REMEMBERED | Big Vince's sublime single summer at Lord's

REMEMBERED | Big Vince's sublime single summer at Lord's Vince van der Bijl Jan Kruger/Getty Images
  • It is 40 years since Vince van der Bijl graced county cricket (for just one season) with enormous aplomb
  • Van der Bijl and West Indian Wayne Daniel formed a deadly new-ball alliance for two-trophy Middlesex
  • In the same season, compatriot Peter Kirsten (Derbyshire) topped the Championship runs-scoring list.

South Africans have enriched county cricket for decades ... and continue to do so, despite the havoc caused to the 2020 English summer by the coronavirus.

Legendary Capetonian-born figure Basil D'Oliveira was one of the key pioneering figures, in many senses, emigrating from his racially-segregated home country in 1960 and being plucked from the Lancashire leagues onto the books of Worcestershire in 1964.

"Dolly" would go on to serve the cause at New Road majestically for 17 years, also qualifying for England and playing 44 Tests with a batting average just above 40.

As apartheid took a deepening grip on South Africa and isolation deprived high-class players from both the SA Cricket Union and non-racial SA Cricket Board folds from representing the country, various performers found the county scene - way stronger and more glamorous then, than it is now - virtually their only way of rubbing shoulders with some of the best players from around the planet.

The likes of Eddie Barlow (Derbyshire), Mike Procter (Gloucestershire ... they reverently called it "Proctershire"), Clive Rice (Nottinghamshire), Ken McEwan (Essex), Barry Richards (Hampshire), Garth le Roux (Sussex) and Peter Kirsten (effectively succeeding Barlow as a prolific figure with Derbyshire) became iconic factors around England on the first-class scene.

Langebaanweg-born Allan Lamb was also a solid part of the furniture at Northamptonshire, and joined D'Oliveira in shifting Test loyalties to England ... as did once Durban-orientated Robin and Chris Smith and, much later, someone like modern, full professional-era entertainer Kevin Pietersen.

But for sheer weight of impact in a single season - a relatively unusual occurrence at the time, as South Africans tended to do duty for counties for several years during home winters - the physically colossal Vintcent Adriaan Pieter van der Bijl shone with dazzling brightness for Middlesex 40 years ago in 1980.

"Big Vince" was already established in then-Natal cricketing folklore, having debuted for them at Currie Cup level in 1967 and forming a positively lethal opening attack with Procter, their very different attributes from either end proving a special nightmare to batsmen on Kingsmead's renowned "green mamba" surface.

He had played his provincial cricket as an amateur, only quitting his teaching post in 1979 and then getting the first-time opportunity to sign professional terms with the Lord's-based (presumably an additional lure?) county side.

Van der Bijl was already 31 when he arrived in London - and as a relative unknown in cricketing terms there, considering South Africa's pariah status from the rest of the world at the time.

It is said that when Middlesex played soccer as a pre-season training method for that 1980 campaign, the unusually tall (2.03m), ungainly former WP Craven Week lock forward earned widespread squad fascination for looking about as useful as an ox ... but admiration for his fast-bowling abilities would very, very soon take hold.

The South African joined a dressing room already awash with prestigious English names: colleagues included Mike Brearley, an outstandingly gifted figure in captaincy whose strengths in that department got him the national team job, well ahead of his less than imposing personal batting statistics (he would average just under 23 in 39 Tests).

Others in the Middlesex ranks included Mike Gatting, Graham Barlow, Roland Butcher, Paul Downton, Phil Edmonds and John Emburey - all either already or soon to be England internationals.

Perhaps more importantly, Van der Bijl struck up what was to be a devastating new-ball alliance with powerful Barbadian Wayne Daniel, who would have been a Test certainty for most countries: he was not in the West Indies team of the time only because of the quite unprecedented volume of other legendary quickies they had to call on (Sylvester Clarke and Colin Croft would sometimes find themselves in the same boat).

Still, the calibre of the first-class County Championship at the time was reflected in some of the names on the circuit: apart from many of the co-South Africans already mentioned, the likes of Joel Garner, Richard Hadlee, Glenn Turner, Sunil Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas were overseas stars to firmly coax bums to seats.

Van der Bijl didn't take long to get busy in the wickets column: on Championship debut against the Rice- and Hadlee-infused Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, he bagged four for 62 in the first innings of a drawn affair.

Consistency was a striking feature of his game for several matches onward, but the best was really to come toward the back end of the season, when Middlesex stepped up their assault on the title and Van der Bijl cranked up a parallel, personal gear.

In the space of a few eventful days in late August, he picked up 19 wickets across two games: 5/34 and 5/25 against Derbyshire at Uxbridge, and 6/47 and 3/46 against Sussex at Hove.

Van der Bijl would end with 85 scalps at an exemplary average of 14.72, with fellow head-hunter Daniel earning 67 at 21.70, as Middlesex - outright winners for the first time since 1976 - marched to the title with 258 points from their 22 matches, 13 ahead of next best-placed London rivals Surrey (245).

Trailing in distant third were Nottinghamshire (178).

Interestingly, compatriot Kirsten would top the runs-scoring list for the Championship season with 1 891 for mid-table Derbyshire, while the leading wicket-taker was Surrey's Robin Jackman (114) - later to be well known for his coaching of Western Province, SuperSport television commentary and ongoing residence in the shadow of Table Mountain.

But with Van der Bijl just as valuable at one-day level, Middlesex also completed the first-time outright "double" by grabbing the Gillette Cup into the bargain.

Again it was Surrey playing bridesmaids, as they were beaten by seven wickets in the Lord’s final in the autumn, Van der Bijl earning typically economical figures of 12-0-32-1.

In the recent book "South Africa's Greatest Bowlers", by Ali Bacher and David Williams (Penguin), Brearley is quoted as branding Van der Bijl "the best bowler never to have played Test cricket".

Another team-mate Mike Selvey, later to become a renowned cricket scribe for The Guardian, reflects in the book: "He started off too short, bowling what I suppose you'd call a 'southern hemisphere length'.

"But when he got it (the more desirable UK length), he was fantastic ... relentlessly straight. He was quite one of the best bowlers I'd seen. I think he bowled like Curtly Ambrose."

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing