Thursday, March 15
Players woke to the news that CSA acting President AK Khan had resigned. What a start to an important test match. Ironically, as upsetting and unsettling as the news is, the team realise that it is a move of honour. Far from running away from the mess, AK appears to be falling on his sword to draw appropriate attention to what he referred to as "the problem" in order to expedite a solution.
Finished my run along the river as the players were emerging from their hotel and boarding the convoy of Kombis for the 1km drive to the ground. It would be so much easier and more pleasant for the players to walk, in truth, but there are security issues. Not possible.
I was asked to contribute to the Wisden Cricketer magazines survey of international correspondents' favourite test venues and Seddon Park features among my top five. Of all the grounds around the world which have grass banks, these are the best - steep enough for everyone to see and high enough to accommodate thousands. But it's the five minute walk from the centre of town which really does it for me!
New Zealand's astonishing collapse coincides with one of my commentary stints so the RadioSport NZ text and email boards light with messages of varying politeness asking for a local man to take over - and to keep me off air while the Black Caps are batting!
One man who is unreservedly friendly and hospitable is the head groundsman, Karl Johnson, who gave me a guided tour of the pitch yesterday. On my way out of the ground I took a shortcut towards the hotel through the exit at the groundstaff shed - and there was Karl, complete with crew and a cold six pack, one of which, apparently, had "my name on it"! Only a pleasure.
The day's play didn't finish until 7pm local time which, yet again, meant work didn't finish until 10pm. These are very, very long days.
Wednesday, March 14
News is in short supply. Everything is as it is. Hard day for journalists. Previews are difficult – Graeme Smith says AB de Villiers has twisted an ankle, but he's fine by the end of the day. Same XI.
New Zealand have included legspinner Tarun Nethula but all indications are that he won't play, so that's a hard angle to spin. The choice of seamer in place of the dropped Tim Southee rests between Brent Arnel and Mark Gillespie, with allrounder Andrew Ellis an outsider. Let's just get on with the game!
It was fun to watch Brendon McCullum walk out of the team hotel with his golf clubs over his shoulder at midday. Both teams are staying at the same hotel and the South Africans have a non-negotiable ban on golf the day before a test match. A couple of Proteas watch him with a mixture of curiousity and, err, was it envy?
Later that evening they see McCullum having what looked like a beer (just one, mind you) at the lobby bar. That, too, is against SA team protocol the night before a test. But what works for Jim doesn't necessarily work for Jon. Or Brendon. A game of golf and a beer? Hardly criminal. Anyway, maybe it was a non-alcoholic beer. And it was only one. And he has been the lone, consistent performer against SA on tour so far.
Having bumped into Dan Vettori on the high street yesterday, walking his two-year-old son, I'm reminded again of the fact that top, international players are really not terribly different from the rest of us. Unless we place them on a pedestal. Dan and his son bump into me again later in the afternoon and he greets me just as he has done since I first met him 15 years ago. I'm tired of singling out superstar cricketers for behaving 'normally' and celebrating their 'humility'. Dan Vettori would be regarded as an 'exceptionally good bloke' if he wasn't a cricket legend. But that means he is a god of humaity in professional cricket terms.
Graeme Smith showed his own humanity with several touches of humour during his press conference. "The wicket isn't as green as it was yesterday," one journalist profers. "You're obviously not opening the batting tomorrow, are you?" replies a grinning SA captain.
And Dale Steyn's toe? "If I look around the changeroom I can tell you that all the fast bowlers' toes look pretty gruesome..."
The ground was looking superb, the weather was positively tropical after the arctic wind of Dunedin, and excitement was building by the hour.
Bed time. Early night. Shave, shirt and tie tomorrow. As tradition demands.
Tuesday, March 13
|Aleem has a bat
Aleem Dar is a fine umpire and a well respected man on the international cricket circuit. He remains an active club cricketer whenever he gets the chance and has a good working relationship with the players.
|Aleem has a bowl
He was one of the first ICC Elite Panel umpires to make a point of 'officiating' in the nets of the international teams rather than warming up or keeping in shape by standing a club or league game in the country in which he was working.
