'Golden Eagle' Bland gone home to roost

16 April 2018 - 16:49 By Telford Vice
Colin Bland. File photo
Colin Bland. File photo
Image: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images

Colin Bland was such a fine fielder that he inspired generations of South Africans to follow in his fleet‚ elegant footsteps.

But he was neither born nor did he die in South Africa: he breathed his first in Bulawayo and his last in London at the weekend‚ aged 80‚ after decades of struggle with cancer.

More irony was that Bland’s gift for fielding was so dazzling that he put his own considerable batting ability‚ which earned him three centuries and nine 50s in 49 Test innings and an average of 49.08‚ in the shade.

South Africa were 142/2 in their first innings in Sydney in February 1964 when Bland walked to the crease to face an Australia attack led by Graham McKenzie and bowling their hearts out for Richie Benaud‚ who was playing the 63rd and last Test of his storied career.

More than five-and-a-half hours later Bland gave Benaud’s his 248th and final Test wicket. He was last out for 126 in South Africa’s total of 411.

Against England at the Wanderers that December‚ South Africa followed on 214 runs behind and were 75/3 when Bland took guard‚ and 196/5 after the dismissals of Roy McLean and Graeme Pollock.

Bland stood firm for more than four hours for his undefeated 144 to save the match.

He scored his last century‚ an effort of more than four-and-a-half hours and 126 runs‚ in the third Test at The Oval in August 1965.

The tall‚ angular Bland was as classy a batsman as he was a fielder‚ preferring to drive — on‚ off or straight — rather than cut or pull.

Even so‚ spectators flocked to watch him not only latch onto the ball seamlessly‚ but throw it with startling accuracy and speed‚ all with keen anticipation of what the batsmen would do or were doing.

Bland did exactly that to run out the well-set Ken Barrington and Jim Parks in the first match of that series‚ at Lord’s.

In South Africa’s next match‚ against Kent at Canterbury‚ the legend of Bland’s fielding reached its zenith.

“We were late starting because of drizzle and Colin Cowdrey asked me if I would do a little show‚” Bland told British daily The Independent in December 1993.

“I was on a hiding to nothing because it was wet but they spoilt me by giving me three stumps — I always practised with one.

“The little lady [luck] must have been sitting on my shoulder as I had about 15 throws and hit the stumps 12 times.

“The best part was at the end when they wanted a close-up of the wicket exploding and they gave six balls to Graeme Pollock. He stood about three yards away and missed all six.

“So I had a go‚ missed with the first three‚ knocked middle and off out of the ground with the fourth and the fifth knocked leg stump over.”

Cruelly‚ it was in the field that Bland’s Test career was ended — he crashed into a boundary fence playing against Australia at the Wanderers in December 1966 and suffered a serious knee injury.

He returned to play 34 more first-class matches for the then Rhodesia‚ Eastern Province and Free State‚ the last of them in March 1974.

Bland subsequently coached EP and could be seen in that guise sitting hunched and motionless at the boundary’s edge‚ taking long‚ slow draws on a cigarette and staring motionlessly with narrowed eyes at the arena he once dominated.

He looked even then like the real version of the nickname he had earned so long ago‚ but which had endured with him: “The Golden Eagle”.