Colin Bland, widely regarded as the finest fielder in the annals of South African cricket, died April 14 at the age of 80.
Bland, who had waged a years-long battle against colon cancer, was nicknamed “the Golden Eagle” during his playing career in the 1960s, though Jonty Rhodes — later a great fielder in his own right — described Bland on Twitter as “the father of fielding” shortly after his death.
“Fielding for us used to just consist of 15 minutes of catching and throwing,” said Ali Bacher, once Bland’s South Africa teammate, “but Colin would spend hours and hours practicing by himself, chasing a ball, picking it up, turning and throwing at the stumps. We’d watch him and would think he was from a different planet.”
Bland played 21 international Tests between 1961 and 1966, but saw his career cut short by a knee injury. He spent eight more years playing in South Africa, all the while demonstrating that fielding “can be both a delight and an exhilarating spectacle through scientific precision,” according to the Wisden Almanack.
Born in Rhodesia, Bland perfected his fielding while growing up in Salisbury (now Harare). He would erect three stumps, spaced apart, in front of a hockey goal, then fire balls at them. A friend and neighbor, Learie Constantine, recalled in 1999 that it was actually a single stump, and that when he marveled at Bland’s accuracy, Bland’s response was reminiscent of golfing great Gary Player: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
In the end, South African cricket was lucky to have seen the likes of him.