Mike Procter was with Gloucestershire for 13 years, and captained the team for four, from 1977 to 1981

Mike Procter was with Gloucestershire for 13 years, and captained the team for four, from 1977 to 1981

© Getty Images

The Greats I've Known

You ain't seen nothing like the mighty Mike Procter

Colourful, swashbuckling and devastatingly good, Procter was an allrounder to rank with any in history

Mark Nicholas  |  

The premise upon which most young fans are drawn to their sport is the appreciation of heroes. These may be no more glamorous than parents or a sibling, but more often than not they are the players and athletes who turn a head, change a match or light up a stadium. After which comes imitation, the greatest form of flattery.

In the late 1960s and on through the '70s and '80s, South African cricketers were second only to West Indians in their appeal, primarily because they were banned from international cricket: out of sight, out of mind. The years of isolation led to an immensely strong and competitive first-class competition, the Currie Cup, in which dog ate dog. Following the law of unintended consequences, the greatest beneficiary of this was county cricket in England, as South Africans sought income from their talents and a stage for their performances. They gave excellent value for money in terms of both availability and commitment - after all, there was no national call on their time, and therefore mind and body remained fresh - and the quality of the cricketers was, if not without compare, then not far from it. Sad as the void that lasted 22 years surely was, it was self-inflicted, reflecting the government's disgraceful policy of apartheid and the consequential imbalance of opportunity that, understandably, remains a sticking point to this day. Peace has long been made, but a truly common ground is hard to find.

Of the unarguably world-class cricketers who played first-class cricket in this period only the Pollock brothers, Graeme and Peter, and Denys Hobson, the legspinner, did not play county cricket. Amongst a great array who did, the most colourful, swashbuckling and undeniably lovable was Mike Procter - an allrounder to rank with any in history and a game changer t'boot.

"Proc" bowled quick, like, very quick, off a long, sprinting run during which the wind blew back his long fair hair and the impression was made of something epic, almost gladiatorial. To the humdrum he was quite frightening, rather as Braveheart must have been; to the best, he was a supreme challenge. It is well storied that he bowled off the "wrong foot", which again was an impression but was not the case. Bowlers pivot on their front foot to release the ball over their front leg, which is often braced. Procter let go of the ball before his front foot hit the ground and, with his body pretty much chest-on, threw himself towards the batsman in a show of great hostility. The chest-on action and perfect wrist position at release set up his famous inswingers - magical deliveries that created chaos everywhere he went. So far and so late did the ball swing that he would often bowl round the wicket to bring lbw into play, a move that terrified umpires who were more than aware of the pending drama and their probable role in it.

His arms worked like helicopter blades and the ball flew at the batsmen as if propelled by machine; it would swing and skid, but when he rolled his fingers across the seam, it would bite and cut

Proc took four first-class hat-tricks, two of them all lbw in consecutive matches against Leicestershire and Yorkshire, everyone's favourite victim. The first, in Bristol, was in front of a sprinkling of spectators, the next at Cheltenham in front of a thirsty festival crowd that roared him in to the crease, chorused each appeal and celebrated the fall of wickets as if the ramparts had been stormed. The hapless batsmen were Richard Lumb, Bill Athey and John Hampshire, all given out by Kenny Palmer, a former bowler of some note with Somerset, who said after the sixth ball, "That's over and thank f**k for that!" Geoffrey Boycott was the non-striker and says they were all stone dead. He likes to add that Sir Len Hutton said: "The good player were at t'other end."

I first saw Proccie live in the 1973 Gillette Cup Final at Lord's: "From the Pavilion End, Mike [slight pause] Procter," said the announcer, which sent shivers up my spine. I can hear the words and their tone clearly to this day. He really was a glorious sight and, in the early '70s, at his fastest and best. His arms worked like helicopter blades and the ball flew at the batsmen as if propelled by machine; it would swing and skid, but when he rolled his fingers across the seam, it would bite and cut. The swerving induckers were the masterpiece, of course, and left even the best groping in the dark. He made 94 and took 2 for 27 against my team, Sussex, in that final having made a hundred and taken 3 for 31 in the semi-final against Worcestershire.

Next time live was four years later, in Southampton, in the Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final, and even better than a hat-trick was four in five balls, with a fifth that was the plumbest of them all, but dear old Tommy Spencer did not dare judge Nigel Cowley out from the last ball of a wonder over in which three were trapped in front. This piece of Procter theatre included the wickets of Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, so it wasn't for the faint-hearted. After the game, us wannabes hung around him in the bar, seeing if the magic would rub off.