'Standing' in the nets, however, has moved on a bit for Dar. These days he prefers batting and bowling in the nets - as you can see on the video clips! The thought did occur to me that perhaps such close interaction with the players could make life awkward on the field in a tense match situation, but life is hard enough on the road without dictating the borders and barriers match officials should put up around themselves in their spare time.
The South African nets were split into two sessions which always works best provided there are enough spare bowlers. The quality of work is invariably higher and more concentrated, and there is most definitely less hanging-around time.
Apart from the extra work Graeme Smith did (yet again) with Gary Kirsten, it was noticeable how well Vernon Philander was hitting the ball. He may not get much of a chance in the next two test matches given how well the top six are playing, but I really think he's going to score a few test runs in the coming years – provided he keeps bowling as well as he is!
After training we speak to Alviro Petersen. I ask him how it feels batting in a top six with 'big names' like Kallis and Smith – does he feel pressure to live up to their reputations, or enjoy batting in their shadow? He takes clear umbrage at the question which surprises me. Very obvious question to ask, I thought.
It was a stunning afternoon and there was time for another long run on the banks of the Waikato River. This time I took the camera to share some of the views – I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Ever since the film about the man who cuts his own arm off was released I've thought "I'd really like to see that" – but then never had the courage. A couple of nights ago it was just starting as I turned the television on for my customary flick through the channels before sleep. Watched the whole thing and was tired for the next two days. But it was worth it.
Monday, March 12
The majority of the travelling media have the pleasure of a 6:50am flight to Hamilton via either Auckland or Wellington, but Zaahier Adams of the Cape Times and myself have the more leisurely 11:15am flight to Wellington and onwards to Hamilton.
|Locals in Hamilton
There are pros and cons to travelling early. It's good to get the journey done-and-dusted as soon as possible but few things are as frustrating as having to loiter with no particular intent around the lobby or reception of a hotel which cannot give you a room for another three hours. Rather hang around the room you're in before you travel.
One of the problems, as we were about to find out again, is that arriving late can mean missing press conferences.
But we had to get to the airport first! Packing up after eight days in the same room is inevitably harder and takes longer than you expect so, with two of us doing it (and Zaahier's passport briefly hiding) we were running late before we even opened the map.
Stopping to ask a local was a poor decision on my part, given the minutes ticking by: "Oh, how nice, yes, the airport, well, lovees, you'll need the motorway, now let me see… funny how you take things for granted, what's the best way to the airport now... where are you from, by the way? Isn't the weather lovely after yesterday..."
Fortunately there appears to be only one major road out of town which heads towards Invercargill and the symbol for an airport. So as long as it's not 'Invercargill Airport' we're heading for, we figured we'd be fine. and were. With several whole minutes to spare.
|Graeme Smith interview
The Air New Zealand lady weighs my hand luggage and declares that "it is NOT a laptop". So I take the laptop out of the bag and show her. "Well, a laptop bag is permitted to weigh 7kg or less. Yours is 9.2." Here we go again. A couple of notepads and my voice recorder are moved to another bag. And off we go. Another abandonment of common sense.
One of the three ICC Elite Umpires appointed to the series, Richard Kettleborough, is seated next to me on the first leg. His children are one and three-years-old so we compare notes on eight and 11 – and the best things to say to your struggling wife when she's under pressure and there's absolutely nothing you can do to help from 11 000 miles away. And there's only a couple of hours to talk anyway until one of you needs to go to bed!
By the time we arrive in Hamilton we have missed press conferences from both Vernon Philander and Kruger van Wyk. Fortunately, however, the wonders of the Digital Voice Recorder and email mean they can both be sent to us in their entirety and Zaahier is able to meet yet another of his endless stream of deadlines.
