Steering South Africa with a sure hand

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST


SHAUN McLEAN POLLOCK'S stock as captain has been rising. He has been at the helm of the South African team for close to 18 months. His report card before the home international season, starting with the Summer Spice tri-series, also featuring India and Kenya, was very impressive. He and his team returned from Zimbabwe after taking the home squad to the cleaners in the Test and the one-day international series. The South African cricket community had good reasons to be pleased with the Proteas' performance, more so with Pollock's maturity as captain.

It was in April 2000 and a day before South Africa's three-match series against the World Cup winner, Australia, that the United Cricket Board (UCB) made Pollock captain. It was yet another important moment in South Africa's cricket history, especially after its readmission, into the mainstream of international cricket 10 years ago. On merit, Pollock, raised in Kwazulu-Natal and coached by the likes of the late West Indian fast bowler Malcolm Marshall and the present national coach Graham Ford, was the only choice for the national selectors after the disgrace and fall of Hansie Cronje.

Pollock had made his debut against England in 1995-96 and had begun well taking 16 wickets, including those of the foremost batsmen, Michael Atherton, Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick. From a 22-year-old raw hand, Pollock has developed into a world class cricketer, his skills fully used by coach Bob Woolmer and captain Hansie Cronje. The only thing his CV lacked in April 2000 was that he had not shown leadership qualities, which meant that he had not led a first class team in South Africa's provincial cricket.

The South African selectors did not hold this small shortcoming against him. They made him captain and asked him to lift the morale of South African cricket which lay shattered after the corruption charges slammed on the then hero Cronje. The Pollocks are a respected name in South African cricket. That was good enough for the selectors to go for Shaun. His uncle Graeme was a jewel of South African cricket. Even the late Donald Bradman was impressed by his batting style and ability. His father Peter, had a proven record as an allrounder.

The South Africans rallied around Shaun Pollock. It was a hard time for South African cricket with about half a dozen cricketers named in the corruption scandal. Pollock took up the challenging task against the Australians in the first part of the six-match one-day series, the second of which was to be played three months later at the Colonial (Indoor) Stadium in Melbourne. Pollock began well as captain winning the home three-match series and also sharing the away series in Australia. This was small compensation for the defeat suffered in two memorable matches against Australia in the World Cup, but at least it rekindled the spirit of the supporters of the Proteas.

Pollock was trying to be his own man. Obviously the change in coach - from Woolmer to Ford - was a big gain for him. He could interact with and relate a lot to Ford because the latter also came from the Pollock's province. But he also discovered the rough and tough world of Test cricket in South Asia. He lost his first Test as captain, beaten by the Sri Lankans by an innings in Galle.

However, Pollock quickly caused a turnaround in the months that followed leading by example and conveying to the cricket world that he would not allow captaincy cares to affect bowling and batting.

He led his side to victory in the Singapore Challenge and South Africa also made the semifinal of the ICC knock out in Nairobi. Pollock's team scored resounding wins in the home series (Tests and one-day internationals) against New Zealand and Sri Lanka and continued the good run in the West Indies, too, winning both the Test and one-day series. Personally, too, it turned out to be a great first year for Pollock. He made two centuries and became the first South African and the eighth in the world to achieve the double of 200 wickets and 2000 runs in Test cricket.

He was at the pinnacle of the bowling world rankings, but at the same time, saw his ratings as an allrounder drop a bit. The South Africans stayed at home during the home winter, yet with virtually no practice crushed the Zimbabweans recently, both in the Test and one-day series. "I believe a captain is only as good as the team allows him to be. We have talented cricketers who contribute to the success. I have always tried to channelise the talent in the right direction," Pollock said recently.

In an interview to 'Cricket Action' Pollock, asked about his position as captain said: "At that time, I felt a mixture of sadness for Hansie and pride at being handed the honour. I had not anticipated the handover would happen quite so soon, if at all, so I felt uncertain about what lay ahead. I knew I was not fully prepared for the role, but there was so much going on, that it became more a time for doing than for thinking deeply about what you cannot control."

"As with all things, I am learning to cope better with experience. For me the key is to concentrate on the job at hand and avoid worrying about it all at once. When I'm batting all my energy and focus are on just that."

Pollock is happy with the way things have gone for him and his team. He has proved his ability to be a leader and has also earned the respect of his team members. This became easier for him because he has contributed with the ball and the bat. He topped the batting averages in the West Indies, making 302 runs with an undefeated 106 at Bridgetown, Barbados, as the highest score. He also shared the bowling honours with Jacques Kallis, taking 20 wickets and was adjudged the player of the series in the West Indies.

For the 28-year-old allrounder his toughest test will come up this season in the away and home series against Australia. This will be immediately after the three-Test series against the Indians. He came for some rough treatment at the hands of Sourav Ganguly in the tri-series league matches, but the South African captain had the last laugh in the final. He took Ganguly's wicket cheaply and ended up with figures of 9-1-19-2.

Pollock has also matured as a bowler. He has cut down on pace and moves the ball both ways, concentrating on line and length. This has yielded him high rewards. With Allan Donald gradually disappearing from the scene - he will be busy commentating for the SABC television during the series against India - Pollock has truly become the spearhead. He will miss the genuinely fast Mfuneko Ngam, who is recovering from stress fractures.

Pollock took 14 wickets in seven matches of the tri-series and was thrashed by only one batsman - Ganguly. But Pollock had his revenge in the final.

As has always been the case it was a batsman, Gary Kirsten, who walked away with the Man of the Series award. But it's a fact that Pollock's 14 wickets were as important.

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