Two years later, I played against him on the first of only two occasions. They called the ground at Gloucester the Wagon Works, and in Gloucestershire's case it worked rather well. We were beaten in two days, Proc made 29 - oh, those cover drives! - and took wickets with offspin, including mine. This was it, the first time I faced one of my heroes for real. (I always claimed that John Snow bowled a ball to me in the nets at Hove, during the coaching classes that Sussex offered schoolboys during the Easter holidays. The longer I have claimed it, the less likely it seems to become. Snow used to be there, brooding around, clouds of charisma floating behind him. But bowl? Hmmm.)

Wind in his hair, hostility in his stride, Mike Procter steams in to bowl

Wind in his hair, hostility in his stride, Mike Procter steams in to bowl © Getty Images

Back to the Wagon Works, where Procter was bowling offbreaks, things he lobbed up like hand grenades and which he spun like tops. I scored 10, which is better than none but not much good. I played forward to a line outside off stump and the ball turned and then bounced alarmingly. It went from the top of my pad to short leg, where Alistair Hignell took the catch. The hyenas around the bat whooped and hollered and I turned for the pavilion, took a couple of steps and thought, hang on matey, you didn't hit that. So I turned back. Well, the look on Proccie's face! He told me to f**k off to the pavilion, which I did without further delay.

That was the trouble against the big boys - I played the man not the ball. When we were done, David Shepherd, who had opened the batting for "Glors" and made 40, offered to buy me a beer and then sat for an hour chatting about the game he loved. He asked why I walked, didn't walk and then did walk, so I explained. He said, never be bullied, not even by Proc, stand your ground, be true to yourself and to the game. There is the spirit of cricket. What an umpire he became. What warmth he showed me in only my second county match.

Next time I played against Proccie, he scorched the turf and flayed the sightscreens at Basingstoke with a magnificent hundred. At one end Zaheer Abbas eased the ball through the covers with a precision hitherto unseen by this rookie, while at the other Proc hit our guys uphill and into the field where the locals parked their cars. It was incredible ball-striking, incredible. Mind you, this is a man who had made six consecutive first-class hundreds in the Currie Cup. Granted, some were against B-section teams, but all the same, six! Only CB Fry and Sir Donald Bradman had ever done that; and no one since.

Proc's offspinners are not so well known as these other more imposing aspects of his game. He was a true allrounder - destructive batsman, excellent catcher, wicket-taking offspinner and astonishing fast bowler. In style and personality, he was more Keith Miller and Sir Ian Botham than the others but he ranks alongside them all - Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Sir Richard Hadlee, Jacques Kallis included - and for the period 1968 to 1973, he was the quickest bowler going around.

I never faced him off his long run, but David Lewis did.

To the humdrum he was quite frightening, rather as Braveheart must have been; to the best, he was a supreme challenge

In the first half of the 1970s he played for Rhodesia in the Currie Cup. The pitch in Salisbury had some pace, the one in Bulawayo turned square. Transvaal were coming for a top-of-the-table clash and concerned by the lack of options among local slow bowlers selected a young Welshman, David Lewis, who ran a garbage-disposal business and had previously played a couple of games for Glamorgan.

Lewis was a tremendous character and a popular figure among the cricket community. He was taking wickets with his legbreaks for the Wanderers Club in the strong first division of Johannesburg club cricket, but doubts lingered among the players about his ability to convert these relaxed performances to the hard-nosed Currie Cup. The doubts proved justified as Lewis struggled to land the ball on the cut strip and Lee Irvine, keeping wicket for Transvaal, threw himself left and right to limit the wides. Ali Bacher removed Lewis from the attack after seven overs, no wicket for 32 in the first innings and five overs, none for 16 in the second. When Lewis returned home he told his wife that he wasn't sure Bacher was quite the captain he was cracked up to be. "Kept taking me off just as I was getting going," he said.

At the denouement of the match, Transvaal were clinging on for a draw as Procter, operating in tandem with that larger-than-life left-arm spinner Richie Kaschula, ripped impressive offbreaks out of the barren surface. Lewis was to be last man in and was no sort of a batsman. Johnny Waite, arguably South Africa's finest wicketkeeper-batsman (though Irvine may say something about that) was the Transvaal manager and quickly spotted the potential for disaster. He took Lewis to a tennis court behind the pavilion and asked him what his tactic would be against Procter. "Lap him, manager, I'll lap him. I'll put a big stride down the pitch and sweep every ball, see," answered the garbage-disposal man. "No, you bloody won't," said Waite, "You'll block him as if your life depended on it!" Whereupon he began to coach Lewis in the art of defending against offspin. "Get forward and kick it," said Waite, "or, when it's a touch fuller, lead only with your bat and block it. Under no circumstance go with bat and pad together." Waite demonstrated this himself and then threw balls for Lewis to put the plan into practice.

