FRIDAY, AUGUST 3
Friday was always going to be a massively important day, not just for the test match but, consequently, for the series. This was clear for three reasons, the most obvious being the match situation.
The others were that I was forced to move out of my room at the Boundary Hotel because it had been booked just hours after the international fixtures were announced last year. The manager told me not to worry and assured me that he would find alternative accommodation. That was this morning when I left. I’m beginning this column in the press box at Headingley just in case his plan involves me driving around Leeds looking for a vacancy myself.
The third tell-tale sign was the presence of ticket touts outside the various entrances to the ground. Whereas the first day had not even been a sell-out, the natural laws of supply and demand were working overtime on Friday. I establish during commentary that ‘touting’ tickets is not, in fact, illegal – as long as you are licensed to buy and sell them for profit. You can just imagine the good people of Leeds politely requesting to see a tout’s licence before buying a ticket off him. Nobody could tell me where these licences were available – or how you qualified for one. I would guess a degree in business management would not be a prerequisite, but appearances can be deceptive.
Even when Alviro Petersen produces an innings as brilliant and potentially career-defining as his 182, he appears to pass under the radar. All the talk among the cognoscenti after the day’s play centred on the match situation and whether England would be able to ‘save’ the game and their number one ranking. What a situation to find themselves in after just two days of the second test! Michael Vaughan, however, comes to the rescue on Test Match Special radio commentary and declares his frustration at the lack of plaudits for Alviro: “I don’t know why people aren’t talking about him. That was just about as good an innings from an opening batsman on a difficult wicket at Headingley as we’ve seen for many years. It was near-perfect!”
Petersen, meanwhile, spent the last few hours of the day’s play at a nearby hospital having a scan on his injured hamstring. In his place, Russell Domingo addresses the media and speculates that it may be a grade-one tear which could keep him out of action for up to ten days: “But I don’t know – that’s just a rumour I heard.” Right. We’ll wait until tomorrow’s doctor’s report, then, shall we, Russ?
Arrival back at the hotel was met by a manager who clearly had no recollection – whatsoever – of my predicament. You know those little rooms that most hotels have next to the reception area with a ‘Private’ sign on them? Do you know what they are? A scrap, trash and storage room with a single bed on which the night manager catches a few hours’ kip on sheets that haven’t been changed for months. That’s my room tonight.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 2
As long as Alviro Petersen is happy being ‘prickly’ and taking silly and uninformed criticism personally, then long may he continue to do so. It’s not worth the risk of him losing his ‘edge’ by becoming laid back and relaxed and allowing fools to say what they like about his supposed lack of star quality.
He is hardly the first sportsman to effectively use ill-informed twaddle as motivation to succeed and ‘prove people wrong.’ He is a quality cricketer and has been for a long time. It really shouldn’t matter to him that people were questioning his place at the top of the order after making nought at the Oval (and scoring 150 in the test before that!)
The important thing is that Gary Kirsten has complete faith in his ability and temperament. That’s all that should matter. What a wonderful century it was. Hard fought, mentally tough and – most importantly – potentially crucial.
The incident involving Steve Finn and the bails which allowed Graeme Smith a ‘life’ when he had scored just six will, no doubt, feature prominently in all of tomorrow’s newspapers. The popular opinion appears to be that Australian umpire Steve Davis acted beyond his powers and that Smith should have been given out despite the bowler dislodging the bails at the non-striker's end moments before delivering the ball. Davis signalled ‘dead ball.’ Critics said the noise of the bails being dislodged couldn’t possibly have distracted Smith because he hit Finn for two boundaries after his reprieve (which were discounted because they were also called ‘dead ball’.)
The background, however, is important. Davis did not unilaterally decide for himself that the batsman was distracted. He had been told beforehand, by both Smith and Petersen, that they were finding it a distraction. The umpire must then decide whether their complaints are legitimate. The bowler, Davis decided, was creating an unfair distraction and was told to “move over.” The batsmen were then told that future bail dislodgings by Finn would be called ‘dead ball.’ So Smith subsequently had a life – and was denied eight runs. All quite reasonable and sensible.
Last night’s dinner came courtesy of The Mail newspaper whose correspondents, Paul Newman and Lawrence Booth, booked a table for three at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in the centre of Leeds. It was packed – but not unpleasantly. Crispy fried squid and a gourmet burger. Nice. He may be massively over-exposed, but I like Jamie Oliver. He’s a crusader. Dale Steyn was there, too, having dinner with his girlfriend, Jeanne Kietzmann. He had the ladies sirloin. Don’t know what she had.
After play (which finished yet again at 7:30pm) James Anderson said that Finn was given a “warning” but was never told that another indiscretion would result in a call of ‘dead ball’. AB de Villiers, on the other hand, said that Davis had “handled the situation brilliantly. He warned him that it was distracting the batsmen and then he stuck to his guns and called the other ones dead ball as well, even when Graeme hit them for four. That’s all we ask for from umpires, to be consistent.”
Former England captain Michael Vaughan is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favourite expert commentators. Extremely knowledgeable, witty, astute and also down-to-earth, he reckons South Africa can “control the test match” with a score of 400. I’d back them to do that from 262-5. Actually, I have a strong feeling 350 will pose a huge challenge for England.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1
Andrew Strauss was tremendously honest talking about the importance of the test match and how much the world number one ranking means to him and his team. Gone are the pretences that it doesn’t really matter. Graeme Smith was even stronger in his views: “It is within our grasp. It is at our fingertips and we want to get our hands on it.”
What happened to the “it’s not about the world ranking” comments made by both captains before the series? Perhaps it is the influence of the Olympic Games. You don’t hear many interviews with Olympians saying “It’s not about being the best; it’s about sticking to our processes.” Say it like it is! Well done to both captains. Now we have a proper World Championship on our hands.
There is rain around and has been all day. It’s forecast to be much the same for the rest of the test match but there usually is here – doesn’t mean to say we won’t get a positive result. There have only been two draws since 1981! It’s all about refocusing on the job at hand in between showers.
One of my favourite pastimes on tour is ‘lost running’ which involves setting off early in the morning and following my nose, taking lots of lefts and rights. Then finding my way back after about 30 minutes. Today it took just under two hours. I stumbled across a huge, wooded park in the middle of Leeds, with horses and Victorian cottages. Failed to take my camera but will do during the test match to share the images. Weather permitting.
Smith talked of the “great few weeks for SA sport, starting with Ernie’s win at the Open, the test victory at the Oval and then gold medals for Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos,” but countered it with the need to “control our emotions.” Good luck. There won’t be much controlling going on if the Proteas win the second test and assume the number one ranking.
There is so much superstition among so many professional sportsmen and women. They fear tempting fate as much as they pulling a hamstring. Nobody, even the hottest of favourites, will admit that they are the ones to beat. And that’s quite right – especially when South Africa’s opponents are supposedly the best team in the world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say it. Rarely in 20 years have I felt as strongly about South Africa’s prospects of victory as I do now.
It’s been a long day, six hours sitting in my hotel cupboard which smells strongly of stale carpet and old socks. The next five days will be spent next door, at Headingley.
TUESDAY, JULY 31
A long and slow drive up the northerly M1 with BBC radio coverage of the Olympics to keep me company. No more driving for a week. I’m booked into a pretty looking hotel/Guest House which I first visited in 1994 when Peter Kirsten scored his only test century at Headingley. That makes me feel old. It probably makes Kirsy feel ancient.
After play one day, a South African supporter invited me back to his hotel for a beer. It was only when he explained “it’s 100 metres away” that I accepted. And it really was – and still is! I made a mental note to remember the name and book in advance for the next tour. But I can’t plan four days ahead, never mind four years, so I missed out in 1998. And again in 2003. And 2008.
“I’ve only been here 15 minutes and all four British judo players have been knocked out,” said the despondent BBC reporter. “What am I going to do?” The morning programme’s anchor suggested she find her way to the table-tennis venue where Britain still had one hopeful contestant. I never knew exponents of judo were called “players.”
Jacques Rudolph speaks with honest delight about his time at Yorkshire and the reasons he left South Africa at the age of just 26 to pursue a career in England. He spoke of needing to rediscover his love for the game and of the many friendships he made in Leeds. “But it was hard to stay away from all my family and we decided to return because my wife also had a career to look after. Then, fortunately I scored some runs in domestic cricket and here I am, back again,” said Rudolph. First of all, it was a lot more than “some” runs. And secondly, they had nothing to do with fortune.
I’m slightly early for check-in at the Boundary Hotel but, thankfully – and no doubt contravening any number of EU Health and Safety regulations – they allow me to drop my bags and move on towards the press conferences barely 150 yards away. Having unpacked, however, I encounter the logistically problematic situation (not uncommon in English hotels) of what to do with the suitcase. With every tiny shelf heaped with shirts, trousers and underwear, the main bag is still on the bed. Major rejigging of the room required.
