One of the fallouts of South Africa’s years of isolation because of Apartheid was that the world missed out on seeing more of Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and the like in Test cricket. Pollock played 23 Tests, which netted him 2256 runs at an average of 60.97. His cricketing legacy goes beyond just his own numbers, and he’s part of arguably South Africa’s first family in cricket. Brother Peter played 28 Tests and nephew Shaun went on to become one of world cricket’s best bowling allrounders over a 13-year international career. Graeme watched the third Test between India and South Africa at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, and took time off to speak to Wisden India about the art of batting, the best Indian line-up he has seen, Virat Kohli’s place in the pantheon and more. Excerpts:
Your Test career was cut short due to factors outside your control. Any lingering disappointment that you couldn’t play for as long as you would have liked?
We had isolation for 22 years. I played 23 Tests, but I enjoyed the game and made wonderful friends. It would have been nice to have played longer than then, but the policies in South Africa (Apartheid) weren’t good and something had to happen. The cricketers took the toll for 22 years, but it was needed to make the country change. The good thing is, it’s back on track now. And after the 22 years of isolation when South Africa came back, the strength of cricket was still good, and we got to the semifinal of the World Cup in 1992. That said that despite the isolation of 22 years, the game was still holding its own in South Africa.
In the light of that, to watch Ngidi and Rabada bowling together…
It’s wonderful. The programme seems to be working and they’re coming through very nicely. I think everybody’s happy with how the system works and South African cricket is pretty healthy at the moment.
There was some controversy about some comments you apparently made about transformation a few months ago?
It was totally overplayed, to be honest. I’ve never ever complained about transformation. I just said there are ways and means of making it more efficient and better. We need the transformation policy and it’s doing a hell of a job, a good job. But I think a couple of variations can make it even better.
What’s the conversation like when there’s a family dinner with your brother and nephew?
We talk a little bit of cricket. It was nice to see Shaun follow us. The name would have died but Shaun made a contribution and had an incredible career. I think from an all-round point of view, it was incredible.
If you had been born in this era, with the big bats and T20 cricket, would you have enjoyed smashing the ball around in T20 cricket?
I think so. I didn’t have any hassle about doing that!
Do you enjoy T20 as a form of the game?
I think they must maintain a balance. I’m a little concerned they’re talking about the five-day game becoming four days, I have a bit of hassle with that. There’s nothing wrong with the five-day Tests. 20 overs, you can overdo it. But there’s no doubt that the 20-over game is affecting batting in Test cricket. Guys are hitting the ball over the top and getting out. They don’t accumulate and spend time in the middle. I think it’s affecting the game, you’ve got to be a little bit careful.
Are modern-day bats too big?
I think the difference is, the bats are bigger but they’re lighter. My bat, 40 years ago, was two pounds 14 ounces. Today they’re bigger but probably weigh two pounds 10 ounces. So moving them around and flexibility is not a problem. And they’re huge pieces of wood. No doubt that makes a huge difference.
Is it a concern that T20 is bringing in a lot of money into the game, sometimes to cricketers who are very young still and haven’t seen life?
You can’t complain. You think certain guys can play and they deserve to make a lot of money. But there’s some very average cricketers who are surviving because they play pretty good one-day cricket and make a lot of money. But if you compare it with other sports like soccer, you can’t say that they are overpaid.
What was the best era of bowling that you’ve seen?
I think the West Indian quicks controlled the game substantially in the 1970s and 1980s. I think the game got into a little bit of a rut because there were no over-rates then and you bowled only 12 overs an hour, which wasn’t as satisfactory.
Today’s bowlers don’t have averages anywhere near the guys who played 20-30 years ago. The wickets are pretty easy and the bats make a huge difference. I’m just a little concerned: Do you want to go into a tournament and see 76 sixes hit, or do you want something a bit different? Still as positive, but not so many easy sixes. I think it’s too easy in the limited-overs games, it’s not a fair contest between bat and ball. In the 20-overs game specifically. I think the boundaries should be made a little bit longer.
Take the example of tennis. Someone was telling me that when the big servers were winning it all and there were no rallies, they softened the pressure of the ball. And I’ve had some cricketers say, ‘Maybe the ball should be softened a little bit’. Then you have to hit a good shot to get a boundary.
Overall, which Indian batsman has dealt with South African pitches the best?
Obviously Sachin was always making contributions. I think Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag were wonderful players. That was an incredible line-up, one of the best batting line-ups in the history of world cricket. You can’t replace that batting line-up. Everybody made runs and everybody was capable of playing positive cricket. I think apart from Kohli, the current batsmen have a little bit to go to get into that category.
You think Kohli would walk into that line-up?
Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. He’d walk into any line-up. He’s going to bat four or five… although three is a key position. No. 3 is one hell of a batting position. It’s the hardest. You’ve got to be qualified and technically really good to play at No. 3.
