Cricket: Tales of hard man Pat

Andrew Longmore meets the diamond town veteran enjoying a new lease of life
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The Independent Online
PAT Symcox pointed to his watch. "You're eight minutes early," he said. A man of precision, Symcox. If he says 2pm for an interview, then 2pm it is and wise interrogators bide their time. Symcox is 6ft 3in tall, has shoulders like a sandwich board and, as befits a former member of the South African militia, takes no prisoners on or off the pitch.

He is not a man to mess with, as the officials of the United Cricket Board discovered. Symcox, along with the recently retired wicketkeeper Dave Richardson, negotiated the first playing contracts with the Board. Some self-interest was involved. Symcox had sacrificed a business career in the management of private hospitals to pursue the precarious life of an international cricketer. He was 34, with a wife and small son to support and the need for a glimpse of security not afforded by some distinctly unflattering bowling figures.

In a touring side which reflects the changing racial landscape of his country, Symcox represents the spirit, if not the uglier values, of the old South Africa. Four years on from his last tour to England, he is not just the elder statesman of the party, his attitude and influences are a generation away from the bright, modern, young cricketers who will lead his country into the new millennium. Visitors to the South African balcony this summer will hear a strange mix of Afrikaans and township patois. "We can never again field an all-white South African team," Ali Bacher, the managing director of the UCB, said. "Our constituencies will not allow it." The days of cricketers like Symcox, disciples of the Eddie Barlow school of belligerence, are numbered.

Eddie lifted poor reluctant Derbyshire to brief glory by sheer force of personality; Symcox has a similar function to play, lifting morale, stiffening spines, adding a taste of bitter to the frothing talent of the new generation of South Africans, the ones who were never forced to perform national service nor to play cricket in an international void. Symcox happily acknowledges his extra-curricular duties.

"We older guys, people like Brian McMillan and I, bring a hard edge to the team," he said. "We played it harder in our day, there's no doubt about that. There is so much international cricket these days, familiarity allows you to relax far more than we could when you played maybe eight first-class matches a season. Then, every time you bowled or batted it mattered."

Symcox grew up in Kimberley, a diamond town in the heart of Griqualand West, not exactly the mainstream of South African cricket. It was the era of Clive Rice, Garth le Roux and an isolationism so bleak, childhood fantasies were stifled at birth. "We were not one of the major sides then, so we grew up really battling," Symcox recalled. "Brian [McMillan] didn't come through the system at all. What he's got now, he worked at, like me. Neither of us would class ourselves as natural cricketers, but we've earned what we've achieved. You're not prepared to give it away because it means so much more to you than if you were gifted and grew up in a big city.

"That time, we played our cricket and did our job. We didn't grow up saying `I want to play cricket for South Africa' because there was no chance. This has come late to me and Mac. That's maybe why we're more hungry than some of the young guys. Every game is a bonus."

And in the uncomplicated philosophy of the high veld, every game is there to be won. Fitting too that a native of Kimberley, famously besieged during the Boer War, should be remembered in the record books for a heroic rearguard action. In the first Test against Pakistan in Johannesburg, Symcox and Mark Boucher, the oldest and youngest members of the side, combined to put on 195, a record stand for the ninth wicket. In making 108 (off 157 balls), Symcox became only the third player in Test history to score a century batting at No 10, an historic feat lent further prominence by a letter from Swansea which reached Symcox in Worcester last week. The other two, the correspondent wrote, were recognised batsmen masquerading as No 10s. Simmo, as he openly admits, is the genuine article.

"I'd worked on my batting because I'd become more confident in my bowling, but if I hadn't made 81 on the tour of Pakistan, I probably wouldn't have reached that century," Symcox said. "I was so mad at getting out that time I was determined not to mess it up next time. I came in at 166 for 8 and was batting to survive, which helped. My job was to help Mark along, so you do that, then you look up and you've reached fifty." Then 77 not out overnight, on to the world record and finally his first Test century, acknowledged with a grin as broad as the plains and a wave of his bat. The Pakistanis were not so amused. Most Symcox innings have a subtext. Subjected to the South African's famed chatline, the Pakistanis' discipline crumbled. Shoaib Akhtar bounced, Symcox flexed his jackhammer forearms, the score mounted.

"I thrive on that stuff. It gets me going, trying to get under a player's skin, my team-mates know it. In provincial cricket, everyone keeps quiet because they know I love it." A love-hate relationship with the Aussie crowds ended in something akin to mutual respect and a beer or two with Steve Waugh, another adept sledger. Waugh and Symcox tried to broker a truce between Daryll Cullinan and Shane Warne, sworn enemies for years. Warne won the battle on the scorecard, but not in Symcox's eyes. "I would like to think that in 30 years' time I can go and have a drink with everyone I've played against. Warney won't be able to do that. If you allow what happens on the field to dictate your personal life, you're in for a miserable life after cricket."

The aftermath of Symcox's century was not so edifying. Dropped for the next Test, which South Africa lost narrowly, Symcox was fined 500 rand for retaliating to a particularly abusive spectator as he carried out his 12th man duties in Durban. Fanie de Villiers, who announced his retirement soon after, and the physio Paddy Upton were also disciplined in an uncomfortable resurfacing of racial tensions.

Symcox's retirement might have followed had Paul Adams, the contortionist left-arm spinner, developed as rapidly as the selectors would have hoped. There is still a role for Symcox's deceptive off-spin, if only as respite for the battery of fast bowlers. For how long, he is not sure. "It's not physical, it's mental. I'm fitter than I have ever been, bowl better and bat better, but there comes a moment when you don't have the mental energy to fight for survival any more. I'm getting close to the point where I can't walk the walk or talk the talk. I love cricket, but I wouldn't ike to grind it out for another five years. One-day cricket, in particular, has become really stressful now."

In 10 years' time, Symcox says, the South African touring side will be majority black African and play with a freer spirit than now. "And there will be five very fast bowlers, I can assure you." Not many will mourn the fading of the diamond streak in South African cricket. The Symcox spirit will be preserved rough and uncut in that one line of the history books and, quite probably, in the ringing ears of a few opponents this summer.

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