Mike Procter: all round excellence

One of South Africa’s greatest cricketers ever played in only seven test matches but, to quote former Australian captain and respected television commentator Richie Benaud, Mike Procter was “a marvellous all-rounder who would have walked into any test team since the war”.

Unfortunately for Mike Procter, at just 23 years of age he played his last test, as South Africa was banned from international cricket because of the apartheid policies of the country’s government. Despite being robbed of the greatest stage of them all, Procter went on to confirm his greatness, such was his dominance of Currie Cup cricket in South Africa and even more so of county cricket in England.

Short test career

His short test career showed clearly that he was a player of the highest ability. In all seven matches he played he faced Australia, opening the bowling with Peter Pollock and claiming 41 wickets at the miserly average of 15.02.

Playing in powerful teams that included batting stars such as Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Denis Lindsay and Ali Bacher, he was given fewer opportunities to shine with the bat, coming in low down the order. In later years, though, he would prove himself to be an an immensely effective and powerful striker of the ball.

In the seven tests Procter played in, South Africa beat Australia six times. In the seventh, the Australians were saved by rain from another defeat.

Equalled the world record

Shortly after the end of his test career, Procter went to work on his batting, making six centuries in succession, equalling the world record held by CB Fry and the legendary Sir Donald Bradman. His effort included his highest first-class score of 254 against Western Province. Prior to that he had played a single season for Province and showed just how powerful he was with bat in hand, hitting the highly rated Australian spinner Ashley Mallett for five successive sixes.

Actually, Mallett came off better than Somerset’s Dennis Breakwell, who at Taunton in 1979 was punished for six sixes in succession, from the last two balls of one over and the first four of the next.

An apt description of Procter would be as an all-action cricketer. As a bowler he had an unorthodox, chest-on action with whirling arms that made it appear as if he was delivering the ball from off his back foot. As a batsman he was a clean hitter of the ball who had the ability to score at an exceptionally fast rate. At both bowling and batting, opponents could sum up his performances in one word: intimidating.

Proctershire

He first played for English county Gloucestershire in 1968, a team that would later often be referred to as Proctershire, such was the influence he had on its fortunes. On joining the county his impact was immediate with both bat and ball, and he was close to completing the rare double of 1 000 runs and 100 wickets when a knee injury ended his first season.

There were many outstanding performances by Procter in his time with Gloucestershire, but some achievements stand out: The 103 wickets he took in the 1969 season was special. In 1970 he was named by the cricketer’s Bible, Wisden, as one of their cricketers of the year. A 79-minute century at Lords earned Procter the Walter Lawrence Trophy for the fastest century of the county season in 1971.

Facing Yorkshire at Sheffield that season, Gloucestershire needed to score 201 to win, but at tea they were struggling on 28 for 3 with only 85 minutes left to play. This did not deter Procter, whose only thought was of winning the match – for him, a draw was out of the question. He tore into the Yorkshire attack, smashing three sixes and 17 fours in an innings of 111 that saw Gloucestershire to victory with two overs to spare.

Purple patch

In 1973 he went through a purple patch, blasting four centuries in 11 days, He then followed that up with 94 runs and 2 for 27 in the final of the Gillette Cup to guide his county to the one-day title.

Against Essex in 1978 Procter made 203, an innings that included 26 fours and four sixes, and such was the standard of his batsmanship that Wisden said it was “generally regarded as the best innings seen on the ground since Hammond’s heyday,” comparing the South African star to the great Walter Hammond.

In 1979, Procter claimed the fastest century of the season in England again, blasting to his ton in only 57 minutes. Against Leicestershire he was, to put it simply, unbelievable. He smashed a rarely seen century before lunch and then followed that up with a hat trick. It was the second time that the feat had been performed in the past 42 years – the previous time was seven years before, by one Michael John Procter!

Another hat-trick

The very next match Gloucestershire played, Procter was at it again, claiming another hat trick. As if to show that he hadn’t forgotten how to handle a bat, he then crashed a century in only 76 minutes against Surrey, with 90 runs out of his 102 coming in boundaries, including five sixes.

Showing off tremendous talent and a level of performance above that of mere mortals, Procter then declared that he would score the season’s fastest century. He just missed out against Somerset with a powerful 93 in only 46 minutes. Against Warwickshire he massacred the opposition bowling to the tune of 92 in 35 minutes, scoring all but two of the runs in a stand of 80 with Chris Broad. The final match against Northamptonshire brought him the 57-minute century that enabled him to claim the Walter Lawrence Trophy.

Another unique record he established in county cricket was becoming the only man in history to claim two all-LBW hat tricks. No one else has ever managed that.

Currie Cup record

Procter’s test career ended in 1970, but he gave a glimpse of what the game missed out on in South Africa in 1976 when he claimed a record 59 wickets in the Currie Cup.

He put such effort into everything that he did in the game that it was interesting to note that Australian fast bowling legend Dennis Lillee considered Procter part of his ideal bowler: “The breath-taking run up of Wes Hall, the silk smooth delivery of Ray Lindwall, the blistering pace of Jeff Thomson, the fire-brand aggression of Freddie Trueman, the scintillating swing of Alan Davidson, the devastating cut of John Snow, the nagging accuracy of Brian Statham, the lethal bouncer of Charlie Griffith, the demoralising yorker of Andy Roberts, the unstinting stamina of Mike Procter and the sheer brilliance of Keith Miller.”

The fact that he nominated Procter’s stamina is both a tremendous tribute and very telling observation about the great all-rounder.

Up there with the best ever

Doctor Ali Bacher, who captained Procter in the Springbok team, believes that given the chance to enjoy a long test career, the Natal star would have ranked second only to Sir Garfield Sobers as an all-rounder in the history of test cricket.

“They say in the world of cricket that Sir Garfield Sobers was the best and then there were people like Ian Botham and Imran Khan, Kapil Dev,” said Bacher. “I feel that if Mike had played more than those seven Tests he would have been closest to Sir Garfield Sobers. He was a magnificent batsman, had terrific timing and a very positive batting style. He was also a very astute captain.”

Sir Garfield Sobers himself had only good things to say about Procter: “There have been few better all-round cricketers in the world in my time. As a bowler he is fast, hostile and aggressive. I would put him in the same class as Charlie Griffith and Roy Gilchrist for bowling a bouncer no batsman likes receiving.”

A true all-rounder

Most people would have regarded Procter as a bowling all-rounder, but 21 936 runs and 48 centuries are a good argument against this. Then again, 1 417 at 19.53 per wicket is a good argument for that claim.

Some very interesting comments on Procter’s batting prowess came from Pakistani great Zaheer Abbas, who also played for Gloucestershire and was referred to as the Asian Bradman.

Abbas, who scored 34 843 runs in his career, including 108 centuries, at the superb average of 51.54, said of Procter: “If I were to pick a World XI, he would be one of the first batsmen I would choose. Mike Procter was one of the best batsmen I have played with. He is one of those all-rounders I was lucky enough to play with.

A great leader

“He was not just a good all-rounder but also a great leader. It was under his captaincy that Gloucestershire won so many tournaments. He was not just a good fast bowler but also a great off-spinner. He took a lot of wickets for Gloucestershire as an off-spinner. It was pleasure to play with such a great player. I learnt a lot from Mike and he was my idol.” High praise indeed!

When the assessments from the game’s greats keep coinciding, there is no doubt that one should believe them. When Mike Procter is described as a great of the game of cricket, you had better believe it.

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