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Week 1

March 5, 2017

Many decades ago international cricket tours were so long that players had virtual second families. Actually, in some cases they really did have second families. A tour could literally take almost six months. But they were only between Australia, England and South Africa - with New Zealand, India and Ceylon (as it was then) thrown into the mix.

Even when South Africa returned to international cricket post-isolation, cricket tours were constructed at an old-fashioned, leisurely pace with days off between games. The 1994 tour of England included just three test matches but 13 first-class county games. The most important reality is that it gave all of us, including players, genuine days off. There are still 'days off' these days, but they are now scheduled. They don't just 'happen.'

Today was one of those old-fashioned days. In the immediate aftermath of 'tight schedules' in which touring teams played all their games as quickly as possible, media representatives were left scrambling for either footage, images or anecdotes of cricketers playing golf, surfing or even just shopping.

Now that they Tweet and Instagram their idle hours, however, the onus is no longer on reporters to 'chase the story.' You can see for yourselves. It is just one of many reasons why newspapers are being killed off.

The good news for those of us who have spent so many years chasing players and 'stories' is that a 'day off' mow actually means that, once again. We went shopping in London and walked the canals in Nottingham in 1994 safe in the knowledge that 'news' would not happen until we would be informed of it. Those days are long gone. If David Miller breaks a finger feeding a Kiwi in Auckland Zoo, we can't be expected to know about it. And he'll Instagram it, anyway. So what are we expected to do? Sit in a hotel room and monitor players' social media accounts?

Instead I accepted an invitation to go fishing on Ben Coney's boat, the vessel belonging to the son of fellow commentator Jeremy Coney. Initially, Jeremy suggested that the fishing would be 'recreational' and that we would return via two famous vineyards within Auckland Harbour waters. But the fishing was so addictive we just carried on, and on....

Most of the fish we caught were undersized and had to be returned to the ocean but two snappers made it to the dinner table. And Jeremy had taken the precaution of packing two of New Zealand's better bottles among the ice in the box of fish bait. What a delight, cheers Jerry, Ben!

The test series starts in just three days. It feels a world away but won't be by tomorrow morning. Grabbing the real life moments between cricket moments has become more important than ever.

March 4, 2017

When AB de Villiers rued the "lack of spark" in the Proteas fielding and bowling performance during the fourth ODI in Hamilton when Martin Guptill was tearing his way towards 180 not out and a famous victory, many locals wondered whether it was merely a hollow, plaintiff excuse for defeat.

Tonight showed that it wasn't.

The captain often speaks about 'energy' in the field and how important it can be to defining the course of the game. The truth is, South Africa's fielding proficiency is such that even a 'flat' day can pass as a good one compared to most other teams. But when they start as they did tonight, all the talk of spark and energy makes sense. They were simply overpowering.

The Black Caps top order batsmen were pinned into a corner from the first over and never allowed to escape. The fielding was ferocious rather than proficient and the bowling consistently hostile and accurate, not just for an entire over but for overs at a time. Batsmen can only absorb so much pressure before they feel compelled to alter the course of their innings - which is when they take a risk, and make a mistake.

De Villiers lauded the start his team made after winning the fifth toss of the series and credited it for shaping the rest of the match. Of course the Black Caps fought hard in defence of a woeful target but Faf du Plessis was at his bloody-minded best and David Miller at his most belligerent. In the end it looked easy.

"We are in a great place as a team and we are heading in the right direction for the Champions Trophy in England. We are going there to win it and I believe we can win it," De Villiers said afterwards. He also said he would be "up at 3am to watch the tests" and that he would "miss the boys."

Which would have done nothing to soothe the hearts of the many thousands who wish he was still playing test cricket. "I'm looking forward to some family time before I start with cricket again," said AB, no doubt to the rolling of some eyes with the realisation that it will be with Royal Challengers Bangalore. But he deserves his right to choose.

Reliable word on the grapevine is that New Zealand's management (captain, coaches, etc) have asked the Dunedin ground staff to prepare a dry, spinning wicket for the first test - which makes sense since they have added offspinner Jeetan Patel to the squad along with left armer Mitchell Sandtner. South Africa have only one specialist spinner in Keshav Maharaj.

