Shaun Pollock bowed out of international cricket in 2008 after a career spanning more than a decade, finishing as one of world cricket’s leading allrounders. Like his father Peter, bowling was his primary skill, but he clearly had inherited some batting genes from uncle Graeme, ending with over 3500 runs in both Tests and One-Day Internationals, with centuries in both formats. His tally of 421 wickets in Tests – at an average of 23.11 – is still the highest for South Africa, although Dale Steyn is on 419 and closing in. He also took 393 wickets in ODIs at an average of 24.50 and an astounding economy rate of 3.67. In a chat with Wisden India, the former captain who is a television commentator now spoke about India’s ongoing tour of South Africa, the aggression of Virat Kohli, the challenges of the modern-day game, and champagne bottles.
How do you think the tour has gone for India so far, the Tests and ODI series?
I was a little bit surprised by their batting. When they came on this tour, I thought it was going to be their strength. I was a bit disappointed by the way they went. Looking back, I think they have identified that preparation-wise, they needed to be here for more time. I supposed it goes down to what are the actual goals you want to achieve. If you want to win Test series away from home, then you have to give them more priority. And priority means more preparation. So I think going now to England, I have heard some of the guys are going to play county cricket, so preparation wise I think they will be better equipped. When they go to Australia, it’s the same point, it just takes time. They’ve settled in and we have seen in the one-dayers everyone has looked more comfortable. They could have even maybe structured the tour better and had the one-dayers before the Tests, that could have been better preparation for the guys. But you need to have two practice matches and have a guarantee that you are getting genuinely good opposition rather than just developing players. That’s why you have to set your goals. What do you want to achieve? Is it a great thing to win the one-day series or is it a great achievement to come and win a Test series in South Africa which you haven’t achieved? Maybe that’s where the priorities should have met the same in the preparation.
Virat Kohli has been batting at a different level than anyone else. How would you bowl to him?
I haven’t thought much about how I would bowl to him, but yeah he has been great, hasn’t he? He has got runs in the Test matches and brought some wonderful form to the one-day arena. He is a class player. I saw an interview with him at the start of the tour and he was talking about looking to engage in South Africa and looking to back himself and get to know the conditions. That positivity and approach has obviously paid off for him. He wasn’t fearful of the conditions and he was willing to grind out performances, and he obviously came here with the right mindset. When I heard that interview, I thought the rest of the batting group would have been similar, but there wasn’t anyone else who supported him particularly in the Tests. He has had some guys support him in the one-dayers, and that’s why India have been so good. South Africa have missed Faf du Plessis in one-dayers because he is very good in the middle overs and can play spin well. Quinton (de Kock) at the top and AB (de Villiers) in the first three games would have made a difference. It is a slightly depleted team, but in saying that, the wins India managed to produce especially in the first three games were very comprehensive.
But how would you bowl to him?
I don’t know. It’s different surfaces and different states of the match. If I was playing, I know I would have done preparation to make sure I knew what I was going to try and do. But not having to play, I don’t have to give it too much thought.
Kohli has brought about a new aggression in the Indian team…
I’m not really saying that aggression is what he is after, but it’s the attitude of ‘I am here to compete and I’m going to back myself and I believe I’m going to win the battle and come out on top.’ That’s the attitude you need to have. Malcolm Marshall taught me that you should have a great respect for the opposition, but have a great self-belief that whoever you come up against, you respect them, but you can win the battle. I think that’s what he wants to instil. Yes, I suppose that confidence can be edgy, your confidence might go into over-aggression or over-confidence. That’s the balance that they need to find. But I suppose you can always curb that aggression and attitude. Sometimes if someone hasn’t got it, it’s difficult to generate inside them. They’ll just have to work on that. But there’s no doubt that international sport is going to have emotion. But how you keep that emotion calm and channel it in the best direction towards just performance, rather than peripheral issues, that’s the key.
Are you a bit concerned that South Africa’s bowling looks a bit one-dimensional at present in ODIs?
