THURSDAY, JULY 19
Alistair Cook’s 20th test century put South Africa on the back foot after the first day of the Oval test but not quite as gobsmacked as many of the English media were when Allan Donald claimed he was “relatively happy” with a scoreline of 267-3.
“I would take that result today, I really would. We stuck to our job well for most of the day,” said the great man – before admitting that quick wickets, and several of them, would be needed on the second morning for the Proteas to fight their way back into the game.
Asked what sort of total the tourists might find “comfortable” or manageable, Donald’s answer was very clever: “That’s the beauty of test cricket – it’s not about staying in your comfort zones, it’s about pushing them.” Interpret it however you like, but something like “it doesn’t matter if they score 600, we’ve still got to find a way to win.” Positive thinking at its best.
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Meanwhile, Hashim Amla almost found himself at the centre of a ‘race row’ while fielding on the boundary at long leg. An alert security guard noticed an object being thrown at the Proteas’ number three batsman and feared the worst when it looked yellow and oblong. Surely not a banana? Indeed not. Turns out it was a Cadbury’s Crunchy bar tossed in Amla’s direction by a fan who thought he looked a bit down and needed cheering up.
Having indulged in a morning run on the banks of the Thames on Wednesday morning, I chose Hyde Park this morning with a specific view of exploring the facilities being constructed for the Olympics – notably the Triathlon centre and a couple of spectacular and vast spectator and fan parks.
Over a year ago, when Natalie du Toit was still dreaming of qualifying for the able-bodied Olympic team in the 10 kilometre open water swim, I read that the event would be held on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. A long, shallow man-made strip of water designed as a feature to add beauty to the Park, I always knew it as slightly overgrown with weeds and covered in ducks. Olympic swimming venue?
This morning there were workmen in brown overalls ‘dredging’ the mini lake of weeds and covering their noses to hide the stench of decades of rotting undergrowth, dead birds and…whatever else. No doubt they’ll make it work. I’m told that the 10km swim is “supposed to be hard.” Even if the Serpentine is deep enough and free of weeds, it’s hard to imagine how all the ducks and geese will be persuaded to stay away. Make sure you catch a glimpse on TV if you can.
South Africa have bounced back from far, far bleaker situations than this one in recent years. They could still bowl England out for 350 and be in complete control of the test match with 550 by the close of play on Saturday. There were no signs of how that might happen today, but you never know. As Donald said, tomorrow is a different day.
(One aspect I hope that doesn’t change tomorrow – or for the rest of the series – is the ECB’s extraordinary gesture towards the working media in hiring a masseur who moves from seat to seat offering a substantial and soothing neck and shoulder massage. Absolutely remarkable. Brilliant.)
WEDNESDAY, JULY 18
It’s the 21st anniversary of my first international tour and I’m celebrating it by staying – inadvertently – in the bleakest ‘hotel’ room of my life. Years ago I might have struggled – but now, after 50 tours around the world, it seems rather more amusing than depressing to be contained in a furnitureless, plastic-floored capsule in London. It puts some of the rooms in India and Pakistan into perspective!
To be fair, the ultra-budget ‘hotel’ is serving a purpose and supplying a need. It was purely my curiousity, even fascination, about what it’s like to stay in central London for 45 pounds a night that persuaded me to book it. Upon entering the room, I immediately regretted the experiment.
It has nothing to do with the size. The website was honest about that. 12 feet by 10 feet. No problem. I’ve stayed in smaller. It has nothing to do with the ‘en-suite’, which is a plastic mould involving a shower which sprays over the toilet. Those familiar with campervans will get the picture. I am perfectly happy with that.
Even the flooring, which is industrial rubber-plastic of the sort found in up-market garages, doesn’t bother me. It’s far better than the dusty concrete or lice-ridden straw on the floor of some rooms I’ve stayed in. Although the reason it is there is mildly unsettling. Washing oil easily off a garage floor is one thing. Presumably this is here to make the job of hosing out vomit that much simpler, given the price and the resultant market. Peculiarly, however, there has been absolutely no sign of that sort of clientele.
