Mike Procter, born September 15, 1946, was a devastating fast bowler and a destructive batsman who had enough polish to become a pillar of the top order. Unfortunately, what promised to be a glittering career for one of the best all-rounders of all time was restricted to a mere seven Tests due to South Africa’s isolation. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the playing days of this extraordinary cricketer.
The legend of Proctershire
Gloucestershire — the shire of the Graces. The county had seen many a legend put on flannels and walk out onto the greens to battle for the team. From WG Grace and his brothers to Gilbert Jessop, from Wally Hammond to Tom Graveney to Zaheer Abbas — great names had been aplenty.
Yet, after the ancient days of the Graces, never was the great west county identified with the name of one cricketer. Even in the days of daily double hundreds and superhuman deeds of the 1920s and 1930s, it was seldom referred to as Hammond-shire.
However, in the 1970s the Bristol crowds were stormed by a man from the Southern Hemisphere, running in from almost the direction of extra-cover, bowling chest on, off the wrong foot and hair-raisingly fast. The ball was propelled just before his left foot hit the ground, with tremendous arm swing, ox-like shoulders and plenty of body weight behind it, most often swinging massively inwards. He could be vicious and hostile and even Barry Richards was laid out by one that struck the great batsman on his head. Wickets were blown away in front of his furious charge, as many as 833 of them for the county at 19.56. This included 42 five-fors and multiple hat-tricks. It was not always raw pace, often on sluggish wearing wickets he resorted to canny cutters as well. And his best figures in First-Class cricket, nine for 71 for Rhodesia against Transvaal in 1972, were achieved with more than 30 overs of off-breaks.
But, that was just half the story. With the bat, this man could hit the fastest of centuries before taking off his pads and coming after the opposition with the ball. He did achieve the incredible feat of a century and a hat-trick in the same match. Neither was he a mere slogger. In the time-honoured tradition of the county, he could be technically unimpeachable, and had a cover-drive that flowed with majesty to match all the great Gloucestershire names from Hammond and Graveney to Zaheer. Time and again he could bat at number four or five and pulverise the best of attacks into submission. His destructive abilities were never so singularly showcased than when he hit six sixes off consecutive deliveries from Dennis Breakwell of Somerset. And at the high noon of his splendid career, he hammered a world record equalling six centuries on the trot — although they came not for the shire but in his native South Africa.
However, when Hammond had played for the county there had been Charlie Parker and Tom Goddard in the outfit. Hence, the man with great all-round ability had been required more as a batsman than a bowler. Similarly, with Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer in the line-up, Gloucestershire required Mike Procter more as a bowler than a batsman. So, although he could be a classical strokeplayer and could look elegant even when throwing his bat around in List A matches, batting for him remained a secondary endeavour. In spite of that, he scored 14,441 runs for the county at 36.19, with 32 hundreds.
It was not for nothing that during the 1970s, the shire of the Graces became known as Proctershire.
Procter was without any doubt one of the greatest all-rounders of his day. And like many of his talent-oozing compatriots of that era, his continued excellence was showcased in front of just a brief section of the cricketing world.
The radiant spark which touched off his ephemeral career told of immense promise, but it was limited to seven Tests of spectacular bowling and brief flashes of potential with the bat. After that the fire of his willow and leather only lit up the fields of South African Currie Cup and English county championships.
There were brief excursions into manufactured stages of the alternate world, where in matches devoid of Test status, and sometimes even First-Class stamp, he rubbed shoulders with some of the best in business. It happened in England while touring for the Rest of the World side in 1970, and in Australia seven years later for the World XI in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cup. On each of these rare occasions, he underlined the glorious skills that the audience of the wider world had been missing.
In his long association with Gloucestershire he became a phenomenon, a legend and later a captain who radiated inspiration and success. But, what should have been a side show took the centre stage.
By the time the South African Cricket Association had arranged for a sequence of rebel tours by international cricketers in the 1980s, he was one of the senior statesmen and past his best.
His career remained a tale of infinite potential forever looking for a release, an opportunity for fulfilment. Yet, strangely, he himself realised with time that his frustrations were by-products of issues far greater than the plight of a few cricketers, something that he could appreciate only when his horizons that had been broadened by cricket.
It did not take Procter much to find his way to the cricket grounds. Father Woodrow Procter had played for Eastern Province against the visiting Englishmen in 1938-39, and had dismissed two Yorkshiremen, Paul Gibb and Norman Yardley. Elder brother Anton got into the Natal side before him. Thus, when Procter hit five centuries at Highbury Preparatory School as a 12-year-old, it was but the natural order of things. Among them, 210 not out against an Under-13 Transvaal side spoke of something more than raw natural talent.
It is curious that Procter initially played for his school team as a batsman-wicketkeeper; and but for the scarcity of bowlers in the side, he might have remained one. Coach John Saunders convinced the young Procter to try off-spin. The next year he bowled fast. He continued to bowl fast all his career.
At 15, Procter got into the first team for Hilton College. And he also made it to the Natal Schools XI. As is the case of gifted all-round athletes, his sporting ambitions were not limited to cricket. He was fly-half in the Rugby XV, and also made it to the hockey, squash, lawn tennis and athletic teams.
In the northern summer of 1965, Procter spent a season in England playing for the Gloucestershire Second XI along with another South African youngster called Barry Richards. His all-round skills did not take too long to announce themselves, with 55 wickets at 13.79 and 527 at 31.00 accumulating against his name that season. Additionally, when the touring South Africans arrived in Bristol for their match against the county, Procter was promoted into the senior side. Thus, he curiously made his First-Class debut playing against his own countrymen led by Eddie Barlow. In a rain washed encounter at the Ashley Down Ground, he batted at number six and top-scored with 69.
Returning to South Africa, Procter made it to the Natal team and played his first Currie Cup match against Rhodesia, scoring 56 and picking up a solitary wicket. In his very fifth match, he came in at 19 for four against Transvaal and scored his maiden First-Class hundred, a superb counter-attacking innings of 129.
In the summer of 1966, along with Barry Richards and Lee Irvine, Procter toured England as a member of Wilfred Isaacs XI. Their trip coincided with the visit of Garry Sobers and his West Indies team to England. The youngsters did not have sufficient funds to get tickets for the Test, but managed to come to an arrangement of free entry in exchange of cleaning the kit of the West Indies players. Hence, they watched the day’s play and cleaned the pads and boots of the Caribbean cricketers. It was quite some experience for young white men who had grown up in the sheltered bubble of apartheid, and Procter was to admit as much down the years.
The start and end of the Test career
By late 1966, Procter had developed significantly as a bowler. Eleven wickets were captured against Rhodesia. Next came the quick scalps of Ian Redpath and Bob Cowper among his six wickets when Natal played the visiting Australians. The performances pitch-forked him into the Test team. Procter made his debut in the third Test at his home ground of Old Kingsmead, Durban.
South Africa got off to a precarious start with Eddie Barlow hitting the first ball of the Test match straight back to Garth McKenzie. However, a hundred by Graeme Pollock helped them to recover to 300. Procter opened the bowling with Peter Pollock and soon had Bobby Simpson edging to Denis Lindsay. He finished his first outing with three for 27 as Australia were bowled out for 147. In the second innings he got rid of Ian Chappell and Tom Veivers before helping to blow the tail away, ending with four for 71. It was a superb start for the young man.
At Johannesburg, Procter captured four wickets in the first innings, and two more in the second as Australia hung on for a draw, eight wickets down and helped by one full day’s play washed away by rain. He got only two more wickets in the final Test at Port Elizabeth as South Africa won to clinch the series 3-1, but already the Pollock-Procter combination was sending out warnings to the cricket world. Unfortunately for the supremely talented team, this cricket world for them consisted of just England, Australia and New Zealand.
As the drama surrounding Basil d’Oliveira was being played out in the curious politics-tinged cricketing landscape, Procter spent the English summer turning out in his first season for Gloucestershire, scoring 1167 runs and capturing 69 wickets. There were hundreds against Hampshire, Glamorgan and Middlesex, and the double looked in sight when he had to return due to a knee injury.
The England tour planned that year did not take place as Prime Minister John Vorster refused to grant D’Oliveira the permission to enter the country. As a huge question mark hovered above the South African future, Procter returned to England during the summer and captured 108 wickets at 15.02. His batting did not fire but the bowling was marked with sustained hostility.
After three years, Procter tasted the highest form of cricket once more when Bill Lawry’s Australians visited South Africa in 1970-71. He started off with six wickets and scores of 22 and 48 in the first Test, and followed it up with five wickets in the second, six in the third and nine in the fourth. In the final innings of the series, Peter Pollock limped out of the ground after bowling just seven balls. Procter shouldered the attack and fired out six Australian batsmen to complete the 4-0 rout in the series.
The South Africans walked out of the ground in triumph laced with apprehension. They fully believed that they were the number one side in world cricket. And they wondered whether they would continue to be part of that cricket world.
This phenomenal group of cricketers never played Test cricket again. Procter’s Test career had started with a bang … but that was all it amounted to. In seven Tests he captured 41 wickets at 15.02. With men like Eddie Barlow, Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Lee Irvine and Denis Lindsay ahead of him in the order, his opportunities of making an impact with the bat were limited. He scored 226 runs at 25.11 with a highest of 48. South Africa won six and drew one of the Tests he had played.
Amidst rousing protests, vandalised pitches and condemnation by the British Prime Minister, the scheduled South African tour of England was cancelled. Talks were held to arrange a visit to Australia in 1971-72 but that too came to nought. The International Cricket Council (ICC) refused to acknowledge South Africa as a member.
Procter writes in South Africa: The Years of Isolation and Return to International Cricket: “At the time I felt it would be a short ban, that soon we would be welcomed back into the fold. Then it dawned on me that we were in for a long period of isolation.”
There was a lot of frustration and anger in the beginning. “I was hurt, disappointed, angry at our own government and at world cricket’s ruling authority. An international sportsman can’t wait to have a go at opposition of equal stature, to test his mettle at the highest level. Now we South Africans were out in the cold.”
It was cricket which helped Procter realise the true gravity of the situation in his country. According to his own confession, he had been brainwashed as a boy like most white South Africans of that period. “Coming from a comfortable background, I went to Hilton College, one of the best schools in the country, and the wonderful sports facilities there brought me great happiness and a drive to succeed in sport. It didn’t really occur to me that I came up against only whites on the sporting field, that blacks were mostly involved in the menial aspects of South African society.”
When Procter went to Gloucestershire in 1968, his world view started to change. He played against men like Clive Lloyd and Garry Sobers. And when he turned out for Rest of the World under the leadership of Sobers — a desperate replacement for the cancelled South African tour to England in 1970 — his realisation became deeper. Barlow, Barry Richards, Procter and the Pollock brothers played alongside Rohan Kanhai, Sobers, Lloyd, Mushtaq Mohammad, Intikhab Alam and Farokh Engineer. “The team spirit was fantastic. That summer in England was another educational experience for the South Africans and we came home convinced that things had to change in our country, otherwise we would be out in the cold for a long, long time.”
Years later when asked about his briefest of Test careers, Procter responded, “What’s a Test career compared to the suffering of millions?”
Procter underlined his claims as an all-rounder in the series. In the five ‘Tests’ he scored 292 runs at 48.66 with two half-centuries and captured 15 wickets at 23.93. England were vanquished 4-1. EW Swanton observed: “The ‘Tests’ were contested with utmost rigour and produced some of the best ‘Test’ cricket seen in England. I suppose that the 1948 Australians might be thought to match this side.”
More importantly, the great South African cricketers came back with schemes to change the situation.
The dream run
Pollock returned to turn out for Rhodesia in supreme form. He started with figures of 10-8-8-5 against Borders and followed it up with a hard-hitting 45.
And then, in a dream run of six matches, he emulated CB Fry and Don Bradman by scoring six hundreds. And going further than the two former joint record holders, he also captured wickets in heaps.
