For cricket-mad schoolboys growing up in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, and for coaches trying to teach them the skills of the game, there was only one model, example and hero to emulate as far as fielding was concerned: Colin Bland.
If you were especially smart in snapping up the ball, in diving to stop it, in hitting the stumps with your throw, the best compliment that coach or classmates could give you was to compare your effort with Colin Bland. If the coach knew you had watched him in action — live, for we had no television in South Africa then — he would tell you to field the ball like Colin Bland.
And if you had been taken to a cricket match to see him in action, you might have seen him displaying these exemplary, unequalled fielding skills even before the first ball was bowled. He would sometimes come out 20 minutes or so before play began, put up a single stump in the outfield, and throw a ball at it 10 times or so — and if he missed even once, it was a rarity that brought a groan of disappointment from the entranced crowd. It was like watching a circus knife-thrower upon whose precise accuracy someone’s life depended rehearse his act.
But that practice session showcased only his unrivalled throwing. Once play began, if he was in the field, you were certain to see his full range of fielding skills in thrilling action. He would generally field at a genuine cover point position, where he could intercept off-side shots to his left or right. And intercept them he did. He would anticipate where the ball was coming as the batsman shaped for his front-foot drive or back-foot drive or cut, move swiftly to stop it, diving full-length if necessary, and cut off many shots that with most other cover fielders would have resulted in two runs or more.
It didn’t end there. If the batsmen dared to take a single, he would scoop up the ball and release his throw in one fluid movement, feet sometimes off the ground — think the Temba Bavuma runout from a taller man — and, far more often not, as the earlier display had promised, hit the stumps at either end.
Of course, there were many spectacular runouts, especially of batsmen not yet familiar with his threat. The one still remembered in South Africa is that of England’s great batsman, Ken Barrington, which lit up a generally pedestrian 1964-1965 series in South Africa (the first Test cricket I ever watched, as an early-grade schoolboy).
Barrington, known as a great accumulator, pushed one into the covers just where he could safely take a single, as he had done so many thousands of times in county (for Surrey) and Test matches. But Bland was in the covers and, instead of the safe single, Barrington saw the stumps at the bowler’s end erupt almost before he had realised there was any danger, and was still several yards short.
Those who were there say Barrington’s face was a picture of astonishment as he left the field; the consummate professional batsman’s composure was shattered.
Many runouts did not happen, because the batsmen — England’s for the rest of that series and the one that followed in mid-1965, and almost every provincial batsman in the South African domestic game — were wary of taking runs to Bland almost to the point of abstinence.
You would often hear a sharp yell of “No!” from one or both batsmen. But more often, you would hear no call at all, for both batsmen knew perfectly well that a run would be far too risky and would turn back to their creases with no need for communication.
Experts judged that he saved 50 or 60 runs every innings, at a time when a total of 250 an innings was often enough to win a provincial or even Test match. (It should be noted that Bland’s domestic team, Rhodesia, played in South Africa’s Currie Cup at the time — an example that Rhodesia’s successor state, Zimbabwe, would do well to emulate, and has done at certain lower levels.)
Those who know the modern game might object that the fielding agility and general athleticism of players have improved so much since Bland’s day that every fielder in an A-list game is expected to be that quick on the ball, and that such runouts are two-a-penny, especially in white-ball cricket when the batsmen are obliged to chance risky singles, and they no longer amble through as many did in Barrington’s day.
I would disagree. Runouts like Bavuma’s are considered special; Bland made them look routine.
In South Africa, Jonty Rhodes — regarded as the best fielder in the world during his era — is often compared with him but I think Bland was better, and by some way. For a start, they didn’t field in quite the same position: Rhodes was generally much closer to point, or even a little behind it. This meant the runs he saved were mainly square of the wicket, instead of covering the wide driving arc that Bland did; and Rhodes’s runouts were mainly at the batting end, whereas in my memory, Bland’s were evenly divided between both ends and — in ratio to matches played by the two — probably more frequent than Rhodes’s, though I cannot vouch for the statistics.
Rhodes may well have taken more catches, and more spectacular ones, than Bland but then more uppish shots go square of the wicket than to the covers.
The debate may be extended to compare Bland with the best fielders — away from the slip cordon, so we are talking mainly of cover fielders — of all time. We read that the Reverend Vernon Royle, one of the better clerics to play the game, was the best cover point of the 19th century and Gilbert Jessop the best of the golden Edwardian era.
In the past century, Neil Harvey and several other Australians were great cover fielders; in our lifetime, Clive Lloyd; and of the players in recent memory, I would single out Ricky Ponting.
Ponting perhaps compared with Rhodes and New Zealand’s Chris Harris in his era, though, again, they fielded at point rather than cover. Without enough film evidence, we cannot judge but I find it hard to believe any of them, in any era, was as good as Bland.
Kenneth Colin Bland, like his more famous teammate Robert Graeme Pollock (he was always known by his middle name), was a batsman of Test quality, as his centuries at that level show, and an occasional medium-pace bowler who could sometimes break partnerships.
But it is as a fielder that his name is remembered. Cricket’s pantheon is made up of players whose batting or bowling — in some cases both — put them there, but if anyone deserves a place for his fielding, it is Colin Bland.