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John Traicos: A career of two halves

Michael Jones | | Updated: October 7, 2015, 5:41 PM IST

Wisden called him "the man who came from two countries, and played for two others", and his career was certainly one of the more unusual in the annals of cricket history. John Traicos was born to Greek parents on May 17, 1947 in Zagazig, a town on the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo - better known for its ancient ruins than as a breeding ground for international cricketers.

A year later his family moved to Rhodesia, at the time a partially autonomous British colony; although it had earlier voted against becoming a province of South Africa, it retained a team in the Currie Cup. He grew up following the South Africa side of the 1950s, with Jackie McGlew, Trevor Goddard, Peter Heine, Neil Adcock and Hugh Tayfield - but recalled putting his partisanship to one side to appreciate the performances of Richie Benaud on Australia's 1957-58 tour, when he averaged 55 with the bat including two centuries, and took 30 wickets at 22 apiece.

Goddard was the coach at the University of Natal, where Traicos caught his eye; he was picked for the South African Universities side which toured England in 1967, starting his first-class career with 5/54 against Cambridge University - off 30.4 overs. Cambridge were the first team to find Traicos difficult to score off, but they wouldn't be the last: he maintained a low economy rate throughout his career.

Back in South Africa, he made his Currie Cup debut for Rhodesia in the 1967-68 season, and after some steady performances over the following two years, including 6/66 against North Eastern Transvaal, he was called up to replace Kelly Seymour for the second Test against Australia in February 1970 - becoming only the second player of Greek descent to appear in a Test (after Xenophon Balaskas, also for South Africa, in the 1930s), and the first and thus far only to have been born in Egypt. The match is remembered primarily for Graeme Pollock's majestic 274, at the time the highest Test score for South Africa; in the first innings Traicos impressed more in the field than with the ball, taking three catches, but he picked up the wickets of Keith Stackpole and Doug Walters in the second as South Africa won by an innings and plenty. He played in the remaining two matches of the series but only took one more wicket, although his team won both by massive margins and took the series 4-0.

In 1970 the ICC voted to suspend South Africa from Test cricket indefinitely, and although the Currie Cup continued - with Traicos putting in steady if unspectacular performances for Rhodesia for the next few years - the nearest he or any other South African got to playing internationally was matches against "rebel" touring teams. Although many leading players either refused to tour on moral grounds or were dissuaded by the prospect of being banned from Tests, enough signed up to make teams which were not far short of Test standard. In 1975 Traicos took six wickets, including both openers in both innings, as Rhodesia beat the International Wanderers by four runs. In a curious twist of fate, that match saw him come up against Younis Ahmed - who, after serving his ban for going on the tour, was recalled for another taste of Test cricket in 1987 after a 17 year absence, just short of George Gunn's then record. When Traicos finally made his return to Tests, it would be after a gap which put both Younis and Gunn in the shade.

By the late 1970s, political change was afoot in the colony: after a protracted civil war, elections in 1979 removed Ian Smith as prime minister, and among the changes introduced by Abel Muzorewa's government was to the name, which became Zimbabwe Rhodesia after the name of an ancient city. After further elections in 1980 which brought Robert Mugabe to power, the name Rhodesia, with its colonial connotations, was dropped completely, and the country declared independence under the name of Zimbabwe. No longer would there be a team named Rhodesia in the Currie Cup, but its players were now citizens of an independent country which was not a pariah on the world stage - and thus had a chance to play international cricket.

Zimbabwe made their international debut against the USA in the 1982 ICC Trophy; Dave Houghton and Kevin Curran hit centuries, Peter Rawson took four wickets and Traicos chipped in with 2/29 off his 12 overs as they won by a crushing margin. They followed up with another comprehensive win in a rain-reduced match against Kenya; games against Gibraltar and Canada were abandoned due to further rain, then Traicos took 4 for 22 as Israel were skittled for 65 and Zimbabwe strolled to their third comfortable victory in as many completed matches. Further wins against Papua New Guinea (Traicos 3 for 16) and Hong Kong sealed top spot in their group; against Bangladesh in the semi-final he conceded only 11 off 10 overs, and another economical spell helped Zimbabwe to victory over Bermuda in the final - and a place in the following year's World Cup. Parsimony remained his trademark: in seven matches he never conceded more than 29 in an innings.

So far, so good: the newly formed team had shown themselves capable of beating other Associate countries, but what about going head to head with the best in the world? First they had to get there - with little in the way of sponsorship, Traicos and his team-mates later recalled having to donate their own earnings from part-time jobs, sell home-made cakes and organise raffles to scrape together enough money to get themselves to England. Once they made it, their first match was against Australia; at least they had the element of surprise on their side - opposing captain Kim Hughes admitted "We knew nothing about them at all."

Ali Shah and Grant Paterson made a steady start, but Dennis Lillee dismissed them both, the part-timer Graham Yallop had Jack Heron and Houghton caught behind off consecutive balls for two of only three wickets in his ODI career, and when Allan Border bowled Andy Pycroft Zimbabwe were 94 for 5. It was left to captain Duncan Fletcher to pick up the pieces: he added 70 with Kevin Curran and 75 with Iain Butchart, whose hitting in the closing overs took Zimbabwe to 239 for 6 - not a bad total by the standards of the day, but not likely to be enough against a strong Australian batting line-up.