Against Natal, at Bulawayo, he scalped three for 46 and followed it up with 119. Against Transvaal B at Salisbury, he blasted 129. A month later, against Orange Free State at the Ramblers Cricket Club Ground, Blomfontein, Procter opened the bowling and picked up three for 26 as the opponents were shot out for 66. He followed it up with 107.On the New Year’s Day 1971, he blazed away on a difficult pitch at Pretoria, coming in at 56 for three and notching up 174. Not quite satisfied, he took three for 20 and two for 22 as North Eastern Transvaal folded twice and succumbed to an innings defeat. At De Beers Stadium, Kimberley, against Griqualand, Procter came in at No 4 to strike 106. When the opposition batted, he pitched in as usual with three for 15. At the Police B Ground in Salisbury, Rhodesia were soon in trouble against Western Province on a lively wicket. Procter walked in at five for two, and another wicket went down without addition to the score. He put the bowling to sword, thrashing every bowler around the park, and scored his sixth century on the trot. He made it a huge one. Procter ended with 254, the highest he ever scored in First-Class cricket. The effort must have fatigued him somewhat, because he did not bowl a lot in the first innings. He was used more in the second, as a canny off-spinner to get rid of the tail. His figures read 11-7-10-1 and 21.3-6-40-2.
All this while there were plenty of moves to get South Africa back on the international cricket pitch. But, each manoeuvre came up against political roadblocks. When South African Cricket Association’s request to include two non-white cricketers for the proposed Australian tour of 1971-72 was shot down by the government, the cricketers planned a protest. In April, a match took place at Newlands, in effect a Test trial for the uncertain Australian trip. Currie Cup winners Transvaal XI faced off against The Rest. Procter bowled one ball to Barry Richards after which both the teams walked out of the ground. They returned to resume the match, but after the protest had been underlined and a full statement had been released.
The manager of The Rest, Ron Delport, handed a statement to an official of SACA. Jointly penned by the members of the two teams, it read: “We fully support the South African Cricket Association’s application to invite non-whites to tour Australia, if they are good enough; and further subscribe to merit being the only criterion on the cricket field.” It was a trendsetting move. Although only a token demonstration, it did cause a major furore. In some quarters it was taken in ridiculously poor spirit. The players in the match were due to attend a barbecue at the invitation of Frank Waring, the Minister of Sport, but the event was cancelled after the release of the statement.
Glory for Gloucestershire
As South Africa continued to spend their days in wilderness, Procter carried on his saga of success for Gloucestershire. From 1971 to 1980, he played nine full seasons and crossed 1,000 runs in eight of them, scoring 28 centuries along the way. In 1977, he was stopped at 857 but captured 109 wickets to make up for the deficit. Some of the feats were extraordinary.
In July 1972 he notched a century and a hat-trick on the same day against Essex. He won the Gillette Cup for Gloucestershire in 1973, scoring 94 and taking two wickets against Sussex in the final. In the John Player League of 1974, Procter scored 109 not out in Gloucestershire’s score of 135 for three — the lowest team total in List A cricket to contain a century.
He destroyed Worcestershire single-handedly in 1977, scoring a century before lunch and taking 13 wickets for just 73 runs. He notched up another century before lunch in 1979, this time against Leicestershire, and then followed it up with a hat-trick for good measure. In the very next game against Yorkshire, Procter scalped another hat-trick, all trapped leg-before — trapped with big inswingers. This remains a unique feat in First-Class cricket.
He captained Gloucestershire from 1977 to 1981, leading them to Benson and Hedges Cup triumph in 1977. In the semi-final, Gloucestershire scored just 180 in the 60-over game against a Hampshire line up which started with Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards. When the two legendary opening batsmen came out, Procter got Richards leg before for three. He proceeded to knock over Greenidge, Trevor Jesty and John Rice in another sensational hat-trick, capturing four wickets in five balls. He ended with six for 13 from 11 overs and Gloucestershire emerged winners by seven runs.
That year he also won the Professional Cricketers’ Association Player of the Year for the second time, having received the honour earlier in 1970. The following year, 1978, saw him winning the Cricket Society Wetherall Award for the Leading All-Rounder in English First-Class Cricket.