In fact, I met an American couple this morning that appeared rather well-to-do. “It’s just a bed for the night and we didn’t come from Michigan to spend any time in the hotel room!” replied the gentleman when asked why he had chosen this establishment.
The thing that really gets to me, however, is the lack of a single item of furniture – apart from the bed. Not a shelf anywhere, never mind a bedside table. Nowhere to hang a jacket, let alone a place to put your cell phone or loose change. Everything is on the plastic floor. Shirts, ties, shoes, dirty washing, loose change etc etc… Strange how such a thing is more upsetting than cockroaches and other unpleasantries in other parts of the world. Rather have a filthy, broken table than none at all. Being forced to put all your belongings on the floor seems unnecessarily demeaning.
I have no idea which team will prevail in the series. I favour South Africa. If the weather allows results, I fancy 2-1. If it rains, I think 1-0.
TUESDAY, JULY 17
Jacques Kallis has changed a great deal over the 18 years of his international career but he has changed more than ever over the course of the last 10 days or so.
Not ‘profoundly’, as in converting to Buddhism or becoming vegetarian, but a sense of perspective about life and the universe which he thought he had grasped several years ago but, with the injury to his mate Mark Boucher, has only really become obvious now.
Initially it seemed like it could go one of two ways: walk away and go fishing and play golf, or throw yourself into the game with a gusto rarely, if ever, employed before. The kind of carefree vigour that can only be created by something like your best friend losing the sight of an eye. Potentially.
Kallis spoke with sincerity to the massed ranks of the media on Tuesday afternoon and was convincing and sincere, as he has been for several years – many years, actually – ever since he cracked the media ‘thing’. But he wasn’t quite the same.
The greatest all-rounder in the history of the game is simmering with a mixture of emotions. A batting average in the high 20s in three previous tours of England doesn’t help. His age and questions about his retirement plans don’t help. Boucher’s fate is a constant concern. He says none of it matters, but that’s hard to imagine. Especially when you look into his eyes.
Practise on Tuesday was classic ‘hard work’ for the squad. They are all bursting with enthusiasm to get started and have been worked relentlessly over the last eight days. The time cannot come quickly enough for the test match to start on Thursday. “We’re all ready now. We’ve been ready for several days, actually,” said Kallis.
London is about as hectic as any of the world’s ‘great’ cities has ever been, at any time in history. Numbers of people on the streets are unprecedented and the Olympics don’t even start for another 10 days! But coverage of the tour in newspapers and television has survived exceptionally well, despite the mass, ‘swamp’ coverage of the Olympics.
I am staying in the smallest, most basic hotel room in my 25-year working career. Never mind the third world, Asia or deepest Africa. Never before have I experienced a room without a single piece of furniture apart from the bed.
Extraordinary. It’s a decent bed, though. Pictures to follow!
MONDAY, JULY 16
A day off for the Proteas squad and the chance to walk the streets of London, do some shopping, travel on the Underground and generally go unrecognised. Sort of.
It always works well in cosmopolitan cities like London for a while, but sooner or later some of the 300 000 South Africans in the English capital will stumble across AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith or Jacques Kallis and that will be that for the next ten minutes. Of course, for Hashim Amla, recognition applies to ALL cricket followers. But it doesn’t stop him getting out. The Mighty Hash is the last man on earth to be intimidated by making polite conversation with strangers. Quite the opposite.
The English media, meanwhile, are gorging themselves on the umpteenth course of Kevin Pietersen news. The great Durbanite (or his ‘advisors’, to be more accurate) have explored new territory in their dealings/demands with Pietersen’s employers, the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
Having retired from both forms of the limited overs game less than two months ago, KP and his people have returned to the ECB hierarchy with an ‘improved offer.’ Staggering, even to the neutral observer. Derek Pringle, chief cricket writer of The Telegraph, described his behaviour as “staggeringly arrogant.”
Pietersen wants to be a part of England’s defence of their World T20 Championship title in Sri Lanka in October – so his ‘compromise’ offer to his employers now is that he will agree to play all formats of the game provided he is allowed to fulfil his entire contract with the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL, worth $2 million. That means missing at least two test matches every season. So much for the primacy of test cricket!
