January 31, 2008

The name is Shaun – Shaun Pollock

By H Natarajan

It’s a tough act to follow in the footsteps of a high-achiever father. The pressure of expectation is unreal and often unfair. Cricket history is replete with examples of sons paying the price of having a famous surname. There are few instances of sons - Sir Richard Hadlee, Mohinder Amarnath and Tiger Pataudi being cases in point - outshining their respective fathers, but then the accomplishments of the fathers at the international level were modest at best.

In my book, there is no comparison to Shaun Pollock who not only overcame the pressures of having a famous surname but established deeds that surpassed that of his illustrious father. Shaun not only had a father who will be remembered as one of the great fast bowlers of the game but also a paternal uncle who will rank among the all-time great batsmen. Indeed, the record books would have been littered with the dazzling feats of Peter and Graeme Pollock had the greater part of their careers not been lost because of the ban imposed on the then racial South Africa.

Shaun bids adieu to international cricket in a few days time with an enviable record. His tally of 421 wickets is the eighth highest in Tests and the most by a South African. And his 391 wickets in ODIs (he still has two more outings to boost the tally) is the fourth highest in the game, behind Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Muttiah Muralitharan. Pollock will be remembered as one of the genuine all-rounders of the game – a player of who can be expected to score a hundred and haul a fiver.

For a greater part of his career he has batted at No 8 but still ended his Test career with an average of 32 plus. In fact, he contributed hugely to the depth of the South African batting line-up, which is reflected in his average of over 41 from 20 outings at No 9. In fact, both his Test hundreds have come at No 9. As a batsman in ODIs, he has an average of 26 plus – again, pretty good considering that he most batted between numbers 7-9. And if you think that his average is nothing to shout about, just look at the career figures of more accomplished ODI players like Krishamachari Srikkanth, Virender Sehwag, Sanath Jayasuriya, Steve Waugh, Shahid Afridi, Allan Border, Mahela Jayawardene to name a few, all of whom had the luxury of batting higher up the order and pace their innings.

But it is as a bowler that Pollock will be most remembered. He was in the genre of the greats Sir Richard Hadlee and Glenn McGrath, running in close to the stumps and gnawing away around the off-stump. There was no respite for the batsmen and his robotic accuracy made him one of the most parsimonious bowlers in the history of the game. His economy rate of 3.67 is fractionally behind Curtly Ambrose (3.48) among bowlers who have taken 200 wickets or more in ODIs. He brought the same discipline in line and length in Tests as well to make scoring off him a difficult proposition.

Pollock’s all-round abilities brought huge value to South Africa. He won the Man of the Match award on his ODI debut and completed the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in the least number of matches.

He came under the early influence of Malcolm Marshall, who was an overseas professional with Natal. And Pollock has always been grateful to his late mentor who chiseled his bowling skills to lethal perfection.

Pollock has played a major part in South Africa’s Test victories. Bearing testimony to that is the fact that more than 223 of his 421 wickets have come in SA victories and that too at just over 18 apiece.

Till around four years back, his cost per wicket was the lowest by any bowler with 200 or more in Tests. By then, he had taken his tally past the 300 mark. It’s only in the last few years that his prowess has waned, but that is by his own high standards.

In fact, he was picked for only the final Test of the series against the West Indies where he emerged as the pick of the SA bowlers with a four-wicket haul to help his team win the Test by an innings and with it the series. He then helped SA clinch the Johannesburg Twenty-20 match against WI after his team was reeling at 77 for six, chasing 132 for victory. The victory helped SA draw the series. And in the ongoing ODI series, in which SA has taken an unassailable 3-0 lead, Pollock heads the bowling averages.

Obviously, not everything seems right about Pollock’s exit. Pat Symcox, an off-spinner who played alongside Pollock for a number of years, has blamed the selectors squarely for forcing the great all-rounder to take the decision.

"He was chosen in May last year as the South African player of the year, but in October his contract at Cricket South Africa was downgraded from A+ to A status," Symcox told a South African newspaper. "Add to that the fact that he wasn't chosen to play against New Zealand or Pakistan, nor in the first two Tests against the West Indies. Why? He had an [batting] average of more than 40 in the last 12 Tests and his bowling average was less than 18. In his three Tests in 2007, he took 13 wickets, while Andre Nel could only manage [16] in seven Tests. His omission doesn't make any sense…I don't understand why he was treated this way. Without Pollock, South Africa can go down to No. 6 after the Tests against India and Australia."

It’s always sad to see a great player go. And as he leaves, the thought that lingers in the mind is that when mention is made of the great all-rounders in the name, Pollock will be up there with the best.

Adieu, Polly.

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