Andy Flower, a brilliant, smart and witty man whom I’ve known for over 20 years, faced the English media with barely concealed scorn and contempt after practice. Hopefully it made him feel better in the short term because it is a battle he can never, ever win. Flower has become fed-up with the short-termness of the media. Heroes one day, losers the next. He’s not the first and won’t be the last to experience the frustration.
The evening ended with the entire Proteas ‘back-room’ staff hosting the travelling media corps for an evening of chat and curry in their hotel, the Marriott. It was tremendous. Never mind a free feed for the hacks, it was fabulous to spend time with Russell Domingo, Rob Walter, Brandon Jackson, Paddy Upton, Riaan Muller, Lerato Malekuto and…all the other guys.
There’s no room to change my mind in here, let alone put my clothes.
MONDAY, JULY 30
The aftermath of the team’s “fancy dress” party was hard to escape on Monday morning as they practised at Headingley on a cool, mostly overcast day. Team performance director (and unofficial entertainment officer) Paddy Upton had orchestrated an unusual two hours of acting and role-playing which, coincidentally, included a fancy dress element with the players left entirely to their own devices.
Just like their cricket, practice and preparation, they took it very seriously. Surprisingly seriously.
Every member of the squad and management pushed previously unimagined boundaries of imagination and effort in their attempts to outdo each other. Jacques Kallis came as a hot dog, JP Diminy as a nurse, Lonwabo Tsotsobe as “Bling Gone Wrong” and AB de Villiers as a ‘shadow’, dressed from toes to fingers and head in sheer black lycra – only eyes exposed. Hashim Amla went as baby, complete with oversized nappy.
On the field and in the nets, however, there was an almost eerie sense of relaxed calm and focus. Much of the physical fitness work has been of an intensity rarely seen in the last 20 years. When Upton was the physical fitness trainer under Woolmer (in a different lifetime) 15 years ago, he was always aware of the need not to ‘overdo’ elite cricketers in the days building up to any test match, let alone one as important as this. Now, however, his successor – Rob Walter – is completely confident about how hard they can be pushed and how much recovery time they need.
If South Africa win this test match they will immediately become the number one ranked team in the world. While the Olympic Games are going and Cameron van der Burgh is breaking world records and winning gold medals, the significance of this match has understandably and rightly been downgraded in the majority of the public’s awareness. Even among cricket lovers. But it will be remembered for many years, even decades – if they win. And hold on to the ranking.
Graeme Smith flew back on Sunday night from Cape Town via Amsterdam and then direct to Leeds but did not arrive in time for training. It is a measure of the individual responsibility assumed by the senior players that his absence was noted and felt – but had little, if any, effect on the rest of the players. “He is our leader and we would love him here, but he’s had far more important business to deal with for the last few days and we’re all so happy for him and his wife,” said JP Duminy. “It’ll be great to have him back but we’ve been working hard and it’s been business as usual without him.”
Only two tests since 1981 at Headingley have been drawn. If the weather holds, it seems certain that either a new world champion will be crowned, or a defending champion will mount one of the greatest fightbacks of the modern era.
Quite apart from the commitment and dedication to detail of the Proteas, it has been hard to avoid the conclusion that Kevin Pietersen’s continuing arrogance and the late withdrawal of Ravi Bopara from the England team have caused the home side serious damage. “KP” has lost the support of his teammates and the public. Latest news is that he is negotiating to play in Australia’s “Big Bash” T20 League – as well as the full IPL – and will refuse a Central Contract from the ECB in September. As for Bopara, sympathy must go to all cricketers who suffer relationship problems. It’s a crap job to keep a happy family home. But it is his job.
Hate to jump the gun, but most factors do point towards a happy outcome for the Proteas. Home ground advantage notwithstanding.
SUNDAY, JULY 29
Ben Ainslie, the brilliant British sailor with a hat-trick of gold medals, tells an amusing story about his first meeting with the even more brilliant, five-time gold medallist, Sir Steve Redgrave.
Ainslie made his Olympic debut at Atlanta in 1996 as a teenager before winning gold in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. His first gold medal coincided with Redgrave’s fifth, and last.
A very long-running and extremely popular television programme called “This is your Life” celebrated Redgrave’s achievements with a live broadcast featuring all his closest friends, family and anyone else who had played a role in his life. The whole thing was a surprise to Redgrave.
With just a few days to go the game’s producers decided to fill up the few remaining seats in the audience with Olympic teammates. Ainslie received a call – presumably on the basis that they both performed on water. He had never even met the world’s greatest rower. Ainslie pondered whether to go or not. In the end, he decided it would be disrespectful to say no. So he went.