The hullaballoo over Pietersen is not doing the England team much good. It is a distraction they could really do without. Even South Africa’s “under-cookedness” has lost its appeal as a news story since Gary Kirsten said everything had been perfect and there would be “no comments or complaints about preparation” from the Proteas after the first test, no matter what happens.
Finally, a word of clarification about my collection of the accreditation pass for the tour from Lord’s a couple of days ago. Lord’s officials have an almost ‘historical’ history of being difficult, but it was the Olympic Games’ officials who would not allow me to enter the venerable ‘Home of Cricket’ territory. BUT – the good people of the ECB met me outside on the pavement, accreditation freshly printed, within five minutes. So Thank You to them and big ‘up’ to your efficiency and friendliness!
SUNDAY, JULY 15
There is something bizarrely amusing about the English media’s obsession with South Africa’s “under-cookedness” ahead of the test series.
They have convinced themselves that five days of scheduled cricket, reduced by a couple of hundred overs due to rain, was hopelessly inadequate for the purpose of preparing themselves for battle against the number one ranked team in the world.
Very few members, if any, of the largest cricket writing fraternity in the world appear to have spent much time asking the Proteas whether they are satisfied with their preparation time. The natural, historical assumption is that touring teams need lengthy periods of ‘acclimatisation.’
“This is probably the best prepared team I have ever been associated with, as a player or coach,” said Gary Kirsten in Canterbury on Sunday.
“Preparation is not a precise science but nobody can convince me that spending a month playing a load of ‘friendly’ first-class games against counties is a the way to prepare for test cricket. That’s what we did in 1994 and half of us were physically and emotionally jaded by the time we finally played the first test!”
“We are a team bursting with energy and enthusiasm and we cannot wait for the first test to start. Preparation is largely a mental exercise and the players know that. Jacques (Kallis) and AB know their game and personal routine so well that they can prepare with 20 balls.
"It is a mental thing for them, as it is with most of the best players. Physically we have worked almost non-stop. The batsmen have hit thousands of balls every day and the bowlers have done their overs. We are ready. ‘Soft’ games against county teams don’t really work for touring teams in England,” Kirsten said.
FRIDAY, JULY 13
Taunton, cider-capital of England, was always supposed to be an informal engagement with little of great news value to comment upon. Somerset obliged by agreeing to make the two-day ‘contest’ more of a knock-about affair with 13 or 14 a-side.
It was supposed to be a friendly ‘net’ for a couple of days but with chicken burgers and cucumber sandwiches every two hours. And then Bouch took the blow in the eye which changed everything. My ‘undercover’ start to the tour, not even collecting accreditation, backfired like a 1930s Ford.
When the time came to do so, it was even more alarming than any of the dozen or so visits to Lord’s I have been required to make in previous years. This time, instead of being forced to argue with grumpy MCC stewards, there was simply no way in. Not even a debate to be entered into. But they weren’t MCC stewards. They were London 2012 Olympic ‘people’ – even more ferocious, it seems, than MCC stewards.
The Home of Cricket is to be the temporary home of archery during the Olympics, and boy does that add a new dimension of officious crabbiness to the place! Oddly enough, it was actually easier to cope with than normal because the aggression – sorry, I think that’s probably called ‘proactive security measures’ – is directed at everybody, not just visiting journalists. An arbitrary delivery man with an armful of computer cables was treated with the same disdain I received. It made me feel better. He, however, was non-plussed.
Kent is the ‘Garden of England’ and Canterbury is about as far away as you can get from the economic realities of a recession-hit England. It is the county of apple orchards and beautiful, 12th century buildings. But the truth is still there for all to see, if you look closely enough and go for early morning runs and see people waking up in their cars having lost their homes to the banks.
Anyway, Steyn bowled well and Imran Tahir had a properly good work out. No news yet from back home on Bouch but, apparently, it may be weeks before anyone has a proper idea on how the eye is healing.