Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Overseas and over here

I came across an article last night while doing a little web surfing on South African cricket.

Now it's not the theme of this blog, as regular readers will know, but the author of the article was stating that the current South African side was the best they have ever had.

I'll not deny that they are a strong outfit and have some quality players. Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis are fine batsmen, while Dale Steyn is a handful with the new ball. They have a lot of good all round cricketers too, guys who can bat steadily, bowl accurately and field with an ability that seems to be lacking in some countries.

Yet "best ever"? I could only assume that the author was a young guy who had never seen the Saffers of the 1960's, Springboks as they were then known.

I remember when I first started watching Derbyshire and it wasn't a pretty sight at times. When the news came in 1969 that we were going to sign an overseas player for the first time and the target was South African, I remember asking my Dad who he thought we should sign. I was only ten, going on eleven and didn't know much about cricket other than the big names.

The two he suggested were Eddie Barlow and Graeme Pollock.

Now Barlow, as it turned out, did eventually come to Derbyshire, but Dad has always said it was five years too late.

"If he'd come in 1970 there'd have been no stopping us" he said, and few would argue. The Barlow of 1975 vintage was still a very fine player but his peak had passed as a batsman. As a bowler he was always dangerous, even when there was nothing in the track. As a skipper he missed little, just as he did at slip.

I cast my mind back to Eddie Barlow last year when we were struggling to break through on a few last days in the Championship. In those situations, Bunter would have taken a wicket with an ambitious and telegraphed off cutter, or a slower ball, or one that somehow moved off the track. He was a partnership breaker par excellence and a world class cricketer.

So was Pollock. He never fancied County cricket yet would have been a huge draw and success. One of the very greatest left handers ever, Pollock hit a ball with West Indian power yet never really seemed to be doing so.

When you consider that Barlow, Pollock, Mike Procter and Barry Richards were in that late 1960's side, I would argue that it was perhaps the best ever. Four great players in a side supported by some very good players.

Chris Wilkins, who arrived as our first overseas player, was a terrific batsman and wonderfully entertaining, yet was a long way from their national side. Hylton Ackerman, who passed away a few weeks ago, Lee Irvine and Trevor Goddard were also around, while Pollock's brother Peter was a very, very good and awkward quickie. When counties brought over a South African professional, you just knew they were going to be good.

They still are and the depth is coming back into South African cricket. They have good batsmen, some lively quicks, handy swing bowlers (many of whom have headed over here on Kolpaks) and some steady and talented spin bowlers.

South Africa has been a happy hunting ground for Derbyshire, which is why I have a soft spot for their national side. As well as Wilkins and Barlow we've had the graceful and talented Peter Kirsten, the dynamic Adrian Kuiper and the enigmatic Daryl Cullinan. OK, the likes of Andrew Gait, Dominic Telo and James Bryant didn't fare so well, but by and large we've had good service out of South Africans at Derby. For a short spell we also had Allan Lamb and Garth Le Roux in the Second XI (yet no one checked Lamb's English credentials.... grrrrr!) and but for injury would have had Jacques Rudolph too.

Our players have done well out there too. Fred Swarbrook, Phil Russell and the late Ashley Harvey-Walker all did well after they retired in coaching or groundsman roles, while Alan Hill was one of a number who went out there to play and became the first man to make a century without hitting a boundary!

Yes, I've a soft spot for South Africa and they've probably given us the best success rate in overseas player of any nation. Australia have given us terrific players like Dean Jones, Michael di Venuto and Chris Rogers, but they've also given us Michael Slater, Travis Birt and Jon Moss.

We did well out of Michael Holding for sure, while Ian Bishop would have done better but for injury, but Lawrence Rowe and Wavell Hinds were only qualified successes. Mohammad Azharuddin and Venkat also did well for us, but Mohammad Kaif showed only flashes of ability. John Wright was a fine servant from New Zealand for a number of years, Harris wasn't. Nor was Shahid Afridi in his brief spell with us.

It's a hard job identifying an overseas professional, or indeed a Kolpak. With the overcrowded international calendar it is becoming ever more complex and we should be thankful that we have such a fine player as Chris Rogers at Derby.

Mind you, I'd love to see an Eddie Barlow on a Kolpak.

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