They heard the crowd roar at the fall of the eighth wicket and returned to the pavilion with 15 minutes left in the match. Waite was panicking. Another had fallen to Procter, who now had seven, this one caught at bat-pad. "Ach, no, not like that boys, bat before pad or kick it away... Come on Lewey, boetjie, try it again," said the anxious Waite, and Lewis kept at it in front of the dressing-room mirror, beset by anguish. "You've got to take the close catchers out of the game. Kick it, block it, anything but you must but survive somehow, get forward man." With that the ninth wicket fell. Lewis was in the corner of the dressing room still rehearsing defensive prods when Irvine said: "Lewey, you're in."

Procter played just seven Tests for South Africa before the country's sporting isolation, and was part of the hastily convened five-match Rest of the World XI v England tour in 1970

Procter played just seven Tests for South Africa before the country's sporting isolation, and was part of the hastily convened five-match Rest of the World XI v England tour in 1970 © Getty Images

There were now six minutes remaining on the clock and three balls left in the over. Glamorgan's Lewis dragged his heels from the dressing room and set out to save Transvaal's bacon.

"Lead with your bat, David," he muttered to himself, "or kick it away with your leg. Whatever you do, get forward. Bat or leg, block it or kick it, but get forward, get forward David boyo, save the day." Head down, nervous and way out of his depth, Lewis reached the crease and looked up to ask the umpire for a guard. Before the words "middle and leg" could come from his lips, there was horror. Complete horror.

Procter was 60 yards away.

The wicketkeeper and slips could barely contain themselves. Most of them now departed from the area around the stumps to take up their positions 25 yards back. There were five slips, a gully, leg-gully, short leg and silly point.

"Hello, here's trouble," said Lewis nervously to the short-leg fielder before adding, "S**t... I might die here."

Procter turned at the end of his mark to unleash hell. Barely a muscle in Lewis' little Welsh body moved. The ball whistled past the brow of his eye before flying into the gloves of the towering Howie Gardiner behind the sticks. Procter stared, growled and then turned for blood. The second ball was one of those inswinging yorkers that had blown away more world-class batsmen than David Lewis cared to contemplate at that moment. He leapt for his life, or his toes, and the ball, which was shooting just a fraction past leg stump, caught the back of his boot and ricocheted to the gap at square leg. Dannie Becker screamed at Lewis to run the single. Lewis, unable to ascertain his position or mind, found his animal instinct taking over as he careered to the other end in a flurry of arms, legs and fear. His once rosy complexion had gone white. Time stood still, everyone suspended in disbelief.

The Rhodesians snapped out of it in the nick of time. The clock was running down. The mighty Proc was not to be denied. He shouted at the stumper and fielders to close in. He walked back two paces and with a gently flighted offbreak captured the final wicket of the match. Becker, 13, caught Barbour, bowled Procter There was Castle Lager and cane-and-coke through the night. Procter, one of the three most devastating fast bowlers in the world at the time, had taken 9 for 71 with offspin. You ain't seen nothing like the mighty Proc.

Procter was bowling offbreaks, things he lobbed up like hand grenades and which he spun like tops. I scored 10, which is better than none but not much good

Lewis, meanwhile, remained unbeaten. And alive.

And finally, a crate or two of Castle and 24 cane-and-cokes. Cane is the spirit favoured by the sugar-industry communities in Natal. Procter is a man of Natal - lives in Durban to this day - and at present is delivering food parcels to the poor as Covid-19 consumes the country. In his heyday, he carried all before him, most especially in the season when he took 59 wickets at 15 apiece and made more than 500 runs in just eight Currie Cup matches. While we are at it, he is the only man, ever, to have twice made a hundred and taken a hat-trick in the same first-class match. Procter played just seven Tests, all against Australia, and claimed 41 wickets, also at 15 apiece. And Procter always ended the day with his mates and a few cane-and-cokes... or, as it was otherwise known, the spook and diesel.

Robin Smith was just 17 years old when he was asked to be 12th man for Natal once. At the close of play on the first day, he organised the baths, fetched the drinks and laid out the snacks before knotting his tie, proudly pulling on his blazer and making for the door. Joy, his mother, had the engine running.

"Where are you going, youngster?" said the Natal captain. "Er, home Mr Procter, my mom is waiting in the car park." Well, go tell her we will get you home and come back via the bar with a couple of crates of Castle and 24 cane-and-cokes." "24?!" "That's it, 24 cane-and-cokes." Which he did, because Mr Procter was the man. Robin stayed till the close of business. He had a Castle or two and listened to his heroes - Vince van der Bijl, Chris Wilkins, Paddy Clift and Tich Smith - chew the cud while they skulled the cane. The Natal captain led the lads from the front on and off the field. And he drove the youngster home that night. Next day, the captain removed Eddie Barlow and Lawrence Seef with the new ball and Natal went on to win the Currie Cup. You ain't seen nothing like the mighty Proc.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator