Cricket: Man of God is devil of a paceman

First Test: How Pollock harnessed his ability to breathe fire into a bowling style shorn of frills

SHAUN POLLOCK may be a man of God teeming with heavenly virtues but the diabolical ball which he unleashed on the England captain last Thursday morning was obviously conceived in hell. It was the 12th delivery of the series, it had the initial advantage of deadly accuracy and it then reared up venomously at Nasser Hussain.

At that point the batsman had a choice but since this seemed to lie only between fending the evil thing off and decapitation it was not exactly an enviable one. Hussain opted for the former and was caught by one of two gullies lurking in wait. The ball was probably travelling at more than 85mph but, although the speedometer was switched off at the time, it did not need the services of a mere gadget to be aware that here was a masterful bowler at the top of his game. He reinforced this point with the delivery he produced for Michael Atherton yesterday, the first of the innings for both of them. The batsman had to play it, and he he did not do so with quite enough assurance because he was not allowed to. Great fast bowlers know the men they need to get out.

Pollock has yet fully to develop his upright, forceful batting but, at 26, a place in the understocked all-rounders' pantheon still beckons - although he will have been disappointed yet again with his somewhat limp, loose shot yesterday.

He is, for the moment, the less celebrated half of the most formidable new-ball combination in the world. Allan Donald's aggression, durability and sheer pace have made him a fast-bowling icon but that hardly makes Pollock unintimidating. They complement each other beautifully, this pair of South Africans (unless, that is, you happen to be on the receiving end): the blond, fierce Donald bristling with snarls and intent, daring the opposition to take him on, the red-headed, self-contained but demonstrative Pollock, keeping it straight, harnessing the ability to shift the ball both ways off the pitch.

"I can't overrate the benefit of having a strike bowler like him at the other end. We work in tandem, we discuss how we might bowl differently at the batsman," said Pollock, surveying the Wanderers ground where he inflicted such severe damage on English wickets, hearts and souls. "I'm not at liberty to disclose what it is we do or how we make plans but we do discuss our pairing and how to go about getting batsmen out all the time."

He is as tough as old biltong on the field, which is entirely in accordance with his country's historic philosophy but superficially at odds with the profound Christian beliefs he shares with several other members of South Africa's side. The two, it seems, can be mixed. It is said, maybe apocryphally, as the story has been told as long as there have been God- fearing men in the game, but maybe not, that Pollock was batting in a recent Test match when he edged a catch to the wicketkeeper.

The umpire's finger did not budge and nor did the batsman. At the end of the over the wicketkeeper questioned Pollock's right to be there and wondered how it squared with his Christianity. To which the man still in possession of the crease said: "In God's eyes we are all sinners."

It is four years since Pollock played his first Test match, against England at Centurion, a few miles up the road from Johannesburg, when it was immediately apparent that the selectors, chaired by his father, Peter, himself a highly accomplished Test fast bowler, had been dealing in shrewd judgement rather than nepotism. By the end of that series Pollock junior was a fixture in the side. In the decisive Test in Cape Town he took 5 for 36 in England's second innings as South Africa won the match and the series, 1-0.

"When I look back now on what I knew then and what I know now I wonder how I got away with it in Test cricket," he said. "It wasn't that I didn't think I knew anything then, it is that I know now how little I knew. Maybe I can improve as a bowler but I'm very happy with the way things have gone. I'd like to think that I can stay at the level I have reached now for a few years."

Pollock's chief weapon is not pace - though this does not put him in the ranks of the military medium - but his rigid adherence to line. He is gun-barrel straight and it is doubtful if anybody has controlled a seam better since Jermyn Street was in its bespoke pomp.

His bowling is largely, as it were, shorn of frills, a method which had brought him 147 wickets in 35 Test matches before the present series at 20.60 each, which is not an average to which any of the highly respectable crop of current English seamers aspire. To those figures were added 4 for 16 in those few compelling helter-skelter hours two days ago.

He also averages 32 with the bat but if his silver lining is besmirched by a passing bit of cumulus it is this aspect of his game. Two years ago, when South Africa embarked on their eventually ill-fated tour of England, South Africa's coach of the time, Bob Woolmer, said Pollock was the world's top all-rounder. This was a big claim, if not quite a tall story. Pollock has still to make a Test hundred.

"It's true, my batting in the past four years has not progressed the way it should have done and that's what I've got to keep working towards," he said. "I've contributed runs to the match situation but the consistently heavy scores have not been there. There are probably lots of reasons. I'm not sure what my place in the order is going to be in future. That's not up to the captain any more, the selectors decide."

Aside from the need to enhance his batting, Pollock also recognises that he will not have his long-time partner with him for much longer. Donald may have dismantled England on Thursday but at 33 time is catching up with his body.

Pollock will be the spearhead then and is likely to be partnered by either David Terbrugge or Nantie Hayward, also both flame-haired. Now that would resemble a devilish attack.

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