Sunday, March 11
There’s something physically exhausting about doing nothing all day, not to mention the mental taxation. It’s a bit different if there is SOME hope of playing, but by 11am it became obvious that the test was finished – and we knew it wouldn’t be called off until well after lunch. The ICC have certain rules (guidelines) about these things and that’s fair enough. We’ve all seen occasions when the sun has been shining brightly on a dry outfield at 4pm following abandonment at midday.
I was late for the captains’ post-match interviews after being manhandled by a security guard in bizarre circumstances when Allan Donald suggests I step into the players’ tunnel to get out of the rain while we finish a conversation. As I do so, the fellow grabs me and tells me it’s ‘restricted area’. I point out that the test match was officially over. He says it is still a restricted area. AD looks on, bemused. Something chemical happens to the human brain when you put a man in a fluorescent jacket with the word ‘security’ on it. He’s probably a sweet, gentle, pipe-smoking, slipper-wearing Grandpa in real life.
Obviously my late arrival meant I was standing at the side of Graeme Smith so the angle was awkward – and distinctly unflattering to the status of cricket in the country with “Highlanders” dominating the space behind him. Or “srednalhgiH”. During the questioning by journalists Smith (or was it during Ross Taylor’s interview?) was asked whether his fast bowlers ‘hit the first ruck as hard as he would have liked…’ It’s a lovely metaphor and yet another reminder of where the country’s sporting priorities lie. Never mind.
It transpires that the developers of the technology used during the UDRS are upset by Jacques Kallis’s comment the previous day in which he said that 99% of players would say that it is not as accurate as they claim it is.
The over-sensitive and protective owner of the Virtual Eye system speaks to the media and says that Kallis had said “99% of players do not support the use of the system.” At which point I interrupted and said “Kallis did not say that.” To which he replied: “Well, I’m sorry if Jacques was misquoted.” (Are you following this? Almost there…)
At which point the journalist who wrote the story in the newspaper put three and three together and came up with 17 by reaching the conclusion that it was ME who had claimed that HE had misquoted Kallis! So I was the curse of the press box for trying to correct the engineer! Blimey.
It had been a long five days – the first four of which had reminded me of just how enthralling test cricket could be. It was time for a cold beer. In search of a suitable venue, I pass a Turkish restaurant bar and see the vast majority of the squad inside having a couple of their own and clearly bonding well. It is a good sign. Being a Sunday evening choices were limited, but the Scottish bar I found a little further up the road seemed a much more appropriate venue to drink a farewell toast to Dunedin and Robert Burns.
Saturday, March 10
I have run on many piers and harbour walls around the world in the presence of fishermen, but cannot ever remember seeing any of them catch anything. I thought I was, perhaps, a bad omen.
But that changed in spectacular fashion when a man in vision during my early morning shot of Dunedin Harbour suddenly had a significant bite on his line. Several minutes later, to my great surprise, he landed an enormous salmon. I've always associated salmon with their upstream return to their freshwater breeding grounds. "Not many places in the world you can catch a salmon ten minutes from home," said the chuffed angler. Indeed not. Not unless you live in a log cabin in the Canadian outback.
As Jacques Rudolph was easing his way towards a very fine and very popular century, I was describing – for the benefit of NewZealand listeners – the unusual cricketing journey that he has taken, particularly the four-year international hiatus as a Kolpak player for Yorkshire.
Fellow commentator, former NZ wicketkeeper and coach, Warren Lees, asked me what a 'Kolpak' player was. It'd been a while since I described it, so Slovenian handball player Marius Kolpak's tussle with the European Union was a little mangled during delivery. Fortunately, SACA Chief Exectutive Tony Irish had just arrived from Cape Town and had slipped surreptitiously into the back of the commentary box. As always, he was able to put me right.
Tony was holding a copy of the Nicholson Inquiry's concluding recommendations and had circled paragraph 357 which says that a restructuring of the CSA Board of Directors was fundamental to the future of the game. "The players have been patient so far, but they won't be forever. We see the appointment of a new board – including independent and professional people – as an urgent requirement," Irish says.
