FRIDAY, AUGUST 17
What a magnificent day of test cricket. Perhaps those who are too caught up in jingoistic national pride can’t appreciate the beauty of the beast, but throat-cutting competition is what the top players seek.
They expect the world’s best players to have an advantage at some time or another and they are trained to rise to the challenge. Graeme Smith was at great pains to point out that Jonny Bairstow was a highly accomplished batsman before the test began and tried even harder to point out that the media’s perception of him being a ‘weak’ replacement for Kevin Pietersen was ‘nonsense.’ His unbeaten 72 confirmed that.
Sprightly chat with the always thoughtful Michael Atherton before the start of play. Smith suggested before the test that the former England captain had “written a column” about how the South Africans had manipulated the Kevin Pietersen ‘textgate’ scandal to their advantage.
“It was a one line reference in a thousand-word preview,” said the phlegmatic Atherton. (It’s true – it was one line.) “And all I said was that they had handled the situation well – and to their advantage.” (True again.)
Smith, as always, had not actually read the report. He’s not a big reader. Attention span of a goldfish unless it’s batting. He was misled by the seriousness of Atherton’s column but, on the plus side, his aggressive rebuttal of the fact that his players had leaked the content of KP’s texts to his players was important. The leak almost certainly came from within a disenfranchised England camp.
Wonderful to hear, via email, from Mark Boucher during the course of the day. This, of course, was supposed to be his 150th test and swansong in international cricket. The great gloveman has good and bad days in his recuperation battle following the dreadful, career-ending eye injury at the start of the tour but was watching events at Lord’s without the slightest tinge of regret or envy. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was cheering as loudly as any South African supporter for a series win.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 16
Word reached ‘those who matter’ too late for it to make news, but Gary Kirsten’s decision to make the final day of practice before the third test match ‘optional’ resulted in just four players arriving at Lord’s yesterday morning. Actually, it was five, but Graeme Smith was only there to talk. And talk, and talk. Rarely, if ever, have I seen the captain required to talk more – certainly about things he would rather not talk about.
Remarkably, two of the players who did arrive would count amongst the least likely – Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel. After 58 consecutive test matches, Hash knows his routine better than most. But Kirsten has always said: ‘be sure, be certain, be confident.’ If in doubt about anything, go and rehearse. Naturally, he was there. He is always there.
Morkel is constantly encouraged to have the confidence to rest – provided everything is in place. But he arrived. Neither player worked for a long period, but Kirsten’s philosophy of ‘quality before quantity’ obviously had an impact. The other man was Faf du Plessis, eager to follow in the footsteps of JP Duminy who was the most prepared batsman of the entire squad for a year before he finally played. An unbeaten 50 and a never-to-be-forgotten 163 in his first two test matches was the result. Nobody will ever be able to say that Faf was unprepared when his chance comes.
The logistics of London’s transport system never cease to amaze me. The first day of a Lord’s test match see 20 000 people arriving within an hour and a half at a small, never upgraded tube station, St John’s Wood. Yet there are trains every three minutes and, with good-natured but emphatic cajoling from the staff, it works – time and time again.
There was genuine relief among the English journalists that Kevin Pietersen could now be put to one side. Well, they knew he couldn’t be, but there was a sense of relief amongst all that cricket could now, finally, take centre stage. The notion that England’s sports journalists are a pack of hounds is absurd. To a man, they are intelligent, discerning and sensitive. They also have editors to satisfy and families to feed. Their lives have been made more complicated in recent times by the growth of the amateur ‘bloggers’ who cover cricket for fun and eavesdrop on conversations to increase their follower base. It has only increased the atmosphere of Machiavellian mistrust.
Good news for Graeme Smith this morning was that Michael Atherton, having suggested yesterday that Smith and/or his players were somehow involved in a scheme to implode/explode Pietersen, described him as providing “the most sane thoughts in the room” following yesterday’s press conference.
