Now for the family holiday
Tuesday March 27 - Wednesday March 28
There's something all-too-familiar about the unlikely combination of relief, achievement and anti-climax which come about at the end of a long tour. Strong bonds and friendships can be formed in an abnormally short period of time and then it's over, just like that.
The team will never, ever forego their traditional series-win celebration while the likes of Kallis, Boucher and Smith are in the changeroom but there's equally no doubt that an era will come to an end when they pass on into retirement. No doubt a far more convenient, electronic format will be found to conduct a virtual celebration which doesn't involve the consumption of beer and the singing of flat, out-of-tune songs.
Of course, they can afford to have a few drinks and it doesn't really matter if they leave the hotel at 3:30am without getting much sleep at all before the 6:00am departure for Sydney. They have no media commitments and can lie back and sleep for 12 hours once aboard the flight to Jo'burg.
Apart from his appraisal that New Zealand "didn't deserve" a meaningful declaration (which was correct), Smith showed as much inclination to stir things up in the media as a librarian on study-leave. He smiled like an older brother at Dale Steyn's temper tantrums and refused to be drawn on the disallowed catch which almost certainly cost the team victory.
When Kirsten was appointed head coach of India his older brother, Peter, said that his 'calmness' would be his greatest asset. "He doesn't get worked up about very much at all – he tends to have a calming effect on the hotheads around, if there are any," said Kirsten senior. That has been so obviously true in both the Indian and South African changerooms, but Peter can't hide the smile when he thinks back to Gary's youth.
Asked what he would say to sceptics who believe that Allan Donald should have been in Wellington for the final test rather than in Bloemfontein with his family, and that his bowlers might have got the job done on the fifth day if he had been there, Kirsten replied: "Garbage. That's utter garbage. People give coaches far too much credit sometimes. We can't take wickets and we can't score runs – and we can't change the course of the match. Only if AD could have stopped it raining for 120 overs on the first two days could he have made a difference."
It's very different for me this time, however. Having spoken about and planned family holidays around cricket tours for so many years only to see them flounder or become swamped by more work, we're finally making it happen. InterIslander ferry from Wellington to Picton, regarded as one of the (if not 'the') most spectacular public ferry crossings in the world. Tonight Christchurch, tomorrow who knows, and Queenstown after that.
Why don't children suffer from jetlag? Seriously, why is that…?!
Sunday, March 25 - Monday, March 26
Over 20 years of touring has taught me many lessons - many of which I forget from tour to tour and have to learn the hard way all over again. Every time. Others, however, have stuck.
One is that a touring team is most vulnerable in its final match before departing for home. Professor Tim Noakes conducted extensive research over many years, beginning with the 1996 Cricket World Cup, and concluded that team performance 'inevitably' declined after six weeks on the road and away from home.
There are several reasons why this team may be bucking that trend: There have been 23(!!) players used over the three formats of the tour. So how many have been here all that time? Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Robbie Peterson and Morne Morkel. And the majority of the management team. And me and Zaahier Adams of the Cape Times. Apologies if I've missed anyone.
The second is that Gary Kirsten has actively encouraged players to take time off (Robbie P and JP went to the stunning holiday town of Queenstown during the Dunedin test match and played one of the world's iconic golf courses, 'Jack's Point'). The third is that Kirsten's determination to engineer an entirely new approach to cricket touring has seen players returning home early and everybody reassured that tour 'staleness' would be combatted in future.
Allan Donald was given the entire third test off to be with his family, Peterson left after the first day of the final test and Lonwabo Tsotsobe left on the third morning. Long tours away from family and home have had adverse effects on players for many, many decades. Kirsten is prepared to tackle history and convention to combat the negative effects of that. He may not succeed, but at least he has the courage to try.
As I sat at the bus-stop outside the Basin Reserve waiting to return to the city centre, half a dozen Proteas meandered past on their walk back to the hotel. Jacques Rudolph, as always, was 'man alone'. He asked how I thought the test was going. Not politely, but genuinely. And he waited for my answer, unconcerned by his colleagues walking ahead. He is, and always was, a rare breed of professional cricketer.
He said the wicket was "almost perfect." I agreed that it would be hard, but suggested that 200 overs would be impossible for the home side to survive. He seemed happily surprised. He places 'media' well below 'cricket person' on his view of fellow tourists. Could he fake an emotion? Doubt it. His shared pleasure at the arrival of my family (at 1am) on Sunday night was heart-warming. I've said it a thousand times before, but it's a shame that cricketers behaving in such a 'normal' and genuine way should be regarded as so 'abnormal.'
Excitement mounted throughout the fourth day which was as filled with tension, intensity and extremity as any I could remember. The relentlessness of the pace barrage was ferocious and frightening from the commentary box - God knows what it must have been like in the middle. Unlike most comparable days, it was obvious that there would never, ever come a point when the NZ batsmen had 'weathered the storm.' The storm was going to continue, for as long as it was required.
