As we slid to another home series defeat against Australia in Cape Town, I dashed off a tweet about the last Test side to beat the Baggy Greens at home, a team know as the “Invincibles” which white-washed Bill Lawry’s tourists 4-0 way back in 1970. A colleague replied: “Oh come on, Larry, nostalgia is the last refuge.”

Perhaps he was right. Perhaps it was a foolhardy attempt to prop up my spirits after yet another home series failure against the old foe; the only blight on an exceptional record that has seen South Africa rank as the No. 1 Test side in world cricket for many years and unbeaten in 14 Test series dating back to 2009.

No defeat hurts more than to lose against Australia (the 1999 World Cup semi-final still haunts me), no victory is more sweetly savoured.

When we finally did win a Test series against Australia in 2009, away from home, and then again 2012, also away from home, it was indeed a sweet moment for a biltong-eating expat like myself.

But a home Test series win against Australia has eluded us in seven attempts since we returned to world cricket in 1992 with just two draws and five defeats.

Back in 1970, just prior to being cast into the sporting wildness, South Africa was a dominant side with a host of superstars in the making. Top of the pile was Graeme Pollock, considered by many to be the finest left-handed batsman the game has produced. In a career of just 23 Tests, Pollock scored 2256 runs at an average of almost 61. I was lucky enough to see Graeme Pollock bat in the early 1980s, when he was approaching 40 and in the twilight of his career. It was at the “Bull ring” – the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, where Pollock would come into bat at number 4 for provincial side Transvaal, known then as the “Mean Machine” and packed with star players including West Indians Alvin Kallichirran and Sylvester Clarke (relics of earlier “rebel” tours). The side was captained by the handlebar-moustached all rounder Clive Rice, whose rich talents sadly coincided with our period of isolation, meaning he never played a single official Test. I’d sit there with my dad in the wooden seats, long before they knocked down the old grandstand, eating a chicken mayo sandwich, binoculars trained on the pitch, watching the bowlers run in.

When it was his turn to bat, Pollock would lazily stroll to the wicket Viv Richards-style and take his guard nonchalantly. When in form, he was a sight to behold, able to clip a fast bowler off his toes for six with just a flick of his bat. I still have his signature in a little green autograph book I kept as a lad. Others in that 1970 Test side that never got the opportunity to fulfil their burgeoning talents included opening batsman Barry Richards, who scored 508 runs against Australia at an average of 72 (in what was to be his only Test series), all rounder Mike Procter, who picked up an incredible 26 wickets at 14 a piece and captain Ali Bacher, whose record against Australia was seven wins from eight matches (he was also part of the team  that beat Australia 3-1 in a home series in 1966-67, captained by Peter van der Merwe).

Softly spoken, calm and diplomatic Ali Bacher was a constantly on television. As our leading cricket administrator, he organised the rebel tours in the 1980s that kept cricket alive during isolation and in 1992 led the country back into world cricket. Of course,  I remember everything back then – the smell of boerewors wafting up from braais (barbeques) around the stadium; the colourful match programs packed with statistics about my heroes; walking across the field to inspect the pitch with my dad during the lunch break – from the viewpoint of a privileged white upbringing.

I was too young and naive to understand the country’s cruel reality: that apartheid robbed generations of black, Indian and mixed-race South Africans of participating in the game.

Thankfully, that’s all changed and our team is a now a better reflection of the ‘‘rainbow nation”, with players of colour like Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Alviro Peterson all households names. Just last month, a junior South African side packed with players of all colours beat Pakistan to win the under 19 World Cup. Perhaps they will one day guide us to a home series win against Australia. A World Cup win would be nice too.

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