262-7 after day one. Very, very tight. But England clearly ahead. 350 would be a ‘par’ score.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 15
Another day, another Kevin Pietersen fiasco. No wonder everyone’s fed up. Graeme Smith seems genuinely ‘tuned out’ of the whole soap opera but had to face 16 television and video cameras at the traditional pre-test captain’s press conference and field over a dozen questions on the sorry saga before finally being allowed to talk about the cricket. “How is the No 1 ranking to your team?” And that was that.
Nothing about becoming the most capped captain of all time. Not a word. Ninety four test matches as captain – that’s 470 scheduled days of cricket. Add a couple of days before and after conducting interviews, attending selection meetings and meeting match referees, not to mention training and having nets, and that’s close to two years of actual test captaincy. Never mind the days of just being captain. Oh, and there was the ODI stuff for seven years, too.
Eventually he made his way to the written media conference and, finally, was able to speak about what it meant to him. Very, very proud. Lucky and privileged to be given the chance to grow in the role from a 22-year-old to where he is today. Possible translation? “I really wish I hadn’t taken the job so young!”
The South African squad have largely allowed the Pietersen thing to pass over their heads. Except when it comes to insinuations that they were responsible for them being placed in the public domain. There is frustration, even anger that such accusations are being made. Just as Pietersen has friends and acquaintances within the squad, so do other England players. And were Pietersen’s comments discussed between the teams? Of course they were. It seems increasingly likely that a very clearly disillusioned England camp were far more motivated to have his erratic communication behaviour made public than the South Africans were.
In all the excitement of the Headingley test, one landmark appears to have been missed by everyone – including me. AB de Villiers earned the title of "most successive appearances for SA" with 76 – and counting. The man he surpassed? Mark Boucher. He remains very close in the thoughts and minds of the squad. Should AB falter, keep an eye on the Mighty #. 58 not out…
Also very much in the thoughts of many of the players and management was Elize Lombard, laid to rest today. Many would have done anything to be there to pay their respects and say goodbye. Everybody knows she will be terribly missed, but I suspect nobody knows quite how much. Yet.
MONDAY, AUGUST 13
The Monday before a Lord’s test is one my favourite days to visit the famous old ground because the match day stewards are nowhere to be seen and the number of people ready to shove their hand into your chest to stop you from getting where you need to be is at its lowest.
A couple of reporters even managed to walk across the outfield from the Nursery Ground to the Pavilion – and into the famous Long Room! Granted, we were accompanying Gary Kirsten and team manager Mohammed Moosajee.
Vast swathes of the famous turf have been relaid in the last 10 days following the staging of the Olympic Archery tournament. It hasn’t ‘blended in’ yet, but Kirsten was impressed enough to say what a great effort had been made to get the ground looking back to its best. And as he pointed out in the press conference, it’s the same for both sides. What’s the point in complaining. The same applied to the wicket, he said (which by all accounts has not been at its best during Middlesex county matches this summer).
“Whatever is out there, that’s what the test match will be played on. If we want to be the best in the world then we have to adapt to different conditions all around the world.” Once again it was blissfully refreshing not to hear a coach droning on and on about the pitch. Just get on with it!
The evening provided one of the highlights of the tour so far. While the majority of the squad went to an official reception at the SA Embassy, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn were given a special leave of absence in order to be the Guests of Honour – and guest speakers – at a benefit dinner for former Bolander Neil Carter who is completing his 10th year of service for the Warwickshire Bears, home for even longer than a decade to the great Allan Donald. (The South African connection has been a strong one for decades – Brian McMillan, Bob Woolmer and Shaun Pollock are also honourary Bears.)
Kallis and Steyn deserve enormous respect simply for giving up an evening of their time and signing at least 50 items of memorabilia each. But they did so, so much more than that. Engaging, witty, charming and sometimes simply bloody hilarious, they ensured every single member of the room left feeling that they had attended a private dinner party with the two legends. Steyn was like a kid at Christmas when presented with a Chelsea shirt and they stayed until midnight despite an early start the next day for a morning practice. They did themselves, their team and their country proud.
