FRIDAY, AUGUST 31
Early morning run around Hyde Park in stunning, autumnal conditions (clear blue skies, cold, sharp air) but couldn’t shake the nonsensical feeling that the Proteas were heading for a fall – as I wrote last night.
It didn’t make any difference to the exercise routine, though, nor the appreciation of the extraordinary sights dotted in and around the famous park. The Royal Albert Hall was looking especially grand and well decorated now that the Proms season has started but all the statues and memorials are in pristine condition having been given a good scrub and polish for the Olympic Games and the Paralympics.
The last time we were in London the capital’s most famous newspaper, the London Evening Standard, was still going strong with a healthy circulation among the city’s commuters. Founded in 1827, it had seen and recorded everything of note in London for over 180 years – and charged people for it.
Then, in 2009, the downward spiral of ‘traditional media’ and a falling circulation led to the drastic decision to make it a free ‘paper and survive solely on advertising. The age-old adage that nothing worthwhile comes for free has, sadly, led to many people assuming that the Evening Standard is now little more than fish and chip paper. It isn’t. I’m sure it was an agency photograph which was published all over the world, but the front page shot of an armless man from the Ukraine swimming in the Paralympics certainly caught the eye on the Underground this morning!
Arrival at The Oval was greeted by a protest, complete with banners. Well, two banners. The small group of around 25 protestors were South Africans representing the slain miners and they were accusing the ANC government of being ‘murderers’. The more those of us in England for the last two months have tried to understand what happened, and why, the more confused we have become. Apparently, much the same sense of confusion still exists at home.
I can’t help wondering after tonight’s game whether ‘wristiness’ can be taught to young batsmen. On another slow and awkward pitch, the two outstanding players were Hashim Amla and Eion Morgan who made 43 and 73 respectively, the top scores for their teams. Spot the gaps and hit the ball into them – no matter where it’s bowled. Simple theory but it requires supple wristwork and strong hands.
What a poor game. Not the result but the entertainment on offer. At least the series will now stay ‘alive’ until the final game at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, on Wednesday.
THURSDAY, 30 AUGUST
What a day Wednesday was! Having heard whispers from an impeccable source after Tuesday night’s ODI win in Southampton that Andrew Strauss had, indeed, not only resigned but wholly retired, it was a busy night – not of my making.
Actually, it was of my making in the sense that I tweeted the possibility of Strauss quitting. A few other far better placed English journos were on the case as well. The speculation continued well in to the night.
By now you will all know that Strauss was courteous, civil, generous and honest in his departure conference. In a rare moment of cynicism-reduction from the media contingent, he was applauded – genuinely and vociferously – as he concluded his departure from the game.
Understandably, Graeme Smith opted to dodge questions from the media about his ‘hat-trick’ of England captains following Nasser Hussain (2003) and Michael Vaughan (2008). It was the safe option. He felt he could not win, no matter what he said. So he declined to comment.
It was an opportunity missed. In my opinion, Smith would have served himself and his team better by expressing his admiration and respect for the outgoing England captain and explaining that, while always ‘targeting’ opposition captains (like all teams); he took no personal pleasure in their demise. In fact, the truth is that he has been more ‘caught’ in the natural, evolutionary cycle of English cricket than responsible for influencing it. International cricket revolves around several four-year cycles, the most obvious being the World Cup. Others are long tours to major nations. Consequently, the average life span of both coaches and captains is about four years. Smith may just have been a convenient catalyst for change. (OK, the 2008 and 2012 test series wins were also simply too big for Vaughan and Strauss to swallow without choking.)
So here we are, back in London and back to the scene of one of the greatest test match wins and losses ever seen between these two countries just six weeks ago... Was it six weeks? Feels like six months. England have been belted in the test series, lost their captain and suffered a hammering in the last ODI. And their talisman, spinner Graeme Swann, has been rested for the remainder of the series because of a chronic elbow injury. Rarely have the Proteas been greater favourites on foreign soil. Consequently, rarely have they been more vulnerable. It’s upset time.
You may have heard of those “LastMinute” websites which offer outrageous deals provided you are prepared to risk sleeping on a bench. I took the risk. So here I am in a £160 room for only £48. It is nine feet across and about ten deep. No complaints at all. But I do wonder what people might think having paid the full price.
TUESDAY, 28 AUGUST
There have always been players who speak the truth – some who couldn’t help doing so, despite their desire and attempts to be ‘diplomatic’ or even ‘sneaky’, but the trend towards honesty seems to be increasing, which is refreshing and uplifting.
Everyone seems to be at it. The only exceptions in recent weeks have been the England players who have talked of the Kevin Pietersen situation as though an electric cattle-prod was hovering above them. Which, given the ECB’s approach to ‘discipline’ when it comes to discussing sensitive issues honestly, isn’t a bad analogy. It’s a bit of bummer when a largely harmless and entirely truthful answer to a reasonable question can cost you R20 000 for being deemed ‘inappropriate.’
When AB de Villiers said before the second ODI that it had been “a relief” that the first one-dayer in Cardiff had been a washout, he quickly added the rider: “But we were ready, don’t get me wrong.” The truth, however, was that they weren’t as ready as they would have liked. Not nearly. There was a distinctly different ‘feel’ to the squad in Southampton compared to Cardiff. An unlikely but distinctly Kirstenesque fusion of improved relaxation and increased focus. Very un-South African. Traditionally.
Last night was spent with (yet another) friend of a friend in the absurdly picture-postcard setting of Hamble, barely five miles from the Rose Bowl. The seaside village has a number of classic pubs and restaurants, many of them three or four centuries old, and an even more classic ‘common’ which provided a fantastic location for a morning run beside the shoreline and its various boatyards and gun emplacements from the second World War. By the time I’d carbo-loaded for the match with a bacon and egg sandwich, spirits were higher than they had been for several days.
Adding to the sense of anticipation was a call from the BBC radio producer asking whether I could do the ‘toss interviews’ and pre-match build-up. Given that it was two hours before the start and I was only five miles away, nobody could have foreseen a problem. Surely. Nobody.
But that was to ignore the lack of signposts to the ground, the one-way systems, the chaotic queuing at the Park & Ride station two miles from the ground – and the traffic officials sending you in the wrong direction. Oh well. In my desperation to arrive on time, I failed in one of my most cherished desires – to complete the tour without a speeding or parking fine. It was always ambitious in this country, but I had not even come close. Then, in a moment of desperation, I accelerated in the centre of Southampton in order to turn right. I was doing 36 mph in a 30 zone. Flash – blue light. It’ll probably cost my entire match fee. But there’s an economy that needs to be sustained.
AB charmed everyone afterwards with his “we have lots of areas to improve on” line. He had no idea how much that sounded like rubbing salt into England’s wounds. But he will if he reads the ‘papers tomorrow. He meant every word entirely genuinely, but when you thrash your hosts by 80 runs and then concentrate on the “many areas” you have to improve, there’s bound to be a raised eyebrow. Or two.
MONDAY, 27 AUGUST
Another day in Paradise. Well, at least it didn’t rain – much. The Rose Bowl is actually called the “Aeges Bowl” these days following the near bankruptcy of the original project which was underwritten by millionaire Hampshire supporter and subsequent committee member, Rod Bransgrove.
There is an old saying about where money comes from: “There’s money in muck.” It literally came from the fact that many a millionaire has been produced by the manure business but has now come to mean ‘getting your hands dirty’. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and work hard – and the rewards will come.
Bransgrove’s fortune was made from mare’s urine. Distilled mare’s urine, to be precise. In the very early days of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) the prime source for the final product was female horse urine. So there you are, it’s true: you really can learn something new every day.
Downstairs from the media centre is the Members Pavilion sporting large commemorative plaques celebrating Hampshire’s only two county championships, the first in 1961 and the second in 1973 featuring an opening partnership as devastating as any that ever played the game, in any era – Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards. Few eras in sport are quite so distinctive from their photographs and the hair and sideburns on Richards and his teammates take quite some seeing to believe.
Shane Warne popped over to England for a couple of seasons at the end of his career and captained Hampshire. His reward is to have the second largest stand in the ground named after him. It should be a source of some shame to South Africa’s cricketing fraternity that so many of our heroes – from across the spectrum – remain unremembered, let alone celebrated.
AB says he’s 99.9% certain it will be the same team that was selected in Cardiff. He’s then asked by an English journalist whether he had learned anything from the 33 balls bowled in Cardiff – in particular the fact that Ian Bell hit Morne Morkel for two sixes: “No, we didn’t learn anything,” grinned the skipper. “Belly hit a couple sweetly but he took big risks to do it so I’m happy with that. As long as he has to take risks like that to score then I have no complaints.”
Weather forecast is amazing for match day! (Only 20% chance of rain…)
SATURDAY-SUNDAY, 25-26 AUGUST
Saturday was my second ‘exeat’ from the tour. Travel days for the team are pretty much always reserved for exactly that – travel and not much else. So, seeing as the whole of Cardiff was ‘booked up’ for Friday night with the domestic T20 ‘Finals Day’ taking place on the Saturday, I decided to stay in the beautiful Herefordshire town of Ledbury 60 miles north.
A 300-year-old ‘Toll House’ was mine for the night and what a change it made from the usual B&B or sofa-bed I’ve been on for most of the tour. As Kirsten always tells the players, a change is easily as good as a rest.
Training and practice at the Rose Bowl in Southampton on Sunday was characterised by a couple of gruelling individual fitness sessions conducted by Rob Walter, the longest and most arduous reserved for Graeme Smith who was taken through a boxing routine lasting close to half an hour. AB de Villiers, the captain, followed next.
A seemingly fit-again Albie Morkel was back in the nets with half a dozen ball collectors strategically positioned in various parts of the Shane Warne Stand attempting, often in vain, to return the balls to the group of bewildered local spinners as quickly as they arrived. His troublesome left ankle may be hampering his bowling, but there’s nothing wrong with Albie’s ball-striking ability.
I had suggested on air on Friday morning in Cardiff that, given the accuracy of weather forecasting in most cities these days, the match referee might be empowered to declare a reduction in the number of overs before the match has even begun in situations such as we had in Cardiff. The excellent Riaan Muller, team logistics manager, sees the sense in the suggestion – but also a snag.
“When we were in Wellington for the last test against New Zealand we had information from five separate weather forecasters. Four of them said the world was going to end with the biggest rain storm for years heading straight for the city. The fifth said it was going to miss. It was raining when we woke up so Gary told the guys they didn’t need to go to the ground and could explore the city.
Some went shopping and others went to the movies. We just told them all to keep their phones on. Sure enough, the storm missed and the ground dried out. The match referee came in to see us and said: ‘You’d better get your players here – we’re starting in an hour!’ Luckily everyone managed to get there!” Muller laughed. Point taken – which forecast do you trust?
Also fabulous to see Neil McKenzie at practice after his Hampshire team’s victory the previous day in the final of the T20 tournament against Yorkshire (featuring David Miller.) Rarely has there been a more popular member of the squad and that was obvious from the moment he strolled onto the outfield and was greeted with a hug from everyone.
He now has a choice between the Lions and Hampshire during the Champions League to be played in SA in October: “It has to be the Lions,” he said. “Hampshire have to go through a qualifying game to get into the main draw!”