FRIDAY, AUGUST 10
So much time can be spent ‘bigging up’ cricket when there’s nothing big about it. But there was something big for the people of Worcester two weeks ago and there is for the people of Derby this week.
A non first-class, two-day game involving 14 and 15 per-side is like selling tickets to watch Dame Kiri te Kanawa gargle before an opera. Or Usain Bolt remove his tracksuit before a race. Yes, that’s a better analogy. Did you all see Bolt chatting to the dumbfounded girl assigned to stuff his tracksuit into the plastic box behind his lane in the 200-metre final?
There is a sense of awe in England about this South African team, something no previous South African team to these shores has ever inspired, never mind about eras. Kallis, Smith, Amla, Steyn, de Villiers… people want to see them. And they have not disappointed, all available to shake hands and sign autographs. They do themselves and their country proud.
England, meanwhile, continue to stress and wrangle about their South African. Were it not for Kevin Pietersen, cricket would be commanding no media space at all as the Olympic Games reach their climax. Sadly, the column inches are still thin and they have little to do with his genius as a batsman. The latest controversy concerns his text messages to IPL colleagues amongst the Proteas before and during the second test at Headingley.
Quite rightly, team manager Doc Moosajee has done all in his power to distance his players from the content and context of KP’s messages to South African players. “Harmless banter” is how he has described it. Nonetheless, any ‘banter’ between opposition in what is effectively the final of the test Championship would seem to be better left for after the contest is over.
If Pietersen plays in the final test there will be more media focus on him than any other individual in the history of the sport. The vitriol and rancour in the England dressing room is unprecedented. Even before the Headingley test he was clearly an isolated and disconsolate figure. During the course of the match, and subsequently, it seems impossible that he could even remotely patch up the bridges, let alone mend them.
When South Africa toured the West Indies two years ago during the football World Cup they experienced what it was like to fly under the rader. This time, however, it feels far more bizarre given the status of the series and the quality of the opposition. They are aware, however, that history does not have ‘grey’ areas. They may not be the centre of attention right now, but they know that a series win will put them in Gold Medal position (to use the most appropriate phrase of the moment).
THURSDAY, AUGUST 9
Time to catch up with London. But before even attempting to experience the atmosphere of what many Olympians are already calling the ‘Greatest Games ever', the appalling and shocking news of Elize Lombard’s passing.
Very few administrators that I have met over the last 25 years came close to her humanity and empathy for players, supporters and media. She instinctively knew what was required and how to handle it – and on the few occasions she didn’t, she asked and found out – quickly.
Northerns and Titans officials will have to dig deep amongst themselves to find sufficient reserves of care and logistical skill to cover for her loss. She will be desperately missed.
The drive south, like all those of the last two weeks, was accompanied by the BBC’s radio coverage of the Olympic Games. Riveting, as always. Although some of the correspondents assigned ‘new’ and unfamiliar sports have done more research than others. A brilliant commentary effort on Taekwondo by a man who admitted he’d never seen it before the Olympics was not matched by the reporter covering the hockey who said at halftime: “Can’t believe they’re watering the astro-turf. What good can that do?” (It’s a water-based pitch, like all the best ones.)
Oscar Pistorius’s father, Henk, was interviewed just 15 minutes before the running of the first 400-metre relay heat after a huge build-up featuring the South African team’s participation. It was comfortably the longest feature on radio for the last 14 days featuring anyone outside Team GB.
Henk plaintiffly confided that he did not have a ticket with Oscar’s two complimentaries going to his siblings. An appeal went out. Hopefully he managed to get a ticket! Oscar was due to run the third leg but the baton never arrived, courtesy of a stumble caused by a trip by the Kenyan runner. South Africa were later reinstated to the final on appeal.
The reporter on hand had spent several minutes explaining how Oscar had had to fight to run the third leg after the IAAF initially said he could only run the first leg given the melee that often forms at baton-changing time, and how his blades might cause problems for him and other athletes in the jostle for position. When she started asking him the question, he walked off! “Oh dear,” said the reporter. “Oscar has gone. I think he misunderstood where I was going with that question…”
Tickets for events have been extraordinarily hard to come by, so I wasn’t expecting any last minute ‘luckies’ to anything. Just a stroll around the Olympic Park would have done just fine. Not a chance. You need tickets for that, too. By the time I got off the Tube at Stratford, I realised that enjoyment would be rapidly enhanced by a quick return to the hotel room of my great friend, Gerald de Kock.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 8
There was a moment during the Olympic show-jumping competition when Canadian veteran Ian Miller was interviewed which summed up the Games so far: How was London doing? “Better than anywhere before, ever,” he replied. “The symbiotic relationship between the athletes and the crowd has been incredible, like nothing before.”