The rugby stadium is barely 300 metres from the University Cricket Oval so we don't have far to go for the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Waratahs. I'm fortunate to receive a ticket for a large hospitality suite in which all but two of the Proteas squad are also enjoying the game. I could be wrong but it may be the enthusiastic consumption of beer that dissuades Hashim and Imran from attending!
One end of the stadium is 'affectionately' known as 'The Zoo' and provides the cheap seats for students dressed as... anything. It is especially boisterous and several fights break out. At one point a drunk spills over the barrier and becomes aggressive towards the security stewards. But instead of marching him away and ejecting him from the game, as happens at cricket, they picked him up and threw him back into the crowd and trusted natural justice to take its course!
Rudolph confirms that he thought he was 'stone dead' with the lbw appeal on 10 and wasn't going to ask for a third umpire review until his partner, Kallis, insisted that he did. "I was a bit lucky – but at least I was able to capitalise on it and make it count!"
Friday, March 9
There's a smell of roasting coffee for virtually the entire length of the two-and-a-half kilometre walk from the Quest Apartments to the University Oval. There is one large warehouse which imports the raw beans from various parts of the world and roasts them on site before supplying the many, many coffee establishments within the city.
Considerable time is spent investigating the source of the relationship between Dunedin and coffee but it transpires that nobody has any idea – apart from the obvious conclusion that students and coffee houses are a natural match. There are coffee dens everywhere, of varying 'standards'.
My favourite so far (although I haven't tried it yet) appears to be set up in a semi-derelict building on the edge of the campus with a chalkboard outside on which is written: "Mitch's coffee shop - raising the bar for coffee in Dunedin since July 2011." It's been full every time I've walked past!
Not sure whether there's a 'double entendre' with the use of the word 'bar.' Perhaps Mitch adds something 'extra' in his coffee which makes the place so popular. You know what they say about universities - the fount of all knowledge, which is why students go there to drink.
Smith and Kallis provide a masterclass for much of the day and the game is slowly but surely taken away from New Zealand. It is a performance of power and precision and should be enough to convince even the sourest sceptics that neither man has lost his desire for runs or passion for the game.
The walk to and from the ground has become a real pleasure - just long enough to get the commentary stiffness out of the legs but not long enough to become a chore. The smell of coffee still lingers, although it's the other kind of bars the students are heading for, being Friday evening.
Thursday, March 8
Day started with a bold prediction that South Africa would make 250 and earn a lead on the basis that Philander would make runs and Steyn, Philander and Morkel would get a lot more out of the pitch than NZ's seamers. Wrong on both counts - but only just.
Spoke to team manager Doc Moosajee at length during the lunch break. Conspiracy theorists and paranoid journalists were concerned about the possibility of breaking news. In fact, 'Moose' was merely interested in my accommodation at the excellent Quest apartments which affords me the opportunity to cook my own meals and do my own laundry at a considerable cost saving.
"We are paying $30 per bag!" he moans. "That's R200 per bag of laundry and we have five or six every day! This country is so expensive..."
I invite him over for a coffee after the day's play and tell him he can bring the team's laundry. But he'll have to bring his own washing powder as the sachets in the apartment are strictly rationed and not much bigger than sachets of fresh coffee also provided in the kitchenette. He says he'll settle for the coffee...
Installed my new, local simcard into my Blackberry and approached panic as I used seven of the permitted ten attempts to enter the correct username and password. I never anticipated changing the original simcard so never memorised either of them.
Couldn't recall ever seeing such a 'purist' crowd at a test match - anywhere in the world. Sure, there were only about 1 500 of them, but they sat disturbingly still throughout the day and WATCHED the test match, applauding at all the right times - and not just when milestones were reached. As Jacques Rudolph said before the test, it's so much more satisfying to play at a beautiful venue in front of a few people who really want to be there than in a concrete stadium in front of people who are come dressed as rabbits and drink like fish.
South Africa took nine wickets despite Steyn lacking rhythm for most of the day. Really impressive fightback after a modest batting display.