Cricket: How hard work made Bland the showman: A South African transformed fielding from a tiresome obligation into an art that thrilled the world

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The Independent Online
FOR A man whose Test career was cut short by his own genius and who has been battling with cancer for a decade, Colin Bland is remarkably sanguine about life.

Bland is the man who transformed fielding from an obligation to an art. While a good enough batsmen to average close to 50 in his 21 tests he, like Derek Randall a decade later and current South African hero Jonty Rhodes, became famous for his fielding.

At a time when fast bowlers rarely bent down to pick up the ball and whites stayed white to the end of the day's play Bland's speed, anticipation and unerring arm captured the imagination.

In 1965 he scored the last century made in Tests between England and South Africa, 126 at The Oval, to secure South Africa's series win. But he is better remembered for a fielding exhibition put on at Canterbury that damp summer and recorded by the television cameras.

'We were late starting because of drizzle and Colin Cowdrey asked me if I would do a little show,' Bland said. 'I was on a hiding to nothing because it was wet but they spoilt me by giving me three stumps - I always practised with one.

'The little lady must have been sitting on my shoulder as I had about 15 throws and hit the stumps 12 times. The best part was at the end when they wanted a close-up of the wicket exploding and they gave six balls to Graeme Pollock. He stood about three yards away and missed all six. So I had a go, missed with the first three, knocked middle and off out of the ground with the fourth and the fifth knocked leg stump over.'

More recently Bland, now 55 and coaching the Eastern Province team beaten by England A this week, has made news for his fight against cancer of the colon. For more than 10 years Bland has battled the disease undergoing the traumas of chemotherapy and associated treatment. Even now he is not cured, although, he said, 'it is, more or less, in remission. I am still having treatment, but far less frequently. I was hoping to be given time off after the last Test but they were not quite happy so I still have to go once a month.'

Bland, a lean, quietly spoken man with a gentle sense of humour, retains a gauntness of face but also a wiry fitness. Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) 55 years ago he made his South African Test debut in 1961 and had missed just one Test when, five years later, his international career was brought to a shattering halt in Johannesburg.

'It was the first Test with Australia and I did not really want to play. I had lost enthusiasm and was getting to the stage where I did not want to train as much and did not feel I should play with that attitude.

'But I played and on the last afternoon I chased a ball from mid-on to the midwicket boundary and, as I bent to pick it up, my knee collapsed and I hit the fence. There was a gap underneath and I went half under it and injured my knee, had there been a full fence it could have been my neck. After that I did not really want to play Test cricket.'

South Africa did not play anyone anyway until Bill Lawry's Australians arived three years later. Bland, then playing with Eastern Province and often having to field in the slips, made runs against them and was sounded out for the 1970 tour of England before it was aborted.

Bland learned his fielding in Salisbury (now Harare), practising by erecting three stumps, spaced apart, in front of a hockey goal and throwing blocks of six balls at them. By the time he was a first-class cricketer he was often left with balls to spare.

'I needed the goal as I would have been fetching balls all the time because I had no one to practice with, even when a Test player. Although it was unusual no one frowned upon the practice I did but no one wanted to do it with me either.

'I did it because I felt if I was going to be a batter and did not bowl then, if I did not make runs, at least I could contribute in the field. Besides, if you don't field well you don't enjoy being out there.'

The results were impressive. A double run-out of Ted Dexter and Mike Brearley in one innings in Salisbury in 1964-65 - Brearley being lured into a trap - and a stunning catch off the New Zealand big- hitter John Reid remain the stuff of legend.

Today's hero, Jonty Rhodes, has finally earned Bland's full approval. 'He is a great fielder, he really is. He is hitting the stumps now which is what had been lacking before.'

England's current tourists meet with less praise. 'Their throwing is not very accurate. That is always dangerous, though - they can throw five or six wide and then throw a good one when you take a chance.'

With Rhodes - 'I would hate to pay Jonty's laundry bill, I only went horizontal for a catch' - and South Africa coming to England next year the BBC can be expected to dredge the archives for the Canterbury tapes. They are worth watching.

'Sometimes,' Bland added, 'when things were quiet, I would warn the 'keeper and the next time it came my way I would rush in and, whoosh over the top of the stumps. And people would think 'something's happening', and it would wake up all the buggers dozing off - including the fielders.

'It was just a bit of showmanship, cricketers are entertainers, they get paid to entertain. I always thought that was what made me, they loved it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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