It would seem prudent to change plans and keep Tabraiz Shamsi here. "Maybe they will," chuckled Shamsi after the game. "I'm flying home tomorrow but maybe they'll fly me back again for the third test in Hamilton - that's a proper spinning wicket."

Tomorrow is a 'free' day in Auckland as I'm not flying to Dunedin until Monday. Happily, I have been invited out on a boat for some fishing in the morning followed by some wine-tasting in the afternoon. This is a very boat-orientated city, as was confirmed on my morning run when I discovered that multi-storey parking exists for boats as well as cars. Extraordinary.

I'm a lousy fisherman but a decent wine-taster, so we'll see.

March 3, 2017

There are some multi-purpose stadia in the world which can, conceivably, be made to feel like a cricket stadium, with effort and imagination. Eden Park isn’t one them.

Why should it be? As the cradle and spiritual home of All Blacks rugby, it is one of that sport’s great cathedrals. What it can do, and does, is make cricket feel welcome. It’s like staying the night at the house of a very wealthy acquaintance and being given a large, en-suite guest room with extra fluffy towels rather than a travel rug on the fold-out sofa in the lounge. It’s great, but you know you don’t really belong there.

Faf du Plessis was brilliant at the pre-match press conference. The first question was loaded with all sorts of potential booby traps – all the emotion of the World Cup semifinal, the fallout, the negative memories… was it challenging coming back to the venue for another important 50-over game?

“100% per cent it is,” said Faf, deputising for captain AB who has done more than enough media on tour so far and will, of course, front up again after the game – and after the tour as far as he is concerned.

“It is a fantastic stadium, a great place to play cricket with an amazing atmosphere. It would have been nice to have won the series but we couldn’t have asked for a better occasion to finally produce our best cricket because we haven’t been better than about 65 per cent so far,” Faf said.

Big matches like this one are what sportsmen like Du Plessis and De Villiers live for. They both performed superbly in that World Cup semifinal and, were it not for the rain, they believe they would have won.

Du Plessis agreed that Saturday’s series decider is the ‘biggest’ ODI the Proteas have played since that fateful day just under two years ago. Yes, it’s been that long. “We, as a team, carried the pain of that defeat with us for a very long time,” he admitted, perfectly aware that he was providing the newspaper men with headline gold.

“Every game we play is important but we’ve gone 5-0 in both of our last two series so we haven’t had anything which felt like a final, like this one. New Zealand have everything to play for because this would be their ninth successive series win at home which is a proud record. And we will go back to number one in the world if we win it. I think the teams are under equal pressure to perform and equally determined to win.”

Cricket battles for exposure and crowds in New Zealand, and now that Autumn has dawned and Super Rugby has started, this is the final fling. A series decider… at Eden Park. It won’t quite be sold out, but close. So strap on your seat belts and prepare for a serious ride.

March 2, 2017

The journey between Hamilton and Auckland has been compared to that between Centurion and Jo’burg – but for only two reasons. It takes place between two of the major cricketing venues in the two countries and it takes place among vast volumes of traffic.

There are fewer lanes on the New Zealand highway until you actually reach the country’s largest city where two becomes three but they really need 13. Clearly there are far too many people living here – or far too many people with cars.

There is plenty of pretty, rolling countryside to appreciate along the way. Lots of cows – New Zealand is now the world’s greatest exporter of butter, I believe. Also many, many roadworks, which claim one of the lanes to themselves for 10 or 20 kilometres at a time leaving us to crawl forward in single file. There are no actual roadworks taking place. Just thousands of red cones.

Which leaves us with little choice but to listen to Radio Sport for whom we are commentating the series. It has 24 hours of sport with a great deal of interviews, talk and feedback from experts and the general public between whom there is no difference in the wake of an innings such as that played last night by Martin Guptill.

Caller after caller trips over their words and is incapable of being effusive enough in a coherent way. It is as it should be. We are the same in the aftermath of an AB assault. It really was rather special, although my own attention is drawn in equal measure to the adverts between interviews, notably the public service safety announcement which is read by a real life fireman.

