FRIDAY, AUGUST 24
There’s rarely such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ washout, but this was right up there amongst the worst. A sell-out crowd always makes it worse, but no fewer than five false starts made it almost unbearable.
Imagine Olympic athletes being told to warm-up five times before a big race, being called to the starting blocks, and then being told to stand down and wait for ‘a bit longer’. The day drags on forever. The only good washouts, in my experience, are the ones which are either called very early in the day or never seriously arouse the attention of the players – or us, for that matter!
The squad will travel down to Southampton on Saturday to prepare for round two on Tuesday. Several people asked me what we could learn from the 33 balls which were bowled in Cardiff – notably the fact that Ian Bell hit Morne Morkel for two sixes. How much can you learn from the way Chad le Clos dives off the starting block? Or the way Roger Federer plays the first two games of a five-setter? Silly. We didn’t learn anything.
Several weeks ago I accepted an invitation to be the guest speaker at a meeting of ‘discerning’ cricket followers on the night before the Cardiff match. Cricket lovers with a socio-political leaning means a talk on ‘development’ and the question which fascinates Europeans most, the ‘quota’ system.
The talk went very, very well (not necessarily because of how it was delivered). The audience was receptive to new and different perspectives and happily surprised to hear that the ‘issue’ is rarely an issue anymore. The questions moved from Tony Greig to Nelson Mandela and Kevin Bloody Pietersen… and most people in between.
AB de Villiers is talented and special and different etc etc. But a significant portion of the ‘difference’ and confidence he displays with the media has been learned from Graeme Smith – and from the mistakes he made early in his career. De Villiers is, after all, six years older than Smith was when he was first given the job!
“They’re a tough bunch, aren’t they?” asked AB, whimsically, after his first press conference. “No,” I replied, “not really. You just caught them a bit off-guard by being so honest – and you didn’t say anything about KP, so they were still looking for a ‘good line’.” AB has a winning smile.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 23
The drive from England to Wales is more of a border-crossing than you might imagine on a small island that calls itself the United Kingdom. The mighty Severn Bridge demands a £6 toll and the moment you reach the other side all the road signs are instantly bilingual. Thank goodness they aren’t exclusively in Welsh. ‘Cardiff’ and ‘Newport’ are unrecognisable in their native signage.
Sofia Gardens is also unrecognisable since it became the Swalec Stadium. Purportedly ‘revamped’, it was – in fact – completely rebuilt for the staging of its first test match against Australia in 2009. It is very much more ‘haute couture’ than before. The locals aren’t entirely impressed. “We can’t take the dog there anymore,” says Kerry, a one-time regular supporter of the Welsh county Glamorgan. One side of the ground, which used to be open bank area, is now clad in blue and yellow bucket seats.
Rumour had it that Graeme Smith was so exhausted with the new night-time routine involving baby Cadence and new mum Morgan that he might be battling to play in the first game of the ODI series tomorrow, something he quickly quashed with an aside to journalists watching fielding practice: “Morgs has gone to Dublin for the week so I’m fitting in an extra three hours a night to catch up,” he laughed. Whereas the former ODI captain freely admitted he ‘struggled’ with the adaptation to life in the ranks in New Zealand, he is now clearly loving it. Just as he said he hoped he would.
Asked whether he was ‘comfortable’ captaining Smith – and whether he used his knowledge during a match – AB de Villiers gave an answer that made even the most wizened of English journalists nod their heads in appreciation: “I’d be a fool not to use Graeme, he’s been around for a little while and he’s captained a few games! But I have to go looking for him, he’s not there on my shoulder. Sometimes he’s nowhere in sight, actually. When I need him, he’s there for me. But I have to ask,” de Villiers said.
The weather forecast is not good at all for tomorrow.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22
Just two members of the victorious test XI were given an outing against Gloucestershire in Bristol today as Gary Kirsten attempted to give the remaining test players as much time as possible to ‘recover’ from the emotional high of becoming world No 1 at Lord’s on Monday. Not that Hashim Amla really needed the middle time.
Kirsten was always slightly bemused as a senior player to hear captains and coaches talk about “getting back into the one-day groove.” Sure, as a newcomer to international cricket there is a strong argument to be made for practice games which allow players to change their batting and bowling habits as they move from one format to another, but there is so much cricket played these days (even by junior players) that meaningless practice games are just as pointless in one-day cricket as they are in the first-class game.
The key to a successful transition between the formats, Kirsten believed, was in the head. Certainly for an experienced player. Over ten years ago he said: “We are professional cricketers – we get paid to play differently in different circumstances. We know what we have to do and how to do it, so there really shouldn’t be any excuse for not doing it. It’s just a matter of applying the mind. There’s no point tiring yourself out playing practice games so you can do what you already know how to do.”
It is yet another example of Kirsten’s ‘bravery’. Optional training the day before the Lord’s test was a huge gamble – if you apply conventional logic and thinking. The vast majority of former players and experts said it was a gamble playing such little cricket before the first test. Yet they were fresh and bursting with energy and enthusiasm when the starter’s gun went off.
Several of the players have been busy with the ‘A’ team in Ireland so even less reason for them to play two or three meaningless warm-ups. Hopefully there will be more ‘observations’ from the locals about how ‘undercooked’ the ODI team is when the first match starts in Cardiff on Friday. It worked wonders for the test team.
It has become obvious that the KP saga is never going to end. Not only will it run for the next few days, weeks and months – but forever. Literally. Whether his international career starts again or not, this episode will be written about and discussed as far into the future as we dare to look. No matter what happens. Fortunately, the Proteas no longer seem to be a part of it.
There are challenges on every tour but British bureaucracy is one of the greatest and my lost passport is causing me more grief than any other snag ever encountered, anywhere in the world. Being arrested in India for not having the right letter on my accreditation way back in 1998 is beginning to feel like a holiday. All I want to be able to do is leave, but that seems to be beyond the Brits. I thought their problem was with people wanting to enter and then stay in the country!
MONDAY, AUGUST 20
What a day. What a game. What a result. Gary Kirsten has been planning for this series from the moment he signed his contract as national coach and his preparation should not go unappreciated, despite his greatest efforts to avoid the limelight.
On the face of it, Kirsten is a ‘straight down the line’ coach. Yet he takes extraordinary gambles – in the tiniest ways. Optional practice on the day before the final test of the series. Optional? Really? England coach Andy Flower was aghast when he heard the news. “They must be very confident,” he said.
And yet the vast majority of the squad stayed in the team hotel. Only Amla, Morkel and Faf du Plessis came to Lord’s on Wednesday. In Amla’s case it was merely to ‘atune’ again to the place where he first made the Honours Board in 2008. He did it again.
For most of the morning and afternoon session today there was a quiet hum in the press box, but not the sort created by the tension of a tight finish. Rather, it was one of resignation and the persistent tapping of keyboards as the vast majority of correspondents began writing their match reports and series reviews. It was game over and everyone knew it. At tea England were 208-7 and the writing was largely done. Just a few quotes to drop in later. My goodness, hark the art of a rewrite!
The sound from the commentary boxes above the press box was inconsequential for four and a half days. Suddenly, it became obvious that Michael Atherton and Ian Botham were talking. And loudly. Their volume was comfortably dimmed by the din coming from England’s press corps. Loud and cheering, the antithesis of everything they used to stand for. But who can blame them? Not me. It was like a boxer losing the first 11 rounds of a bout before suddenly engineering the chance to knock his opponent out in the 12th round.
So many South Africans in the ground. Maybe it just looked that way because they all stayed behind. The Proteas made a lap of honour which was punctuated by many player excursions into the crowd for hugs and autographs.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 19
It was 18 years ago here at Lord’s that we were speculating towards the end of the fourth day about England’s chances of batting through the fifth day to save the test match. It promised to be a long, hard final day.
In fact, we spent it on a boat on the Thames and visited the Tower of London before having a celebratory beer in a pub just off the King’s Road. England didn’t even reach the final day, bowled out for just 99 after tea. The memories came flooding back when Big Vern removed both openers in his first two overs today but there wasn’t time for another day off. Besides, that England team was less resilient than this one.
Before play began there was time for the inevitable Textgate update. We appear to be reaching the point where anybody can write almost whatever they like about the contents of KP’s texts – and who the recipients were – because the tourists are simply refusing to confirm, deny or even comment. Anyway, the latest piece of gossip which appears to have become ‘fact’ is that Pietersen told the South African bowling attack to operate from around the wicket against Andrew Strauss for best results. The recipient may (or may not) have been Morne Morkel. Or Allan Donald.