Imagine that. TEN Olympic Games!
He is right about the impact of the Games, however. You can feel it anywhere. And everywhere. Only those who have actually watched the test series are likely to remember it in the years to come. Kevin Pietersen’s extraordinarily brilliant 149 at Headingley is likely to rank extremely high on the all-time list of least-remembered great innings.
A good percentage of the Proteas squad headed to the capital city to experience some of the Games on Tuesday and Wednesday and Caster Semenya was a delighted recipient of their support and attention. Dale Steyn was an eager viewer at the basketball arena and others were simply happy to soak up the atmosphere in the big-screen areas in Hyde Park.
For those interested in reading cricket reports in the newspapers, there was nothing but Kevin Pietersen gossip. Well, fact and gossip, actually.
It has taken two days for correspondents to re-listen to their recording devices and confirm many of the things he actually said on Monday evening after the Headingley test match: “The people I feel most sorry for are the spectators who just love to watch me bat.” Who would say that about themselves? Who could? KP could.
“It is tough being me in the England changing room…” Wow. Oddly, in retrospect, nobody asked him whether he had tried being someone else. Just for a while.
The Great One then suggested that there were “a few issues and obstacles” which needed to be “sorted out” before he would consider signing an England contract. Chief amongst those, we learned today, was the source of a ‘rogue’ Twitter account set up in his name which plays delightfully on his pronounced sense of ‘self’. Even for those without an instinctive sense of (dry, pithy and deprecatory) English sense of humour, it is still wryly amusing.
Pietersen has sought to have it closed down, even resorting to legal means. Similar ‘rogue’ accounts exist for half a dozen other England players, Including captain Andrew Strauss. Interestingly, half a dozen of Pietersen’s current teammates follow the rogue account (@kevpietersen24)
Anyway, can’t hang around too long on the periphery – time to go to London! Crazy, ridiculous and manic time expected over the weekend as I join in the chaos of the London 2012.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 7
In some ways this tour of England is a throwback to the first post-isolation one in 1994. Heaps of time between test matches is the most obvious similarity, but the difference is the lack of first-class county games filling that time.
Almost two decades ago the squad stuck together like tourists in Guatemala. Even if they did feel like breaking away, they weren’t allowed to. Everyone practised and trained together and spent the majority of their leisure time together. There were exceptions, but they were canny and prepared to risk the wrath of management in order to experience ‘freedom.’ But Richard Snell would know more about that than me.
This time, almost 20 years later, times have changed enormously. The majority of the squad have been given a full and official ‘leave of absence’ and headed off to London to experience some of the Olympic Games. Some headed for the diving, others for the Triathlon which was dominated by British brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee. Two ‘regular’ boys from Yorkshire who train on a diet of fish & chips and sticky toffee pudding. Seriously. Gold and bronze. Would have been silver if Jonathan hadn’t been given a 15-second penalty for mounting his bike too soon after the swim. Huh?
At least a dozen times in my broadcasting life I’ve been asked the question: “What’s the atmosphere like in the country?” during a major sports event. And I’ve often used the phrase: “The country has come to a standstill.” Often it’s been a metaphor. But during these Olympics, I’ve seen at least three cities do exactly that. Even in the sleepy town of Loughborough a giant screen erected in the market square stopped people in their tracks. Not with cycling, running, rowing, gymnastics or even athletics, but dressage! A heavily tattooed fellow with a visage which suggested anything but a ‘horsey’ background grabbed me to say: “Stop, look at this! We’re about to get another gold!”
Britain did, indeed, claim a gold medal in dressage. (Horses dancing.)
Kevin Pietersen dominated what little space there was in the media for cricket. His posturing is clearly losing him friends during a time when Britons are feeling proud and ‘together’. Speculation gathers pace that an insurmountable impasse has been reached between him (and his ‘people’) and the ECB. End of the road time?
MONDAY, AUGUST 6
No doubt about the talking point of the day – Graeme Smith’s declaration caught almost everybody by surprise and was as clever as it was unexpected. Most frustrating to the England team, probably, was the popular perception that South Africa had somehow given their hosts a ‘sporting’ chance to level the series!
No, a target of 253 in 39 overs was, at best, a 250-1 outside bet. But it was brilliantly conceived and executed, starting with the two not-out batsmen, Alviro Petersen and Dale Steyn, returning to the crease after the interval a full minute before the fielding side. So who wanted to win most?