“Don’t drink and fry,” he says after describing the dangers of hot oil with a background noise of sirens. Apparently this is a real thing, people getting the munchies after a few drinks and turning the frier on to make chips before falling asleep. Don’t drink and fry. Make a sandwich instead.

On arrival in Auckland it’s my turn to join the Guptill praise song, in studio, feeling more than a little queasy with car sickness. There’s no denying it – it was one of the best ODI innings in a run chase of all time. Not that I have any desire to deny it. Even mentioning the fact that the pitch actually became skiddy in the second innings and easier to bat on makes me feel a little more queasy that people may believe I’m attempting to remove some credit. No, it was extraordinary and quite memorable.

Staying in a small, service apartment right in the city centre, almost under the famous Sky Tower which dominates the city skyline at a whopping 328 metres high. There are thousands of tourists, restaurants and take-away establishments everywhere with Victoria Park for a jog just a kilometre away. With no test match here, these are the only three days we’ll have in Auckland. But there’ll be enough.

March 1, 2017

It’s easy to be smart after the event but let’s not forget nobody thought South Africa had done much wrong at the halfway stage of the match, having set the home side a formidable target of 280 on a slow, awkward pitch on which the wise locals felt 250 would be a good score.

They undoubtedly bowled poorly but that was almost certainly as a result of the pressure they were put under by Martin Guptill. For every force there is an opposite force and the Proteas went backwards when Guptill went forward. It was an epic innings and a compelling run chase. Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin.

Whether the hammering at Seddon Park turns out to be an aberration or a dramatic and irreversible change of momentum will be revealed at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday, and what an emotionally charged climax to the series that promises to be. World Cup semifinal and all that.

When New Zealand Cricket decided to move this match from Napier to Hamilton at barely a fortnight’s notice, a number of logistical problems were created, the least of which was the $86 I lost for the flight I booked from Auckland, which Air New Zealand refused to refund.

Slightly more important was the fact that there was no accommodation available for the teams. They both had to shower, pack their bags and drive an hour-and-a-half as soon as possible after the match had finished. It meant arrival after midnight and sleep at goodness what time. Not ideal.

Guptill, like so many New Zealanders, is relaxed to the point of being permanently parallel. “If you’d offered me 180 not out at the start of the game I guess I’d have taken it,” he said afterwards without a shadow of irony. “The way Ross batted to help me was very special,” he said, again without a trace of irony or false modesty about Taylor’s mostly scratchy 66.

De Villiers was in excellent form after the game, respectful in defeat and positive about Eden Park. He was effusive in his praise for Guptill and refused to blame his batsmen for the slowness of their scoring during the middle overs.

“Absolutely fantastic innings, a few too many loose deliveries but all credit to him. He played Imran superbly, the No 1 bowler in the world, but we were beaten by the better team. I thought it would turn more like it did in the first game here. But we didn’t have that spark in the field so we have to get our act together for the final game.

“There’s no need to panic and I know we will produce the goods when it matters. I believe we have the best top order in the world and Eden Park is a great stadium to showcase our ability.”

February 28, 2017

A spectacular night’s sleep/rest, with the aid of a sleeping tablet taken in two halves at midnight and 3:30am. It was as close to a normal night’s sleep as I’ve ever had in the first week of an NZ tour, never mind the first 24 hours. Happy days, celebrated with a 90-minute run along the banks of the Waikato River. Which was overdoing it.

Bumped into a typically cheerful Errol Stewart at training who was, as always, effervescent and buoyant about everything. Unlike most selectors who are troubled by dilemmas, Stewart appears delighted when I suggest that allrounders Morris, Parnell, Phehlukwayo and Pretorius are now neck-and-neck in their pursuit of a regular place in the starting XI, making his and the rest of the selectors’ jobs especially difficult. “I know, it’s great, isn’t it?” he beams.

A rugged, scruffily bearded man wearing a Black Caps shirt and cap approached me menacingly shortly afterwards. Except, there’s nothing menacing about him. It is KJ Johnson, Seddon Park’s long-serving head groundsman. He is so well known in this town he has his own sponsored car, or bakkie, actually, with “KJ” emblazoned on the doors. It is a very small town, as I have written many times before – with love and affection.

I really do enjoy Hamilton. Graeme Smith once described the place, without malice, as “the Hill Billy capital of New Zealand”, which caused an uproar. The kind of uproar that the Free State would experience should anyone dare to criticise it for being the red-meat-eating capital of South Africa.

Tabraiz Shamsi and Imran Tahir had a private tete-a-tete on the match wicket after training, which pretty much confirmed that, with New Zealand likely to play three specialist spinners, the tourists will play two. Not that we should brag about these things, but it’s hard not to think that our two are far more exciting and likely to win a game on a ‘grippy’ pitch than their three.

Kagiso Rabada was sent out to do the pre-match press conference, traditionally the duty of the captain, and what an inspired decision it proved to be. Nothing wrong with AB’s musings, but KG hasn’t done a single ‘bout’ of media on tour so far and, in the nicest possible way, it’s obvious that he doesn’t mind it. In other words, he is engaged by the questions and interested in answering them. Joy and happiness. To all concerned.

Then I have a 20 minute, one-on-one, with Andile Phehlukwayo. His spontaneous, slightly bewildered answer to media manager Lerato Malekutu’s request to meet me, was: “Why does he want to speak to me?” Seriously. Winning international games is just what he does, right?

Anyway, he was deeply charming, amusing and honest. Like Lungi Ngidi, he had earned the benefit of a privileged, scholarship education despite being from the most modest of backgrounds. Both their mothers were domestic workers. Their achievements are remarkable and their goals ambitious but, happily, they both regard the greatest success, for now, as being the purchase of a new house for the extraordinary parents who made the chance of their success even possible.

February 27, 2017

Jetlag must be the hardest and most boring subject on earth for sports lovers to comprehend - if they have not experienced it. It's like toothache and migraine, and period pain I guess - it's just 'there', all the time.

On a trivial level, bacon and eggs or cereal just don't 'feel' right when the clock says 7:30am. And a beer most certainly is not right at 9am no matter that your body thinks it is 6pm. Don't do that.

A 90-minute run along the banks of the Waikatu River is hard to disguise for anybody, in any time zone, and that helped ease the arrival into Hamilton after two overnight flights from Jo'burg to Perth and Perth to Auckland, followed by a shuttle drive to Hamilton.

God bless the New Zealand newspapers. Over 20 years ago we laughed at the story of the cat stuck up a tree - on the front page. As much as things have changed, they have stayed the same. Today, the front page story on the Waikatu News featured a long-married couple who had suffered a "potentially life-changing scam" while staying in a city centre motel just a kilometre from Seddon Park where the fourth ODI will be played on Wednesday.

A well-suited man walked into reception an hour after they left and informed the housekeeper that he had been instructed to pack all their belongings because they had experienced a family emergency and needed to return home urgently. He then did exactly that, into their own suitcases, and drove away with them.

The distraught mother told local television and radio stations that she didn't care about their iPads and jewellery, just the two 'life journals' she had been keeping every year of their two teenage daughters' lives for their imminent 21st birthdays.

The conman duly had an attack of conscience and returned them to the local police station - which enabled the constabulary to follow him back to his modest abode and recover every single item, from underwear to cosmetics.

It was just SO New Zealand.

The Proteas had a full day off on Monday, which involved, variously, surfing (David Miller), photography (Wayne Parnell), golf (various) and shopping and sight-seeing. The Black Caps had a gym session after reconvening in mid-afternoon.

South Africa's series lead is only 2-1 but, after reading newspapers and listening to comment from fans and former players, you would think it was at least 3-0 if not 4-0. Despite three years of unprecedented success, the preceding 70 years of largely unstinting failure have left their mark on this small nation’s expectations.

NZ coach Mike Hesson was the only member of the squad who was at the ground this afternoon to witness the super-sized roller in action at Seddon Park. "We've had a lot or rain recently, really bad weather," he lamented before looking up at my gaze. "Right, yeah, Nothing new there, I guess, it's New Zealand. But really, it's been even wetter than usual."

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