“Bland walks tall among all these glorious outfields-men. And according to many keen students of the game, he scores at least at par with the best of the above-listed names”.
When he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1966, his portrait depicted him as a fielder. Colin Bland was one of the only two Wisden Cricketers to have been accompanied by such representation. The other is Stuart Surridge, the famed skipper of Surrey who stood in that all-grabbing leg-trap.
Bland’s depiction was due to his exploits in the field the previous summer when South Africa had toured England. Brian Johnston later recalled, “For the first time I heard people saying that they must go to a match especially to watch a fielder.”
He had done lots in that 1965 summer. At Lord’s he had run out Ken Barrington and Jim Parks, hitting the non-striker’s stumps from the square leg, the ball screaming through the legs in the case of Parks. On both the occasions Bland had been off the ground as he had let the ball go. On both the occasions the attempted singles had seemed to be safe to begin with.
A few days later in Canterbury, the wicket had been wet. Play had been held up. And Kent captain Colin Cowdrey had requested him to put on a show for the crowd.
And Bland had. Normally he liked to remain in the background. But that day the affable Cowdrey’s charm had got through to him. Stumps had been laid out in the outfield, balls had been driven in different directions, rates and trajectory. Bland had hurtled around the ground, swooped on the balls and thrown down the stumps. Again and again. Of the 15 attempts, he had hit the stumps 12 times.
But that was not all that there was to the man. In the Tests that summer he had scored 286 runs at 47.66. The Englishmen actually knew that he was special. The previous South African summer had seen him plunder 572 runs against England at 71.50, with an unbeaten 144 at Johannesburg. He was a great timer of the ball, an aggressive one, with a penchant for an early hit for six.
Yes, as we look back through the pages of history Bland the fielder seems to loom large, hiding from us Bland the formidable batsman. When Peter van der Merwe selected his five cricketers of the twentieth century in 1999, he included Bland, because, “He revolutionised the attitude to fielding, and set a standard not yet equalled.”
The only other fielder who reached the same stature for comparison was latter-day compatriot Johnty Rhodes. And if we look at the records, Rhodes the batsman was just about average, chalking up 2532 runs in 52 Tests at 35.66.
In contrast, Bland’s career figures were way more remarkable, right up there with the best in business. And I am talking about just the willow here. He toured Australia and amassed 367 runs at 61.16 against Garth McKenzie, Neil Hawke and Richie Benaud. Across the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand, he made 207 runs at 69.00. All through, he set the grounds alight with his fielding.
In fact, the only series in which he failed to shine with the bat was his first one, against New Zealand at home. But in that he caught John Reid off a genuine drive, that was travelling fast and low and several postcodes away from him. When he flew and swooped up the catch, Reid himself applauded before walking off.
In all Bland’s 21 Tests saw him get 1669 runs at 49.08, with three hundreds. If we account for the number of runs saved on the field, it makes for even more intimidating cumulative numbers. Yet, all that could have been even better, especially in terms of longevity, had he not injured himself at Johannesburg while chasing a ball during the first Test against Australia in 1966-67. He ran full tilt as ever and crashed his leg against the fencing. That was the end of his Test career, and his days in the outfield.
Bland did carry on playing First-Class cricket for a considerable while after that, and apart from scoring consistently with the bat became one of the best slip fielders of the country. But his legendary feats in the cover and mid-wicket were seen no more.
Later, he coached squash and cricket. And like Johnty Rhodes after him, he was quite good with the hockey stick as well.
By the turn of the century, Bland had migrated to England. And in 2004, he was engaged by the MCC as fielding coach.
Unfortunately, this greatest of fielders contracted colon cancer a few years ago. And he passed away on April 14, 2018.
There have been men who have dazzled the cricket field with this third, and one of the more neglected arts of the noble game. Gilbert Jessop, Arthur Owen Jones, Nip Pellew, Jack Hobbs, Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Leary Constantine …. The names are aplenty. Down the ages, we have had the youthful versions of Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, the evergreen Derek Randall … to the esoteric skills of Augustine Logie, Roger Harper, Mohammad Azharuddin, and finally Jonty Rhodes, Herschelle Gibbs and the modern brigade of virtual acrobats.
Bland walks tall among all these glorious outfields-men. And according to many keen students of the game, he scores at least at par with the best of the above-listed names.