Farewell to a near perfect fast bowler

He might have imagined the final over to be in Johannesburg with the World Cup in his grasp. Instead, Allan Donald’s career ended [in the World Cup game against Sri Lanka on 3 March] with him ferrying drinks out as twelfth man, dropped for Monde Zondeki, a bowler who would not have been mentioned in the same breath a year or two ago. The lure of the fairytale ending proved too strong. Yesterday lunchtime reality hit home and Donald announced the end of a wonderful international career.

He will still play for Free State for a couple of seasons yet, and he chose his home ground in Bloemfontein to make the announcement. His press conference was shown outside on the big screen and a small crowd gathered around to watch. The majority seemed unconcerned and continued to enjoy their picnics on the grass verges that surround the playing arena here.

It was almost as if, silently, they were agreeing with Donald’s decision; that they knew the fast bowler had gone on slightly too long and that when a sportsman was past his best he must collect his cards and go. In truth, Donald did slightly overstay his welcome. Unlike Curtly Ambrose, for example, Donald’s trajectory was too flat, had no ‘loop’ and so he could not so easily survive a loss of pace. Batsmen who had suffered in the past were keen for retribution.

Donald, himself, acknowledged that the time was right to step aside. ‘I have simply reached the end of the road,’ he said, flanked by Gerald Majola, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. ‘I have no more personal goals and I feel it is now time to move on. I have had a wonderful career playing for South Africa and I have no regrets.’ It was a dignified, if low-key, retirement.

It was interesting to note, too, how quickly the UCB have welcomed him into the fold. They have fast-tracked him so that he will travel to England with South Africa’s Under-19s and the senior team next year to work as their technical adviser. ‘He will continue to play a vital role in developing and training our fast bowlers,’ Majola said. The contrast with England is stark.

But rather than remember Donald’s end, we should recall a young, paper-thin Afrikaner, of rare pace, who emerged from Bloemfontein Technical College nearly 20 years ago. From the Free State it was on to England, and to Warwickshire, where I saw him bowl for the first time: he put five Lancashire batsmen in hospital that day and as many stitches in Wasim Akram’s chin.

I was not to know then that I would develop a kind of ‘special’ relationship with him, for I was not yet an England player and South Africa had not yet been readmitted into international cricket. ‘Special’ in the sense that the two performances I am remembered for were against Donald. Two days of defiance at Johannesburg in 1995 and the gut-wrenching 40 minutes at Trent Bridge in 1998. ‘Special’ also for the reason that he dismissed me 11 times, more than any other batsman. Both of us always anticipated the contest; I think we brought out the best in each other, a fact he kindly alluded to in his press conference.

For a while he was the quickest bowler in world cricket. He was a fearsome sight for opposition batsmen – the long, loping run, the athletic follow-through and always a touch of war-paint thrown into the mix. His pace came not from brute strength, but from the long limbs and wiry frame that he inherited from his mother.

His mental strength probably came from his upbringing in Bloemfontein, an Afrikaner heartland, and from the national service that he was forced to attend. I needed only one look at his battered and bloodied feet after two days in the field at Old Trafford to know that this was a cricketer of great heart. The physical and mental combined to produce a near-perfect fast bowler who took 602 wickets in internationals at a combined average of 22.

Not many of those wickets came in this tournament, and his own performance mirrored that of the host nation. Since then it has been amusing to see South Africa undergoing the same kind of self-analysis and self-doubt that we usually reserve for ourselves; too many players, too many clubs and too little strong competition is the general gist. Heard that before somewhere. Amusing, too, to see the giant sponsors’ billboards being gradually taken down. ‘Polly – we’ll fly them here, you send them home,’ said South African Airways. Well, it is South Africa who have departed first, amid plenty of criticism.

Donald was one of two players – the other being Jonty Rhodes – who astonished the cricketing world by dedicating this World Cup to Hansie Cronje. It showed that this team have yet to escape their former captain’s shadow. That is the main reason why there are so few tears shed by cricket lovers here over South Africa’s poor showing. Ironically, Rhodes, like Donald, failed to shine in this tournament.

But yesterday at Bloemfontein [during the Super Six game between New Zealand and Zimbabwe] there were no recriminations for South Africa or Donald. Those of us who thought the majority of the crowd were cocking a deaf ’un to Donald’s statement were wrong. He finished by saying, rightly, that he could walk out of the room with his head held high and that he would like to be remembered as someone who played for his country with great pride. At that moment the whole crowd burst out into spontaneous applause. They had been listening and they appreciated the man and the moment. Sunday Telegraph, 9 March 2003