Fellow commentator Iain O'Brien was barely able to contain his excitement. The 'pain' he felt for his very recent teammates was large, but nothing compared to the exhilaration he felt watching Steyn, Morkel, Philander and De Lange firing mortars for hour after hour...after hour. "It's special to watch - it's like the great West Indies teams of the 80s. Actually, it's probably as fast and hostile as any attack that has ever played. And I don't care how many historians take issue with that."
Saturday, March 24
The only good thing about weather like we had on the second morning is going for a run in it. Driving rain and wind with the sea crashing against the waterfront. Even the seagulls were all hunkering down and looking like they'd prefer something a bit calmer and sunnier. But it's bracing and refreshing. Very.
It feels very eccentric and mildly daft sitting on the No 3 bus from Lambton Quay to the Basin Reserve - the driver failed to suppress a smile when I asked for the ticket. Almost as obviously as I failed to suppress mine when confronted by a poster for "over-eaters Anonymous."
Having contributed briefly to an hour's tribute to my colleague, Bryan Waddle, in celebration of his 200th test match, the producer says I may as well go back to my apartment. No chance of play today. Two hours later he called to say the start time was 2pm!
Had a long chat to Doc Moosajee on return about the injury to Hashim. It's hard to believe he carried on batting through what was clearly debilitating pain. But there's an added twist. Umpire Richard Kettleborough referred the dismissal to the third umpire to check for a no-ball - and it was very, very close. It was 50-50, in fact. It doesn't bear thinking about what might have happened if he had been told to stay and had batted on for any length of time. Internal bleeding was so serious by the time he returned to the change room that he was taken immediately to hospital for emergency surgery. Any further delay may have had serious consequences.
While walking back to town at the close of play I was overtaken by fitness trainer Rob Waltern and Morne Morkel, resplendent in their bright green tracksuits. Earlier in the tour I suggested that security constraints prevented the players from walking or running between the hotel and the ground at the end of the day, but I was wrong.
"It's one of the reasons we enjoy touring New Zealand," says Walter. "There's no need for security to be in your face all the time."
"You look a bit conspicuous," I suggest. "Couldn't you wear something a bit more 'anonymous'?"
"No problem," says Walter. "This is rugby country."
Barely 200 metres down the road there was an animated yell from a first floor window. "Morne! Morne!" It turned into a chant by a chorus of at least 10 people, students as it transpired. Morkel looked perplexed, wary that it was either a prank or potentially aggressive. In fact, it was pure, unadulterated fan worship. He gave them a wave followed by that boyish, endearing grin.
Allan Donald flew home to spend a bit of quality time with his family before moving on to India where he has been appointed bowling coach for the Pune Warriors in the IPL. It was a move encouraged by Gary Kirsten who believes there should be far more flexibility in the management structure and the time spent away from home by all members of the squad.
Friday, March 23
Early morning alarm calls are never great, in my experience, but when it's pitch black outside, the rain is slashing at the windows and the wind is tugging at everything, noisily, there's even less incentive to get out of bed.
Arrival at the Basin Reserve was stunningly beautiful. The sun was just rising (somewhere behind the greyness) and the early morning light was enchanting. I had to take a snapshot.
|Basin Reserve morning
At 6am Wellington was having a hissy-fit. But there was a good cause at stake, and there was no doubting my resolve. Guest-speaking is something I have skirted around for many years, given my 40-50% absence from home anyway, but on tour is different.
Worryingly, the Long Room was full - and the three preceding speakers all spoke about how good Barry Richards has been at a dinner two nights earlier. Thanks very much. Big boots to fill.
|Inside the Basin Reserve
But by adhering to the team's principals of "sticking to my processes" and "concentrating on my disciplines", I think I managed to entertain and, perhaps, even inform. Challenges are great things - the more we decline them, the more we regret them. The more we embrace them, the more we remember them. The breakfast was hosted by the Wellington Wanderers Club with the aim of raising money for College Cricket. The audience included the former Governor General of NZ, countless former international players, a judge who was due in court 20 minutes after final coffee and...too many others to mention. It was one of the most enjoyable assignments I've ever completed.
|View from inside
A walk on to the field helped digest the scrambled egg and bacon - Graeme Smith was inspecting the waterlogged square on one side of the playing strip. His view (shared by me) was that it would take days, not hours, to dry.
He didn't say say so, but the implication was all too clear. Both captains would have to agree to play in adverse conditions, of there might be no test match at all.
When play started at 2pm it was made clear, again unofficially, that Smith's agreement was the only reason there was any play. One-nil up...so what? Why protect that? As Gary Kirsten has been saying since he took over as coach, "we need to play - and WIN - in all conditions, everywhere in the world."
Beautiful piece of fish cooked for supper. Blue Warehou fillet. What is Warehou? Is that called something different in SA? Bit like...chicken. No! Kidding. It was delicious. Poor man's Kingklip?