Cricket: Art of Pollock coloured by pure pedigree

SECOND TEST Bowlers hold key to Hussain's hopes of proving captaincy credentials as he urges tourists to think on their feet; Family and right examples have made South Africa's paceman the world's No 1 bowler.
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE not many bowlers who can render the body language of Michael Atherton speechless, but in the last Test at the Wanderers Shaun Pollock managed it with just one ball. A fast outswinger that also bounced and left the batsman off the pitch, Atherton's only chance of surviving the doodlebug was to miss it. Instead it brushed his glove and the hero of Johannesburg was sent packing with his second nought of the match.

That is the thing about Pollock: his good balls tend to get you out. If that sounds like a Colemanball, it isn't. Most deliveries that move sharply end up beating the bat, which is why the best bowlers - such as Pollock and Glenn McGrath, those operating a notch below express trains, like Allan Donald and Shoaib Akhtar - narrow the margins they work with.

Inspect any pitch on which they have been bowling, and the scuff marks left by skidding leather are mainly grouped within a 6in by 4in rectangle. From 18 yards or so, it is a consistency that even Jocky Wilson would be proud and England's batsmen can expect more of the same over the next few days at St George's Park, where the second Test begins this morning.

According to the figures and those who collate them at Price-Waterhouse Coopers, Pollock has just become the best Test and one-day bowler in world cricket. If this comes as a surprise, it shouldn't, for the all-rounder is a thoroughbred with fine cricketing genes.

Before South Africa were banned from international competition in 1971, father Peter and uncle Graeme were legendary figures with ball and bat respectively. Both possessed exceptional talent, bounties that Shaun alone - at least among the ensuing male progeny - appears to have inherited.

For those who can recall his father's heyday, the current Pollock action - with its high arm and loose, ambling gait - are apparently the very spit, if somewhat light, of dad's hustling pace. His batting, meanwhile, although right-handed, retains much of the easy power and timing associated with his uncle, now considered to be one of the great strokeplayers of the past 100 years.

If inheriting such gifts is considered good fortune, the playing legacy of those before can often be a curse and many a cocksure offspring has set off in the shadow of a famous parent's career never to emerge.

It is a process that has kept more than the odd psychotherapist in business, though none so far in Durban, that steamy port which the befreckled and flame-headed Shaun now calls home.

"Growing up with the Pollock name wasn't really a pressure for me," admits its latest torchbearer. "Sure people noticed you, but because Dad finished in 1973 [the year Shaun was born], all that pressure was felt by Graeme's son, Anthony. He had to try and make his way while his old man was still the best batsman around. That must have been tough. I've never worried about it much and once I'd played my first Test the whole thing was put to bed. I suppose there was this feeling that I'd got as far as they had, but after that, rather than place undue pressure on myself, I used dad's 116 wickets in 28 Tests as a challenge."

Although the strike rates of Peter at 4.1 and Graeme at 4.3 wickets a Test are remarkably similar, son has subsequently gone past father and now has 155 wickets from 36 Tests. Like his bowling, there is an economy to the way Pollock speaks and you sense he has been over all this in his mind many times. Okay, so the famous family wasn't an impediment, but what of Donald? Surely it has been difficult playing second fiddle, even when the music they made together on the pitch sounded sweet?

"Allan is one of the best around and bowling at the other end has always been an honour. Early in my career, it was a great comfort to know that he was at the other end, ready to strike if necessary. For that reason, my big breakthrough came when he was injured against Australia at Adelaide in 1997-98. It was the first time I had to lead the attack and I took seven wickets, which was a huge turning point for me. Although my goal has never been to be the big shot of the bowling world, it was still very important to realise that I could do it on my own."

Others speak of the moment he took 6 for 50 against Pakistan in Durban, a feat that apart from turning the match on its head, also saw his name etched into the Pavilion honours boards alongside those of his father and uncle. It may not mean much to some, but three on one board is a lot of Pollocks.

Self-belief has never been an issue for Pollock who, along with Jonty Rhodes and captain Hansie Cronje, believes it is the good Lord who controls the ebbs and flows of sporting life. In an age where celebrities have become both god and guru, it is probably as good a way as any for keeping their sanity intact.

"I believe it helps give balance to my cricket career," says Pollock. "For lots of guys, cricket is the be-all and end-all, so if they have a bad game their week is ruined. As a Christian, I know where my talent has come from. It keeps things in perspective and, if anything, encourages you to work even harder to realise your potential."

In keeping with modern interpretations of religion, it is not a turn- the-other-cheek kind of faith, a fact some find difficult to accept. In cricketing circles, Pollock is renowned for his sharp tongue and temper, a combination that led India's one-time captain Mohammad Azharuddin to comment: "They say they are Christians, these fellows. If it is true, they are very nasty Christians."

The irony does not worry Pollock, who believes that aggression is a necessary ingredient for being a successful fast bowler. "You can't be the complete article without it," he ventures, a view not shared by Alex Tudor, one of England's pacemen, who recently admitted that he probably lacked Pollock's menace.

Despite the macho image, fast bowlers are in need of constant reassurance and monitoring, particularly in the early stages of development. A mentor is essential and Pollock cites Malcolm Marshall, the West Indies pace bowler who recently died from colon cancer, as the man who filled the role.

"Malcolm was brilliant and I was lucky that his first year as overseas- pro at Natal [now called KwaZulu-Natal] co-incided with my debut for them. Just watching and listening to him had a huge impact on me. Facing him in the nets was an education and I'm just glad I didn't have to do it in the middle.

He also stressed that you must never worry who was batting or bowling against you. `Don't play the name,' he used to say, `play the man.' He nurtured me right through into the start of my Test career and it was a sad irony that the man who probably had the biggest impact on me died in the week that I reached the No 1 spot in the ratings."

A season with Warwickshire also helped smooth the edges, especially with the bat, which he now wields with authority. He also learnt to pitch the ball up further in England, without sacrificing zip, something Andy Caddick struggles to do. The gulf between them was never better exemplified than when the ball swung and seamed at the Wanderers in the first Test, two factors that demand a full length if batsmen are to be dominated.

Curiously, for the man currently at the top of the tree, Pollock has never taken 10 wickets in a Test. Unhappily for England that milestone, coupled with the fact that after a couple of 90s he is still waiting for that first Test century, have begun to niggle away at him. "There's been a lot of talk about them and hopefully both will come sooner rather than later. Although dad played his career in Port Elizabeth, and has probably taken most of the Pollock wickets, the pitch has not been too bad for me in the past. Mind you, it all depends on which way the wind blows and how hard. When it gets overcast it can swing around quite a bit."

And we all know who will most benefit from that.