There does appear to be some truth in the ‘allegation’ that KP was with many of the Proteas at a Chelsea wine bar as they celebrated their first test win at the Oval. But what’s wrong with that? It was, apparently, a bar frequented by the rich and famous (and popular with Chelsea’s footballers) so there’s every chance KP had always planned to be there. What was he supposed to do? Walk out when they walked in? Come to think of it, he probably recommended it to them.
Michael Atherton paid another rich tribute to Graeme Smith towards the end of the day, marvelling at his stamina and mental strength. “I used to be physically and mentally exhausted at the end of a test match. It really, really takes it out of you,” said the man who did the job 54 times for England, suddenly sounding very weary. “And he’s done it 94 times… more than anyone else in the history of the game. Incredible.”
Unexpected visitors are a regular occurrence in the press box at Lord’s – it’s an iconic structure, for a start – but we don’t get too many making the journey specifically to visit the SA media contingent. So it was great to see Marcus Prior again after many years – the anchor of ETV’s first outing as host broadcaster at home in 2000. Communications manager at the World Food Programme and based in Bangkok these days, he couldn’t resist the chance to come and share in the (possible) rise to the top of the national team.
The day ended with a last-minute (and inevitably late) dinner with CSA’s acting chief executive, Jacques Faul. Isn’t there a better word than ‘acting’? Ridiculous. He is passionate about improving so many aspects of the game, at every level, and appears to thrive on hard work. There are some ambitious, high-profile contenders for the fulltime position, but the CSA board would be very well advised not to look too far beyond what they already have.
If England don’t manage a miracle run-chase tomorrow, the Proteas will be universally acclaimed as “undisputed” champions. I know this from the amount of communication I have received from ex-players and media colleagues around the world over the last four days. It’s like the old boxing days. Three different champions in each weight division… but every now and then there would be a fight for the “undisputed” title.
Monday is the culmination of that fight.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 18
The first three days of the fifth post-isolation Lord’s test match have been very special – memorable. England are clearly far more desperate to hang on to their No 1 ranking than was obvious during the first two tests. It cannot possibly be the ‘KP factor’, could it?
Fielders are running around with more urgency than at the Oval and celebrating even the OK bits of fielding from their colleagues. The togetherness and sense of purpose they have displayed simply wasn’t there while Pietersen was in the XI. That sounds very harsh indeed – but it would appear to be true. Former captain Michael Vaughan has seen it, too: “Oh definitely, much more ‘touchy-feely’, lots of pats on bottoms!”
As was reported by virtually every major cricket publication in the UK two days ago, legendary American Rock and Roll star Alice Cooper was a surprise but highly entertaining visitor to the Lord’s Media Centre on the first day.
“There’s a lot more strategy to it than I thought there would be,” Cooper told the BBC’s test Match Special. “I like the way the inner fielders get to pressure the batter and the outfielders fetch the ball. I saw some four-pointers in the morning but I really want to see a six-pointer.”
But perhaps the best moment came when Geoffrey Boycott entered the commentary box moments after the interview finished. “Geoffrey, this is Alice Cooper.” Yorkshire’s most famous opening batsman perused the depths of his memory – but there was nothing there. So, playing it safe, he extended his hand – to Cooper’s wife: “Nice to meet you, Alice.”
Saturday has a very different feel to it than week days in press boxes around the world, but particularly here. Despite newspaper cutbacks which have led to a certain amount of job-combining, there is still a significant change of personnel as the daily men have the day off and the Sunday specialists arrive. They have had all week to follow the Kevin Pietersen saga and are under pressure to come up with something new.
One of them takes me aside for an early cup of coffee and wonders whether I might be able to confirm that KP was seen ‘celebrating’ with the Proteas in a Chelsea Wine Bar after the first test at the Oval. Bloody hell. I cannot confirm this – but can imagine how the flames burning on his international career will be fanned if it is indeed true.
Another Sunday man has unearthed information (from a “reliable source”) containing an update on the content of the text messages received by Proteas players. If it is true then it will make the Wine Bar story read like a Peter & Jane children’s book. Clearly the England players – or people close to them – have been talking about the unhappiness in the England changeroom caused by the atmosphere generated by Pietersen’s presence. “He won’t play for England again,” a third Sunday man tells at lunch. “He’s finished.”
On the face of it, Kirsten is a ‘straight down the line’ coach. Yet he takes extraordinary gambles – in the tiniest ways. Optional practice on the day before the final test of the series. Optional? Really? England coach Andy Flower was aghast when he heard the news. “They must be very confident,” he said./piframe width=