A Greek spin on Test cricket

ImageWhen it comes to talking about the giants of Greek sport, we inevitably look first at the worlds of basketball and football.

Once upon a time, it would have been possible to say athletics and weightlifting as well but the recent pandemic of doping cases has rather obliterated that idea, at least for the moment.

Cricket, though, is never mentioned in these debates which is a shame because Greece has produced two Test cricketers – Xenophon Balaskas and John Traicos – and another, Nic Pothas, who has played one-day internationals at the highest level. All of them played for South Africa.

Balaskas played nine Tests in the 1930s, taking nine wickets at Lord’s in 1935 to beat England. He also hit a century in New Zealand for good measure.

Pothas kept wicket in three one-day internationals in 2000. He then decamped to England and became a very successful captain of Hampshire. There has been talk of him playing for Greece but that remains up in the air.

In between them is John Traicos. Actually, let’s say that again. Between them is Yiannis Athanasios Traicos, an off-spin bowler who is best known for holding the record for the longest gap between Test matches – 22 years and 222 days

Before the doubters get stuck into Traicos’ Greek credentials let us set the record straight – from the horse’s mouth.

“My father Tryphon Traicos was born in Lemnos in 1900, one of five brothers,” he says.

“He was sent to Egypt at the age of 12 to work in his uncle’s business and lived there until he migrated to Southern Rhodesia in September 1948.”

Traicos’ mother was born in Egypt but her family originates from Kalymnos. So, Greek on both sides.

Yiannis was the second son, born in Zagazig in 1947, a year after his brother Takis, but obviously his father’s move to Fort Victoria [now Masvingo] in what is now Zimbabwe produced a major shift in cultural influence. Out with the tavli and in with the cricket.

“Our family life was Greek orientated with us speaking Greek at home particularly to my parents and my grandmother and enjoying all the lovely Greek meals spiced with garlic and gravy,” says Traicos who now lives in Perth, Australia.

“Gradually our ability to speak Greek declined as we attended English speaking schools and did not have the opportunity that other Greek children in Salisbury [now Harare] enjoyed of attending Greek schools.”

With it came another brother, George, and a change in name.

“In Fort Victoria, I was known as Naso – derived from Athanasios –  a name that led to a lot of teasing particularly because of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian president,” he says.

“I decided that those nicknames and others such Tike and Trike were inappropriate so from the time I went to university, I started using the name John as my first name.”

Traicos started playing cricket, inspired by his cousin Peter and coached by Neil Jardine – a former rugby international – and then at Natal University by the great South African all-rounder Trevor Goddard.

He even had some guidance from Balaskas in 1966.

Xenophon Balaskas took nine wickets at Lord’s and hit a century against new Zealand

“He was a tremendous bowling coach. He was particularly supportive of me because we were both of Greek heritage.”

His progress as an off-spinner was rapid. He was selected for the South African Universities tour of England in 1967 and then made his first-class debut for Rhodesia against Transvaal B in Salisbury the following year.

“It was a very inauspicious debut – no wickets and I dropped a few catches,” he laughs.

Within two years, though, he was rubbing shoulders with some of the game’s very greats. There are many people who still insist that the South Africa side which destroyed Australia in the 1969/1970 series was one of the finest of all-time.

Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow, Ali Bacher, Peter Pollock, Lee Irvine, Mike Procter….

“My selection for South Africa surprised everyone especially myself – I think that I was extremely fortunate to be picked,” he says before emphasising the impact of the series.

“Playing test cricket for South Africa at the age of 22 was an unforgettable experience. I have many fond memories of that series and of sharing a dressing room with some of the great cricketers of that time.

“The overriding memory I have of the 1970 team is of a very happy and confident group of cricketers that had come of age in terms of international cricket, were extremely well led and determined to play positive winning cricket.”

South Africa took the series 4-0. By his own admission, Traicos had an “average” series, taking just four wickets at a touch over 50.

“I bowled reasonably tightly during the 3 tests I played in 1970 although on a couple of occasions I was briefly hammered. Getting Keith Stackpole lbw in the second innings in Durban was enjoyable.”

Nic Pothas: 3 ODIs for South Africa, now coaching Greek players

The boycott of South African cricket spelt the end of his international career – at least until1980 when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

At that point, Zimbabwe were not considered strong enough to play Test cricket but they did compete in the one-day World Cups, sending out shockwaves of seismic proportions when they beat Australia in 1983.

In their next game they had India on the ropes at 17-5 before Kapil Dev smashed a rapid 175 not out. Enough said.

Zimbabwe’s fine record in one-day internationals finally saw them raised to Test status in 1992.

At the age of 45 years and 304 days, Traicos returned to Test cricket as Zimbabwe hosted India at the Harare Sports Club. He produced his best return of 5-86, his victims including Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammed Azharuddin and that man Kapil Dev.

“Playing test cricket again was a wonderful experience and especially fulfilling because I had a dream test taking five wickets against a really good side.

“Things went my way and I was fortunate that some good catches were held by Grant Flower at slip and Kevin Arnott at bat pad.”

Traicos played another three Tests before his professional work as a company director became too great and he stepped down.

Now living in Australia, where he emigrated in 1997, he can look back on a highly successful cricket career, one of the finest to come out of Greece.

©Barney Spender 2009

The Traicos File

Born: 17 May 1947 in Zagazig, Egypt

Tests: 7 – 3 for South Africa (1970) and 4 for Zimbabwe (1992-3)

Bowling: 18 wickets (avge 42.72)

Best: 5-86 v India, Harare 1993

ODIs: 27 for Zimbabwe

This article first appeared in the Athens News 7 August 2009