And in 1979, he hit Dennis Breakwell of Somerset for six sixes off six successive balls.
Brushes with top-league
Yet, for all his county heroics, and plenty of runs and wickets back home, there was something lacking. Procter often came close to playing on truly international stage, but most often there were pitfalls along the way.
When he invited Garry Sobers for a double-wicket tournament in Rhodesia, it created huge repercussions and brought the career of the great West Indian all-rounder under scrutiny.
In 1974, along with Barry Richards he received an invitation to play a match in India in aid of flood victims. The Indian government did not allow the duo to enter the country.
While captaining a Rest of the World side against Australia at Arundel, his teammates Zaheer, Mushtaq and Sadiq kept disappearing to take phone calls. On enquiring Procter found out that high-ranking Pakistani officials had been lambasting them for playing under a South African captain. It was doubly incredible because Zaheer and Sadiq had been playing under his leadership for Gloucestershire for quite a while.
And after agreeing to play a double-wicket tournament in South Africa, Bishan Bedi and Farokh Engineer had to withdraw after multiple death threats and warnings that their houses would be burned down.
Procter had to be satisfied with the games which Gloucestershire played against international sides visiting England. There was also a private DH Robin’s XI consisting of decent English cricketers against whom he played in early 1973 and scored 58 to ensure a close one-wicket victory.
Towards the end of 1973, Procter teamed up with Brian Davison to form the Rhodesian pair in the International Datsun Double Wicket competition. The field included Edmund Ntikinca and Edward Habane representing the South African Africans, or the blacks. The others participating were Barry Richards and Eddie Barlow for South Africa, Greg and Ian Chappell for Australia, Tony Greig and Frank Hayes for England and Bev Congdon and Bruce Taylor for New Zealand. Procter and Davison emerged winners in the event.
Yet, these minor brushes with the international cricketers remained lukewarm as experiences. An opportunity for the supreme test of skill at the highest level was finally provided by the quake that created a chasm in world cricket in 1977, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.
The Packer experience
It was Ian Chappell who had first spoken of the South Africans to Packer. His cricketing sensibilities could not accept Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow and Mike Procter languishing where ‘the rest of the world cannot marvel at their talent’. It was Graeme Pollock who hinted to Procter in the South African summer of 1976-77 that something might be in the offing the following season.
Packer’s recruiting officer Tony Greig met Procter along with Barry Richards, Barlow, Pollock and leg-spinner Denys Hobson at the Churchill in Portman Square, near Marble Arch in London. The reaction of Gloucestershire management’s Tony Brown was not very encouraging. Procter was informed that he could indeed play for Mr Packer but probably wouldn’t for the county if he did so.
In late May, Packer was at Hove as Tony Greig led Sussex against Gloucestershire in the John Player League. “I’ve never seen Procter play before, I hope to see him bat today,” the tycoon confided to Henry Blofeld. The South African all-rounder took four for 26 to restrict Sussex to 155 and then scored an unbeaten 29 in their eight-wicket win.
The contract was signed at Park Lane after Procter had driven down from Bristol. And after winning the John Player and having been thwarted by Hampshire in the bid to win the county championship, Procter prepared for the exciting new voyage Down Under. Later he wrote, “Cricketers must be the hardest sportsmen to please — they moan about having to get to places on time, about the food and having to do a few promotions for their employer. As far as I was concerned, I was lucky to be there.”
Procter flourished in the World Series. In the Supertests final, he played the supporting role to young Garth le Roux , capturing three for 33 in the first innings to restrict the WSC Australians to 172. And as WSC World XI chased 224 to win in the fourth innings and stumbled to 84 for four, he joined Barry Richards at the wicket. With Richards anchoring the other end, Procter hoisted Ray Bright over extra cover for six. Len Pascoe was hooked and square cut for boundaries. When Bright got him for 44, the score was 175. World XI won by five wickets.
A delighted Procter tallied the South African contribution — two-third of the runs, 16 wickets, five catches. The game would have ended a day earlier if there were more Springboks, he said.