Apologies for the late arrival of this entry, by the way – internet connectivity and laptop issues to blame. Actually, they aren’t, but it’s a universally accepted excuse and one hard to argue against. In fact, having never lost a passport in 20 years of cricket touring, I now have another first. Whatever you do for the rest of your life, don’t lose your passport in a city which has just hosted the Olympic Games. And if you do, don’t expect to have it replaced in a hurry.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 12
Surely the time has now come to stop talking about Kevin Pietersen? No. Obviously not. Last night’s bizarre YouTube video, in which the great man pardoned himself and selected himself for the final test, obviously didn’t have the desired effect on the national selectors.
Even KP’s heartfelt enthusiasm about “looking forward to playing in Straussy’s 100th test” had no effect. The insurmountable problem, it became apparent, was the content of the text messages sent to some South African players before and during the second test at Headingley.
ECB officials and selectors delayed naming the squad for the final test by five hours to give Pietersen additional time to either apologise – or confirm that there was nothing derogatory about his captain, coach or teammates in the messages sent to IPL friends in the SA camp. He did not.
The irony of that is hard to look past. If he had done what was asked, the South Africans would not have said a word. Indeed, team manager Dr Mohammed Moosajee has been downplaying the episode from the moment it became public. “Just banter between IPL colleagues,” he has said repeatedly. He would never have back-tracked on that.
Another irony is the Proteas’ inability to get back to London for the start of the build-up to the Lord’s test match. Ideally, they would have left Derby on Saturday night. But the Olympics put paid to that. Every hotel night in the city was taken. So two more nights in Derby it was. “See you there,” said Doc whimsically. “Enjoy the ceremony.” As if I could get a ticket!
Dale Steyn had a wretched Lord’s debut four years ago. He was overwhelmed by the occasion and chased much leather for the first two days as England posted 600. Any desire to change that four years later? “I just remember a great fightback when we batted for two days to save the match and I had my feet up relaxing! That was great, so I only have positive memories of Lord’s,” said Steyn with a whimsical smile.
England’s decision to omit Pietersen from the squad is extraordinary and has had deep ramifications on many levels. England have proved that they can win without him and are determined to do so once again. The Proteas are all too well aware of the potential backlash.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 11
You may think that the world is watching the Olympic Games, but there were around 4 000 people at Derby today who disproved that notion! Cricket is a fine sport with many attributes beyond mere competition, but surely it cannot be good enough to merit packing sandwiches to watch South Africa have a net session against Derbyshire all day? Surely?
My sporting day began with an early-morning run but really took off with the sight (on television) of the canoe sprints. If you have never paddled a kayak, they probably look like most other explosive Olympic events. But if you have, then presumably it was equally, draw-droppingly impressive. An Englishman won the 200-metre final with a lung-bursting effort off the line and paddle-speed that almost needed a slow-motion replay to appreciate.
What cricket coverage there was again concentrated on Kevin Pietersen and his ongoing wrangle with the ECB, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss. Speculation varied between “one last chance” at Lord’s and “ECB and players have had enough – KP has played last game for England.” From what I heard, the latter was far closer to the mark than the former.
It came as little surprise, then, when a video clip of Pietersen on YouTube became available towards the end of the day on which he “un-resigns” from one-day cricket and recommits himself to playing for England in all three formats. Either he pushed his employers to the very edge of destruction – and got what he wanted, or he pushed them to the brink of destruction and then realised that the destruction was going to be all his.
Much humour at the county ground this afternoon when it emerged that the Proteas would not, in fact, be able to return to London until Monday because of the Olympics. And that’s not all – their rooms would not be ready until 2pm!
Team manager, Doc Mossajee, sprung into action. Having to spend two extra nights in Derby was one thing, but the idea of not being able to practise at Lord’s on Monday because the hotel rooms would not be ready until 2pm was quite another. ‘Moose’ insisted that training was rearranged for 11am so the team could arrive at the Home of Cricket straight from Derby. That takes a lot of organisation from the players – at least three different travel bags.
Lopsy Tsotsobe, having finally had some meaningful playing time and taken four wickets, spoke with genuine warmth about the team’s preparation and ‘good space’ ahead of the third test. “We are a squad of 15 players and we are all focussing on the goal, which is to win at Lord’s. I need to be ready for when and if the call comes, but everyone seems very relaxed and ready for the game,” Tsotsobe said.