Tuesday, October 2 – Wednesday, October 3
A great deal happens very quickly when these ICC tournaments end, as they always do (for South Africa!!). Far from accepting the inevitable and refiling what they already have in the bank, most media organisations are fired up to retrieve as many more, fresh ‘failure’ stories and quotes as they can get.
I was kindly offered a lift to the stadium on match day by the tiny Australian media contingent – just three compared to South Africa’s mighty four. Air-conditioned comfort in a large estate car, however, wears thin after an hour and three quarters in Colombo traffic.
The ICC’s absurdly ludicrous decision to make media collect their match-day passes from the other side of the city has been flat-batted. Unrepentant, uncaring, middle finger. They don’t need to sit in the traffic, so why should they care. Too hard to deal with now – ignore it. Lovely.
In the car the Aussies are talking with complete confidence about thumping Pakistan. I said Pakistan would win. Which they did, very comfortably.
I love technology. I just don’t know how to maximise it, or even use it most of the time. Squashed in the back of the car with the Sydney Morning Herald’s excellent correspondent, Chloe Saltau, I was reminded of the promises we make to very small children – and the consequences of failing to keep them.
Chloe had promised to be online at 2:30pm for her two-year-old, Elliott, but we were a long way from our target by then. Although she’d never tried it before, she suddenly remembered the possibilities of her recently upgraded iPhone. Within three minutes she had downloaded Skype and was chatting away to her little boy while Dad was having pasta pieces and bolognaise thrown at him. He was a very happy little boy. Gotta love that.
I was a long way from the boundary when the Proteas finally arrived at the ground but they looked flat. Having watched the first innings in their hotel, they left hoping for an Aussie batting blitz. By the time they arrived Australia were 90-5 and in danger of being eliminated from the semifinals!
It will always be a credit to the team that they managed to perform so well in a dead game. Faf du Plessis may well be given the T20 captaincy before he is ready for it with another couple of performances like that. AB is brilliant, and it’s fun having an instinctive captain, but it seems obvious that the workload is too distracting.
The Proteas spent Wednesday sleeping in the air-conditioning or by the pool. Criticise them all you want – that is your right – but don’t (please) accuse of them of not trying or putting their bodies ‘on the line’. They gave it their all. If not being good enough is worthy of your ire, then fire away.
The team coach passed directly under my hotel window a couple of hours ago. I felt very alone and abandoned, never mind without a purpose. Sri Lanka v Pakistan on Thursday and Australia v West Indies on Friday. Final on Sunday. Got to go for Sri Lanka against West Indies, surely? Hopefully I’ll be able to watch it in Cape Town.
Monday, October 1
For someone who doesn’t enjoy doing press conferences at the best of times, Gary Kirsten had a bit of a nightmare this afternoon. Manfully volunteering to step into the breach and do the ‘traditional’ pre-match captain’s presser to mix things up a bit and give AB de Villiers a break, Kirsten had clearly forgotten certain aspects of his previous life as an international coach.
The Indian media contingent has not got any smaller over the years. Newspapers are not going out of business in that country, they are simply growing webbed arms – with more people to write for them. Television channels are not going out of business, either…
What Kirsten may originally have thought would be a quiet chat with the small contingent of South African journalists was comprehensively hijacked by the Indians – in the nicest possible way. They were only doing their jobs!
At one point the Proteas coach indicated that his primary focus was on test cricket and the World Cup. He didn’t say it, but the implication was that T20 cricket didn’t really matter too much. I’m not sure that was the best thing to say, true or not.
The coach went to considerable trouble organising unofficial ‘practice’ internationals in Zimbabwe three months ago and has devoted a great deal of time to ‘shaping’ the current squad and devising methods and match plans. It’s just that they aren’t working. Of course his focus is on test cricket, and of course the World Cup is more important than the ICC T20, but it wasn’t the time or place to be sniffy about it.
Lunch afterwards was taken at the sushi bar in Odell’s shopping plaza which always yields high-quality clothing at extremely favourable prices. (That sounded like a line from a cheap commercial.) But it was, as always, great fun for an hour. My girls grew up in clothes from Odell’s. They used to love whatever I brought back for them. These days it’s not quite so easy. “Oh, yeh, thanks Dad. It’s…nice.” I stuck to T-shirts.
If you’ve been watching the tournament on TV you probably wouldn’t even know that there are dancing girls on podiums going through a routine for the boundaries. They’re not very, err, ‘good’ and the TV cameras have been directed elsewhere. Dare one say it but, some of them are even a bit more sturdily built than is customary.
But never mind what I say. Let the man in charge put his foot in his mouth and bite off any discretion or concerns about political correctness: “The dance steps being performed are fine,” said Sudev Abeysekara. “But the thing is that in an event like this you need good-looking girls, and to get the beautiful girls who are professional dancers, you have to pay more. The payment is not that great.”
Right. There you are then. Pretty dancers are more expensive than unpretty ones.
Sunset on the terrace at the Galle Face Hotel. Sundowners is an institution there, and what a sunset it was. Australia will have to beat Pakistan in the first game on Tuesday and then the Proteas will have to beat India to prevent the sun going down on their tournament. Yes, it’s possible. But not likely.
Sunday, September 30
Driving through the streets of Colombo without traffic doesn’t happen very often but Sunday lunchtime is about your best bet during daylight hours. It felt remarkably peaceful as we headed towards Cricket Sri Lanka’s headquarters at the Sinhalese Sports Club to collect my match day ticket before heading back across town to towards the R Premadasa Stadium.
You can get caught in the trap of cutting too many corners on tour, always make sure you have enough dollars left for an emergency around the corner – one that mostly doesn’t happen. (Like having to buy a new motherboard for you laptop – that sort of thing.)
So it was time to splash out match day against Australia and treat myself to an air-conditioned car from the excellent Galadari Hotel, my base. Driving along, watching the world go by…listening to a song on the radio.
It all happened so quickly. We heard the siren, and then there was a policeman in the road. My driver hit the brakes as hard as he could; I was stretched against my seatbelt. We stopped centimetres from the vehicle in front. I think there were a couple of bumps in the vehicles behind us.
Then the luxury team coach appeared with its entourage of police outriders and more sirens. The policeman we had seen had been riding on the back of the advance motorbike and had jumped off the back to halt traffic. He didn’t give anybody much warning. I guess that’s all part of the plan.
I assumed it must be the Australian team. It was two hours before the match, far too early for the Proteas. The coach approached. It was empty. It was the ‘decoy’ coach.
The security tactic was used last year during the World Cup but I hadn’t realised it was still in operation. We’ve all become so used to seeing armed troops everywhere and ‘Special Forces’ operatives standing with their machine guns outside players' change rooms.
The security we encounter trying to gain access to the stadium is of a very different variety – more ‘Unspecial Forces.’ Haphazard, clueless fumbling around in our laptop bags, prodding various things which look unfamiliar or suspicious (microphone, DVR, bag of assorted cables). Then we walk another 50 metres and go through it all again. But we don’t complain. Best just to keep your mouth shut and accept that it’s better to have this than no security!
The catering for the media is being done by the Hilton Hotel. They have not held back. It has been remarkable, far better than is necessary for us! But I’m not complaining about that, either.
Dinner was fabulous. The cricket was bloody awful.
Saturday, September 29
Even before Buddhism was established, the full moon had great significance for people in many parts of the world, but especially in Asia. It was a time for reflection and a time to place spirituality above worldly concerns.
Buddhism was officially introduced to Sri Lanka around 250 BC and it remains the religion of choice for around half of the country, existing in mostly peaceful harmony alongside Christians and Muslims.
The Galle Face Walkway on the seafront was packed even more tightly than usual being a Saturday, and the majority, especially women and children, were dressed in white as a sign of purity and innocence. Most of the shops were closed and the drinking of alcohol is not allowed in public places. All bars were closed and restaurants served only tea, water and soft drinks.
It was a very quiet day spent relaxing by the pool and, in Dale Steyn’s case, watching Chelsea beat Arsenal on television.
But just as Sri Lankans were taking their monthly reflection on life, there can be no doubt that several of South Africa’s cricketers would have been doing the same about their performance after the game against Pakistan. Victories against Australia and India will be enough to paper over the cracks which were exposed on Friday. A place in the final will even provide a strong filler for the cracks. But cracks are cracks. Sometimes the wall needs to be rebuilt.
Friday, September 28
The charismatic, intelligent and highly personable former Australia fast bowler, Jason Gillespie, was unequivocal about professional cricketers who bowl beamers. “Unless the ball is soaking wet or it’s covered in grease, they should be banned, instantly, and for at least a season. If they do it again they should be banned for life,” said Gillespie last year.
“Dizzy” began his coaching career a couple of years ago with the Mid West Rhinos in Zimbabwe and made such dramatic progress that he was head-hunted by Yorkshire who were languishing in England’s second division. They were promoted this year.
Gillespie’s view was based on a simple principle: either the bowler was deliberately endangering the batsman by bowling an illegal full toss at his head, in which case the ban was (excuse his pun) a “no-brainer”, or he was so incompetent as to have no place in a first-class team.
“If you assume that the ‘normal’ target area for a fast bowler is somewhere between 10 and 12 feet in front of the batsman, and then draw a line along the trajectory of a beamer, you will see it lands 20 feet, or more, behind the batsman. That means the bowler has missed his ‘target’ by 30 feet! Tell me another sport where professionals miss their target by 30 feet and are still being paid a salary!?”
There were no high full tosses in South Africa's match against Pakistan and nobody deserves to be banned, but some targets were missed by a very long way in the last five overs. Missed by distances which should be entirely unacceptable to professional cricketers.
The irony, as so often is the case in cricket, is that the batting failed first. If the batsmen had scored the 150+ they should have done in those conditions, the bowlers could have comfortably afforded their bad overs. It makes it even more unfair on the fast bowlers that the spotlight is being shone on them given how well they bowled to reduce Pakistan to 76-7. No batting team should have been allowed to escape from there, especially needing 11 runs an over.
But Umar Gul applied the pressure, the Proteas had subconsciously relaxed and by the time they regathered, a look at the scoreboard confirmed the unthinkable – that they might actually lose. And that was when the targets started being missed.
It was a bad day right from the beginning. The Premadasa Stadium is a huge, concrete bowl squeezed into the densely populated suburb of Khettarama. It seats 35 000. Yet the ICC and the tournament organisers could not find a desk at which to issue journalists and photographers with their match-day tickets. Instead, in their wisdom, their decided it would be better if they collected them from Cricket Sri Lanka’s headquarters on the other side of the city.
Colombo’s traffic is as snarled as anywhere I’ve ever seen. But when thousands of students and university lecturers decided to stage a protest march to “draw attention to various aspects of higher education” according to a radio news report, “traffic in the city has come to a standstill.” Having left my hotel, four kilometres from the stadium, two and a quarter hours before the start of the match, I finally arrived in time to see Richard Levi attempting to reverse sweep Saeed Ajmal’s first delivery. At that point I thought the day couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong.
There was a highlight of the day, however, and it had nothing to do with the Australia/India match. It was the supper in between matches. A Sri Lankan speciality, and one of my all-time favourites, is cashew and pea curry with coconut milk. I’m going to find a recipe and make it at home. Be warned, girls.
Thursday, September 27
Woken up this morning by a phone call from Mickey Arthur. I know we wrote his book together and became very good friends, but nonetheless – he’s been in Australia for more than two years and has another national team to look after. The last thing he needs to be thinking about is taking reporters out for a birthday dinner! But that’s typical of the man. Completely bewildered, I accepted his invitation.
At the back of my hotel there is the Old Dutch Hospital, a landmark in Colombo for well over a century. It hasn’t been a hospital for a long time and has been through various different remodelling since it stopped service. Now, however, it has really rediscovered itself. Featuring several bars, restaurants and boutique shops, the courtyard offers a place for the weary tourist or well-heeled local to sit in the shade with good coffee or a smoothie.
One of the restaurants is called “The Ministry of Crab” and its speciality is served in eight different sizes, never mind the flavours and cooking styles. The sizes range from ‘small’ (0.5kg) to the ‘OMG’ size (in excess of 1.5kg. For many years crabs have been a significant export from Sri Lanka and the locals have been left with the, well, leftovers. Just like Elgin apples, all the best ones are sent overseas and Capetonians are left with the category C stuff.
Anyway, best friends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara decided that this was not right and, being the well-connected people they are, I am told they made direct contact with the Minister of Fisheries to see if some of the best crabs could stay behind provided they had a special place to be consumed. Hence the “Ministry of Crab”. It’s a full-on, fancy restaurant with starched linen table cloths and napkins. And if you eat crab anything like I do, you’ll need all the napkins you can get your hands on. In fact, I needed a shower after the last crab I ate.
AB de Villiers is getting better and better at press conferences. The highlight of his ‘Captain’s Presser’ at the R Premadasa Stadium came when he was asked whether all his top order were able to ‘read’ Pakistani off spinner Saeed Ajmal and pick his various deliveries.
The Proteas captain thought for a moment and then the corners of his mouth turned upwards into a smile. I’m sure he was considering being ‘creative’ with his answer but couldn’t bring himself to. “No!” he replied, not bothering to disguise the smile. “But some of the best players in the world can’t read him, but they make a plan and we’ll do the same.”
Dinner with Mickey and another of my oldest friends, Aussie journalist Malcolm Conn, was delayed by 15 minutes as we watched the Super Over between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. When Australia arrived in Sri Lanka they had a warm-up match against New Zealand and afterwards the two coaches agreed to practise a Super Over – just in case.
“We bowled first and New Zealand scored one run,” recalled Mickey. “So we agreed on 12 to make it meaningful, and David Warner knocked them off in three balls!” Well, the Black Caps did lose against the Lankans but at least it was a bit closer than that.
Dinner was amazing at what was ostensibly a steak restaurant but so much more than that. There were certainly far more weapons and drinking vessels on the table that you find at most steak restaurants. Lobster and prawn salad to start and a rump steak to follow. I eat one steak a year and have given up pretending to know anything about them so I asked Mickey to order for me. Wow.
It would be a lie to say we discussed no cricket, but it constituted less than 10 per cent of the conversation. Wives, families, schools, universities, life in Perth and Cape Town – all far more interesting. Although there were some good cricket tales in the ten per cent…!
Time for a ‘night cap’ at Malcolm’s hotel en route back to mine. And just time to catch the last couple of overs of England’s appalling, botched run chase against the West Indies. What a cock-up. But it can happen to anyone when you try to be too ‘sensible’ during a run chase. You need to be ahead of the asking run rate, not just alongside it. As Lance Klusener always used to say, no matter what you’re chasing, aim to win with an over to spare.
Wednesday, September 26
Several weeks ago this day stood out as an obvious opportunity to get out and about in the city, do some shopping and perhaps go out for a smart meal in one of the many excellent restaurants Colombo now has. With no games scheduled, it was going to be a ‘quiet’ day.
It hardly ever works out that way. I should have known. On match days the story is the cricket – simple and straightforward. On non-match days the story is everything else, and editors wake up and start planning, or panicking, or both. I’ll still do my shopping and there’s no way I’m not having a good meal tomorrow, being my birthday. But today was chaos.
The Proteas had a ‘staggered’ practice which means they broke it into two sections and extended it to beyond four hours. This routine inevitably means far greater intensity for all the players and much harder work for the coaching staff and net bowlers! By the time Allan Donald and Russell Domingo returned to the team hotel they looked like they could eat a horse. And then did. Well, it was a large burger but neither of them bothered with the knife and fork.
I was there to gather Dale Steyn’s thoughts for a column which is syndicated in various Indian newspapers. His IPL career has made him extremely popular in that country and they are always keen to hear his thoughts on…anything. At one point a hopelessly giggling young Muslim girls interrupts us with a notebook and a pen. Traditionally clad from head to toe in black, she wasn’t the archetypal female autograph hunter. Dale reckons it was his tattoo that set her off, that she didn’t even know who he was. Right.
Quiet night in the hotel writing copy for various clients, including my diary. The walk back from the team hotel to mine is only two kilometres along the sea wall, but it’s lively and always interesting. One day I really should try one of those prawn things. Twenty years I’ve been looking at them and wondering…