Kohli is a wonderful player and he’s done some hard work. Certainly in South Africa, India have had to rely on him really strongly and he’s got to really play well for them to get a decent score.
Technically he’s good, and he’s going to make the runs. There’s no doubt he’s a hugely talented player and he’s got a wonderful temperament. And he’s aggressive and I think he’s going to make many runs over a long time for India. He’s the key guy in this Test line-up.
Where do you think he sits in comparison with Sachin Tendulkar?
It’s hard to compare anybody with Sachin. He’s still got a little way to go but I think he’s moving in the right direction. In a few years, if he continues his prolific form, he’ll certainly be right up there with Sachin.
Sachin was difficult to bowl to. He was an all-round player and he scored all around the wicket. You couldn’t contain him and he always controlled the game. I was just saying to someone that people tend to get batting misconstrued. Batting is scoring runs in the middle and not just surviving and not getting out. You’ve got to score runs, you’ve got to put the bowlers under pressure. And this is what Kohli does and where he’s such a good player, that he puts the bowlers under pressure.
You have to play the way you can play. I don’t think you should go with pre-conceived ideas of not getting out. You’re going to get some good deliveries at some stage and you’re going to get out, but I think you’ve got to be a little bit more positive.
How would you compare Kohli with someone like Steven Smith, who will be leading Australia to South Africa soon?
Steven Smith, looking at him from the side, he doesn’t look all that great a player but he’s hugely effective. He’s got a technique that works, and you’ve got to play according to what works for you. It’s a bit of a mystery how he gets so many runs because his technique is unusual. It doesn’t look like he should get runs but he gets them, that’s the mystery. And he’s doing it consistently and probably going to keep doing it. I think the essence of good batsmanship is you’ve got to be positive and you’ve got to take on the bowling.
What do you make of Kohli the captain?
I captained a side as a youngster, and early in my career my convenor of selectors told me, ‘Don’t have aspirations of captaining the side. Your job is to bat at four and make the runs. We don’t want to put anything extra on your programme.’
I don’t know if he likes to captain the side. [He does]. He does? Then I don’t think it’s going to affect his play. He’s going to be a good player or make a contribution irrespective of captaincy.
It’s young days for him as a captain. The game follows basic rules. On a green wicket, seamers do the job and you’ve got to have your guys catching. The game follows a pattern and he’s following that, and I don’t think he can do anything else but that.
And how about Faf du Plessis?
I think he’s a good motivator and he’s made a big contribution. He’s an intense guy and he’s aware of what’s needed. He’s taken the pressure off AB, because AB is the key guy. Let him bat at four and continue to make runs. I see Faf as a solid player. He fields at first slip and he sees the game from that position and does a good job.
What goes into making a good batsman?
You’ve got to watch the ball right from the time it goes from the bowler’s arm. You’ve got to pick up what the bowler is trying to do. There are little things a bowler tells you before he delivers the ball that makes it easier. You’ve got to pay attention to what he’s trying to do. Like you can normally pick up when a guy is about to bowl a bouncer because he is putting more energy into the delivery to make it quicker and bounce. You can pick it up on his delivery stride that he’s really wanting to bowl quicker. You’ve got to watch for these little things.
I remember someone asking me once, ‘What do you do when you’re at the bowler’s end? It must be boring.’ And I said you’re as much in the game at the bowler’s end as when you’re on strike. You’ve got to pick up field placings. If the ball goes to slip or to cover, what is the guy doing giving it a shine.
I had to be totally prepared before I batted, because you get only one chance as a batsman. If you’re not prepared and you get out, you’re gone. You’ve got to not get out! And you’ve got to give yourself maximum chance to not get out. You have to watch – does the wicket bounce? If a guy bowls it short, does it automatically bounce? Is there inconsistent bounce? You’ve got to be totally prepared. Watch the game, don’t sit in the dressing room not watching and when a wicket goes, you just say ‘Oh I’m in’, and you haven’t been watching what’s happening. You’ve got to pay attention.
How can you change the game as a batsman?
You put the pressure on the bowlers. People don’t realise how the game changes when batsmen put pressure on bowlers. It changes dramatically. This is the major reason why AB de Villiers is such a big contributor. When you’re watching and AB comes out, you think the guys are starting to bowl badly. It’s not them bowling badly, it’s because AB’s putting them under pressure. They think they can’t bowl a bad ball because he’s going to hit them for four. They tend to put it there rather than bowling it, and the bowling starts to deteriorate. And everybody cashes in.
Do all great batsmen have that quality in some degree? Of putting pressure on bowlers?
You’ve got to create it initially, so you’ve got to start well. But as time goes, it does get a little easier. When I used to play with my buddies, the Transvaal guys like Kevin McKenzie and Ricey (Clive Rice) they said, ‘Why, when you bat they bowl badly to you and when I get down to the other end, they bowl a bloody jaffa?’
So what did the bowlers do when you and Barry Richards were batting together?
Try and run us out!