When England were feverishly rushing between overs in hot pursuit of the final wicket they were sending out a positive message, but when the declaration came they were clearly caught off guard. Suddenly that positive message had a hollow look and feel to it.
Kevin Pietersen’s arrival at the crease to open the innings was another attempt to match South Africa’s apparent desire to win and willingness to be brave in striving for victory, but by batting himself at three and the ultimate blocker, Jonathan Trott at No 4, Andrew Strauss confirmed that he was fighting with a cardboard sword. Why not Pietersen, Matt Prior and even Stuart Broad in the top order?
For much of the match the media’s attention has been focussed squarely on Pietersen – which is where he likes it. Having spurned a golden opportunity to offer an olive branch of peace to his employers on Saturday following his brilliant, unbeaten 149, he once again said he could provide “no guarantees” that the third test, at Lord’s, wouldn’t be his last. He said he’s like to carry on playing test cricket but referred to “obstacles” which needed to be overcome.
In the prime of his career at the age of just 32, a great talent appears to be on the point of being extinguished by sheer weight of its ego.
The Proteas were committed to driving to Derby straight after the game and did so in good cheer. There is a fridge on board and it was well stocked with Castle Lager, courtesy of their longest and most loyal sponsor. Fortunately, there is also a toilet on board.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 5
I haven’t done justice to the effect the Olympics have had on this test series, so let me just say: It has been epic. Test cricketers talk about how hard it is to play ‘intense’ sport for five days, but hearing medallist after medallist talking about training every day for four years to win their medals put everything into context.
The first hour was one in which the test could have been won or lost. 70 runs and South Africa would have been fighting to save the match for every remaining minute, weather notwithstanding. When Morkel trapped Pietersen lbw with the second ball of the day, a monumental balloon of hope and expectation burst.
During the first rain break I was part of a four-man panel assigned to fill the airwaves around a very vague brief concerning the merits of Jacques Kallis and whether he is the best all-rounder ever. Henry Blofeld was in charge with Shaun Pollock and Michael Vaughan providing the contemporary edge. It is a discussion I have had (and written about) many times.
Sometimes the debate lasts forever and inspires some robust views. But other times the protagonists all agree very quickly that Kallis is brilliant and can’t be compared to Sobers because they played in such different eras. The subject matters changes rapidly to…just about anything. Polly must have sounded very distracted. On the television in the corner of the commentary box was a replay of the 1998 Headingley test which was, of course, made memorable for the career-best performance of umpire Javed Akhtar who managed to stick nine out of 11 lbws – mostly against South Africa.
Polly stood firm until the end, chasing a modest target of around 220 but the wickets kept falling. His knuckles grew whiter. His breath became shorter – as he watched the replay. Perhaps he would smash a couple of boundaries this time around? Alas, the result was the same.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 4
Gary Kirsten said months ago that the team would have ‘dark moments’ during this series and that nothing would be easy. Today was their first dark moment – and the fourth day will see them having to dig deep for the first time, from behind.
Kevin Pietersen’s century was breathtaking for several reasons. The counter-attacking aspect, especially given his soft dismissal at the Oval against the bouncer. The match situation and what was at stake. The situation surrounding his future…
Asked about it, incidentally, he replied: “I don’t know, we’ll see.” Lovely. What a commitment to England.
Several of the residents of the Boundary Hotel were in varying states of disrepair by the time I arrived back last night but a number of them found a second wind and gathered directly outside my ‘Private’ room at around 11pm to summon a couple of taxis with instructions to take them to a nightclub in town.
They were back just before 1am having topped up generously… and then the wheels fell off – noisily. One man decided to sleep on the pool table which upset his girlfriend because they weren’t even guests at the hotel. For some reason there appeared to be far more people than available bedrooms, but the manager and all the staff had left at midnight so there was nobody to referee. It was 4am before the noise finally died down. Not ideal preparation for test match Saturday.
An update on the breakfast special: A gentleman from these parts sent me an email explaining that beer with food is a century’s old tradition which began when water was so impure it was safer to drink mead or weak ale in the morning. A quick glance into the breakfast room this morning revealed half a dozen or so men in replica shirts eating fried eggs and sausages with cans of Stella Artois. Traditions change with the times.
The ticket touts were prowling again outside the Headingley gates. I enquired, merely for curiosity’s sake, and was offered one at face value. Odd. I guess he must have bought if off a punter who was desperate to sell.
Quick chat with AB de Villiers after the game. Nothing of substance but his attitude was significant. Not remotely downbeat. Not exactly leaping about and looking for a party, but strong and positive about the next two days. And very much up for the challenges which lie ahead.