The point of this tale? He felt a little like the Proteas’ cricket team at the moment. An accidental gate-crasher at the wrong party! This is Olympics time and suddenly the cricket doesn’t seem very important – or even relevant! Of course that will change as we get closer to the second test but it’s hard to imagine that England’s major, broadsheet Sunday newspapers have ever devoted less space to a major cricket tour than they did today.
News that Ravi Bopara has withdrawn from the squad “for personal reasons” and been replaced by uncapped batsman James Taylor has hardly lifted the mood of pessimism in the England camp. Use of the term “personal reasons” is always contentious. Any player, rightly and understandably, doesn’t want to share details of his private life with millions of strangers. The downside is that it provokes curiosity. If I was having serious relationship difficulties I think I’d rather have it announced that I was dropped!
Among the more interesting and revealing nuggets of information to come out of the Proteas’ camp this week are that Dale Steyn’s much published ‘five-for’ gesture at the Oval was aimed at all of those who had said the pitch was ‘flat’ and, in the great man’s view, deigned to ‘cheapen’ the run-mountain built by Smith, Kallis and Amla. And also that the timing of SA’s declaration had been determined by Kallis.
“He was 182 not out at tea with a double century there for the taking. Of course the captain asked him! He is Jacques Kallis, after all! But he said ‘no’, let’s do it now. We need to win the game’. He’s a legend – we all know that,” Steyn said.
Vernon Philander, meanwhile, when asked how he would feel if he was part of an attack which claimed just two wickets between them in 189 overs of a test match, admitted: “I’d be worried and have a lot to think about. I don’t know how England are feeling, obviously, but if it was me I’d be worried.”
My trip to cricket’s ‘source’ at Hambledon was interesting rather than fascinating and the lunch at the Bat & Ball pub was OK rather than gourmet. But the 36 hours spent away from the tour was invigorating and, just as Gary Kirsten said his players were REALLY looking forward to playing test cricket before the first test, I am REALLY excited about commentating and writing about the second.
Even the four hour drive this morning was no bother. When reception was too poor to follow the Olympic Games on BBC Radio Five Live, it was possible to tune into obscure local stations playing English Country & Western music. Seriously.
SATURDAY, JULY 28
Among many aspects of ‘traditional’ touring life which Gary Kirsten and his management team are determined to change is the notion that every player and member of the coaching team has to be ‘on tour’ all of the time. Or even that they all have to go on tour in the first place.
In New Zealand he sent a couple of the ‘reserve’ players away for a night or two during the second test to play one of the world’s great golf courses and to experience a little of the country away from the spotlight of official duty.
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Allan Donald was released a week early to spend some valuable time with his family and to keep him mentally and spiritually fresh for what will be a very, very long year on the road. Paddy Upton, the performance director, will be leaving this tour between the second and third test matches to fulfil a lifelong ambition of surfing big waves in the desolate ocean 24 hours on a boat from Indonesia. In time, no doubt, Kirsten will also give himself some time away from full-time, official duty.
So, following the example set by the new regime, I stepped away from the tour for 24 hours in order to explore and investigate the roots of the game of cricket which are to be found in the rural village of Hambledon, in the depths of the Hampshire countryside.
Lord’s may always carry the moniker of “Home of Cricket”, but it wasn’t where the game was first invented. (Can a game be ‘invented?’) Anyway, where it was first played over 250 years ago.
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The playing field at Broadhalfpenny Down is in far better condition than it was in 1750 – indeed, it is a very fine club ground with roll-on covers for the wicket and a fine, close-cut outfield. No sign of the sheep and clumps of knotted grass and gorse bushes which characterised the place when it was first used to play cricket with feather-stuffed balls and curved bats which looked more like hockey sticks.
The Bat & Ball pub, by the side of the old ground, serves as an unofficial museum these days and displays some of the oldest pictures (pre-photograph era) and scorecards of the first games ever played. The first set of rules ever drawn up in 1755 are also displayed. Readers of this column in South Africa should be able to see them here.
Life-changing experience? No! But it is where it all began, and the journey was well worth the three-hour drive from Worcester where the Proteas concluded their two-day trundle against the county side without incident. Well done to Robbie P who once again showed that he has plenty to offer in the event that Imran Tahir loses form or fitness.
There is a long drive ahead to catch up with the squad as they head to Leeds but, as Kirsten always says, a refreshed outlook makes everything possible. Staleness and lack of enthusiasm is the arch-enemy of the tourist. A change really is as good as a break. But the break was good, too!
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