Before the tournament Fletcher had focused on fielding practice, saying that Zimbabwe might not be have the best batting line-up or bowling attack in the tournament, but they could make themselves the best fielding side - and it showed, as seemingly certain boundaries were stopped, the run rate dipped below that required and the batsmen got frustrated. Fletcher took the first two wickets, while Traicos did kept it tight at the other end. Kepler Wessels and David Hookes had steered Australia to 114 for 2 before Hookes drove a ball from Fletcher and Traicos took a diving catch in the covers. Pycroft was positioned on the legside boundary to tempt Yallop, who took the bait and was sent on his way by another spectacular catch. Trying to up the run rate, Wessels risked a single and was run out by a direct hit from Heron at square leg; Australia were 138 for 5 and suddenly Zimbabwe were favourites. Rod Marsh hit out in the last few overs, but it wasn't enough, and Zimbabwe sealed victory by 13 runs in their first ever ODI. Fletcher took four wickets and most of the plaudits, but it was Traicos who kept things under wraps: he had all the top order playing and missing regularly, and conceded only 27 off his 12 overs.

That was as good as things got for Zimbabwe during the tournament: they lost their remaining five matches, including the second against Australia. The only sniff of victory came when they reduced India to 17 for 5, before Kapil Dev's onslaught turned the match around and Zimbabwe lost by 31 runs. Traicos only took four wickets in the tournament, but he maintained an economy rate of under three runs per over, and no team ever dominated him - even when Des Haynes and Faoud Bacchus took West Indies to a ten wicket victory in the last group match, they still managed only 24 from Traicos' 12 overs.

Zimbabwe had no domestic competition in the 1980s, so the only first-class cricket available was against touring teams: Young West Indies and Young India (including nine future Test players) came in 1983-84, followed by Young New Zealand (seven) and an English Counties XI the next season, before Zimbabwe themselves made a short tour of England in 1985.

In 1986 the ICC Trophy came round again; Zimbabwe swept through the field - winning all their group matches by considerable margins, before thrashing Bermuda by ten wickets in the semi-final and defeating Netherlands by the somewhat narrower margin of 25 runs in the final. Traicos' contribution was 11 wickets at an average of 17, and his usual miserly economy rate of under 2.5. Thus they qualified for the World Cup again, this time with Traicos as captain. They came agonisingly close to causing another upset in their first match; at 104 for 7 in reply to New Zealand's 242 they looked out of it, but Dave Houghton led a comeback with 142 off 137 balls (the only one of the first eight batsmen to score more than 12) and Iain Butchart stayed with him to add 117 for the eighth wicket - an ODI record at the time, and still the World Cup record. When Houghton eventually fell and Eddo Brandes was run out without facing a ball, the last pair of Butchart and Traicos were left to make 22; they managed 18 before Butchart was run out with two balls remaining and Zimbabwe lost by three runs. Once again, though, they failed to maintain the heights reached in their first game and lost their remaining five by wider margins; Traicos was his team's most economical bowler again, and showed his ability to deceive the best batsmen in having both Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border stumped.

In 1992, Andy Flower's debut century helped Zimbabwe to 312 for 4 in their opening match, but Arjuna Ranatunga hit 88* off 61 balls to see Sri Lanka home. Traicos remained the model of parsimony while all around him were leaking runs: he conceded only 33 off his ten overs in an innings when only one other bowler managed below seven per over. This time the tournament had a happy ending for Zimbabwe: although they had already been eliminated after losing all their previous games, they pulled off a famous nine run victory over England in the final group match, despite scoring only 134 themselves. Eddo Brandes starred with the wickets of Gooch, Lamb, Smith and Hick, while Traicos completed his ten overs for 16 and England were all out in the final over.

By the time the ICC decided that Zimbabwe's performances in World Cups merited their elevation to Test status, Traicos was 45 - but he was still the best spinner in the country and an excellent fielder into the bargain, so he played. In a numerical curiosity to delight trivia fans, when Zimbabwe's inaugural Test began on 18th October 1992 it was 22 years 222 days since Traicos's last appearance at Test level - a record interval between appearances which is unlikely to be broken.

Houghton won the toss and chose to bat; the top four all contributed, building a foundation on which Houghton himself made a century and added 165 with Andy Flower for the sixth wicket to take Zimbabwe to 456. When India batted, Traicos took centre stage: he started with a return catch to send back Sachin Tendulkar - who hadn't been born when Traicos had last played a Test - for a duck, then added the wickets of Mohammad Azharuddin and nightwatchman Venkatapathy Raju to reduce the visitors to 101 for 5. Sanjay Manjrekar and KapilDev added 96 for the sixth wicket, but Traicos dismissed Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar to become the oldest player to take five wickets in a Test innings since Bert Ironmonger in 1932. Another useful partnership between Manjrekar and Kiran More kept the deficit to 149; maintaining his usual economy, Traicos finished with 5 for 86 off 50 overs. There was insufficient time left to force a result, but Zimbabwe had exceeded expectations in their first Test just as they had in their first ODI nine years earlier.

Traicos played in the two Test series against New Zealand which followed, and the return match in India in March 1993, without matching his feats of the first; he was still in line for selection for the tour of Pakistan in December that year but declined due to business commitments, thus ending his international career. He finished with a string of esoteric records to his name: the longest interval between appearances, the only South African Test player of the pre-apartheid era to play internationals again, the only player to represent two countries in Tests without having been born in either of them and so on. Along with thousands of others, he was forced to flee Zimbabwe during the political turmoil of the Mugabe regime, and now works as a legal counsel in Australia.
First Published: May 17, 2013, 2:19 PM IST

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