It is a little bit one-dimensional. You’ve got (Chris) Morris, (Morne) Morkel, (Kagiso) Rabada and (Lungi) Ngidi, and even (Andile) Phehlukwayo is very much hit the deck. I think they would even consider going to someone like Vernon Philander for the one-dayers, and obviously also Dale Steyn because he’s low, skiddy, quick and he shapes the ball. I love to see guys using skills to get wickets rather than just rely on the mistakes of the batsmen. You do need a good balance of that so by the World Cup, you might see those guys. Particularly someone like Vernon. Maybe just use him for the first six overs, give him the new ball. He doesn’t have to bowl much after that because he can bat as well. So yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a bit of a change-up.
What did you make of the Indian bowlers, particularly in the Tests where they took 60 wickets?
You always need to look at things from different perspectives. I mean, you’ve got those 60 wickets and that’s fantastic. But then, you also have to look at surfaces that they have played on. The hardest one to get wickets on was SuperSport Park, but the other two had plenty of assistance. So you are going to bowl teams out when you have got surfaces like that, particularly given the fact that India bowled first most of the time. But yeah, I am impressed with India’s stock. It’s the first time they have come for a series where they had five or six or seven guys that can be picked and played and done a good job. In the past, they might have relied only on Javagal Srinath or Zaheer Khan, or somebody like that. But now, you had a good balance to the attack. I think everyone contributed, and even the spinners who played did a good job. So the bowling was good and if you can keep those bowlers together as a group, there is no reason why India can’t be successful in England and Australia, where the fast bowlers will have to do the job.
“For me, Dale (Steyn) has been the greatest fast bowler in Test cricket that we’ve produced since readmission. So he deserves to have the record (for most Test wickets by a South African).”
International cricket seems to be trending towards wrist-spin in ODIs especially. From what you have seen of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, are they ready to carry that mantle for India in the long term?
If you look at their ODI stats, it’s brilliant. Kuldeep’s averaging under 20, and he has 38 wickets at almost one and a half wickets or more per match. Chahal is very similar, I think he’s averaging 22. And their economy rate is good. Can those two spinners win the World Cup for you in England? I think it’s fantastic that India have a tour there now (starting in June 2018) to be able to judge what performance they give. Because you don’t always get surfaces that hold up, and you don’t always get surfaces that turn in England. Sometimes it’s a green seamer, so do you play both of them? I think that’s the challenge for India. They need to work out whether those two can be relied on to go the whole way through in a big tournament, or whether they need to find another option so that one of them plays. Because the World Cup happens in the early part of the season in England, and in general those conditions don’t really offer spin. But saying that, when we went to the World Cup in 1999, we were expecting surfaces to be nipping around a little bit. But because it was a World Cup, it was almost like the surfaces had been over-prepared because the groundsmen were scared of anything going wrong. So they rolled them more and gave them less water, so it might work in that case. India were good in the Champions Trophy but that was a different time of the year and they played on the same pitches over and over again, which meant they started to hold up and grip. But that’s why I think India’s tour is important because it’s a year away, and they will be able to gauge whether being able to play two of those will work or not.
In the modern game, you often see players making it to the XI in longer formats based on their showing in shorter formats…
In the old school, you need to spend time learning your trade, learning the art of bowling and batting at the four-day level. For the modern cricketer, things have changed. Guys can just come and back themselves. We’ve seen people like David Warner for example. He hardly played any four-day cricket before going to the Test arena. Glenn Maxwell has come in and also plays in a similar way. I don’t think there is a status quo about how you can or can’t do it. But often, the people who come from the T20 format or the one-day format have a different outlook and different approach. The positive approach at times these days works because bowlers, for example, might not be as patient as they were. So you can lure them into bowling you bad balls. I don’t think there is any set formula.
“I am impressed with India’s (pace bowling) stock. It’s the first time they have come for a series where they had five or six or seven guys that can be picked and played and done a good job.”
Does Jasprit Bumrah fall in that category?