Procter scored 182 runs in the four Supertests at 30.33 and took 14 wickets at 16.07. He had proved himself at the highest level, in the most keenly contested cricket ever played.
However, when the rest of the players returned to their respective national teams to play Test cricket, he had to go back to Gloucestershire to carry on his epic feats while his country languished in wilderness.
The rebel tours
By his last year of his county cricket, Procter had become eligible to play for England. There was a ‘Procter for England’ demand doing rounds as well. But, by then, it was perhaps too late in the day. Procter himself remarked that he could never think of representing any nation other than South Africa.
After playing his last season for Gloucestershire in 1981, Procter concentrated on arranging for international teams to tour South Africa during the eighties.
The first to visit was an English side led by Graham Gooch, playing under the curiously named South African Breweries XI. They arrived in early 1982, and by then Procter was somewhat over the hill and plagued by injuries.
He was named captain of a South African XI of sparkling talent. In the one-day match at Port Elizabeth, he opened the bowling and sent down 10 stingy overs to finish with two for 20 in a seven wicket win. But, in the victorious four-day ‘Test’, he could bowl only off-spin and scored just one run.
Young Adrian Kuiper smoothly slipped into his role and Procter retreated into South African domestic cricket. However, he was incensed by the repercussions of the series. Having been invited to play for an Old Rest of the World XI against an Old England XI for the Ken Barrington Memorial Trust at The Oval, Procter was informed that after playing for South Africa in the rebel serieshe was not welcome to participate in the match any more. He denounced the decision as an insult.
A year and a half later, when a strong West Indian side visited South Africa, a 37-year-old Procter took them on for Natal. Coming in at 67 for four, he negotiated Bernard Julien, Ezra Moseley and Colin Croft with extraordinary assurance to score 102. This earned him a recall to the South African team to play the West Indian rebels, but he appeared only in a solitary one-day game.
After calling it a day in First-Class cricket, Procter took up the role of director of coaching for Northamptonshire and guided them to win the NatWest Trophy in 1989. Later, after South Africa had been reinstated in the cricketing fold, he took up various administrative positions. In 1994, he was in charge when the South African team under the leadership of Kepler Wessels shocked England by 356 runs at Lord’s.
Procter was appointed an ICC Match Referee, and he stood in as many as 47 Tests and 162 ODIs. However, he did have to make some excruciatingly difficult decisions during the infamous Oval Test of 2006 and the acrimonious Sydney showdown of 2007-08.On both occasions his judgement was questioned — after the first forfeited Test match at The Oval and for taking the word of the Australian cricketers against Harbhajan Singh at Sydney. In the second instance, Sunil Gavaskar famously criticised him for discriminating against Indian players — ‘a white man taking a white man’s word against a brown man.’ If we read Procter’s own writings about his experiences in the 1970s, Gavaskar’s proclamation does sound a little harsh. However, his decisions in both the cases did leave a lot to be desired.
In 2008, Procter stood down as an ICC match referee to take up his new role as Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) convener of selectors.
Looking at the career figures of Procter is an experience laced with amazement. He amassed 21,936 runs at 36.01 with 48 hundreds, captured 1,417 wickets at 19.53 with 70 five-fors and 15 10-wicket hauls, and pocketed 325 catches.
During his career and thereafter he was justly compared to the greatest all-rounders the world has known. While parallels with Garry Sobers are often considered audacious, they are not quite that far-fetched. However, with his mix of classical and destructive batting and fast and devastating bowling, the most strikingly similar is perhaps Keith Miller.
During the 1970s, he could definitely have been at par with Ian Botham, Imra Khan, Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev, although his career did not exactly overlap the fantastic four. And the mind boggles to think of the all-round skills of a South African team that would have had Clive Rice playing alongside Mike Procter.
The great performer sparkled at his brightest during his days in the sun, but political clouds kept all his flourishing acts largely in the shade. But even then, his genius could not be kept secret.
As Vincent van der Bijl said about playing for South African teams against the rebel sides, “It was not exactly playing for the Springboks, but the very experience of playing alongside Mike Procter made it worth it.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)