He has something different, doesn’t he? His action is different, he bowls from wide of the crease, he is a little bit more skiddy and rushes on to you a little bit more. So if you’ve got something that is different, you can always be effective if you channel it in the right way. I think he learned as he went through the Test series about the lines and lengths to bowl and what could or could not be successful. He got exposed to some nice surfaces. I remember doing an interview with him where I said to him ‘Wouldn’t you like it if the rest of your Test career was played on surfaces like this?’ And he said definitely! So it’s going to be more of a challenge when he gets to India. He’ll have to learn to reverse it and learn how to be effective at different stages of the matches. It’s a learning curve, but in the old days you almost learned your trade before you got the opportunity. Nowadays kids, people like Ngidi, they are all learning on the job. I mean, he played nine first-class games before he got his Test cap and he got six wickets. He learned on the go. That’s where they are pretty good now and are very adaptable.
“He (Kohli) wasn’t fearful of the conditions and he was willing to grind out performances, and he obviously came here with the right mindset.”
With so many T20 leagues around today, is the difference between home and away almost blurring?
Yeah, I think some conditions have also changed. Like in South Africa, I don’t think it’s the same conditions as there used to be five-ten years ago with regards to pace and bounce. In my day, there weren’t Under-19 tours, Under-21 tours… The first time you went to India was when you got picked to play for South Africa! Now you’re playing IPL, the Under-19 team go there, the ‘A’ side tour there… so everyone’s getting exposure to different conditions, and they should all be better prepared about what’s required on different surfaces. That’s the nature of the modern cricketer.
What does it take to be an allrounder in the modern-day game?
I think in T20 cricket, allrounders are identified as guys who can bowl two or three overs and also score 20 off 10 deliveries. The challenge comes when you have to repeat that performance for a long period of time. Like bowling 20 overs in a Test match, a good 20 overs. Or batting for 100 deliveries to get a 60 or something. The modern allrounder can contribute in the T20 game and we tend to see them as good allrounders because they are making a contribution either by getting scores or wickets. But I think the consistency of being able to produce performances in all different formats and all conditions – that’s the challenge. Because the younger players don’t get exposed to as much of that as we might have got.
When you and Allan Donald were opening the bowling for South Africa, did a captain have to go to the curator and ask for pitches favouring you? Or was it understood and didn’t need to be stated?
I think we would always have gone in to discuss with the curator what we were after. You’re not guaranteed you’re going to get it. But you want to back your strengths. And I think in South Africa in those times, we had the conditions of pace and bounce – that wasn’t hard to get. I think our surfaces have flattened out a bit and behave a bit differently to the way they did then.
I don’t have a problem with surfaces being prepared to favour a certain thing. But when it’s overdone, that’s the challenge. We used to go and talk to the groundsman to try and find out what the preparation has been like, whether we can try and gauge if the wicket is going to assist pace or spin. Ask him how much grass he’s going to leave on. It’s part of the game, isn’t it? It’s not like a tennis court, where you walk on and it’s the same today as it was yesterday. The surface plays a big part in cricket, that’s why there’s pitch reports, that’s why there’s discussions about it, that’s why it’s often used in articles to describe how the game is going to unfold. But it’s like you never want the umpires to be dominating news headlines, you never want the pitch to be dominating news headlines. It should always be the performance of the players and their skills, rather than the surface.
You’re still South Africa’s highest wicket-taker in Test cricket…
Not for long! (laughs)
“What do you want to achieve? Is it a great thing to win the one-day series or is it a great achievement to come and win a Test series in South Africa which you haven’t achieved?”
… But possibly for two years longer than you thought you would be?
Yeah. Records you know, when you are playing it’s great and you worry about records, the wickets, the average, the maidens. But when you’ve finished, what is the big deal? It’s just stats and figures, it doesn’t really define you as a cricketer. I mean people will define you and say you did this and this and this. But I’m not concerned.
And for me, Dale has been the greatest fast bowler in Test cricket that we’ve produced since readmission. So he deserves to have the record. I have no problem whatsoever and I hope he goes long past that record and gets plenty more.
I heard you had bought a bottle of champagne in Perth when he seemed on the verge of breaking it, but injured his shoulder…
I gave it to the team actually. I had it planned for him, and then he got injured! So after they won the Test series 2-0, I gave it to the team and they celebrated with it. I had another one getting prepared for the first Test against India in Cape Town, just in case. So I’m not touching the bottles for now! When he finally gets it, I’ll present it to him.