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Week 2

March 12, 2017

Rugby practice was in full swing on the training field directly behind the commentary and media area at the University Oval when we arrived at 9:30am. It wasn’t the Highlanders squad, as it had been for the first two days of the test, but the Otago women's team.

It was nine degrees and the drizzle was relentless, hitting their rolling mauls and set rucks at a 30 degree angle – incessantly. They didn’t tolerate it, or just embrace it - they appeared to love it. Any other conditions would have been disappointing. Sadly, they were hopeless for the game next door.

Wet weather is what happens here, more than anywhere else. A potentially thrilling final day was denied to everyone. It is a bleak consolation, but at least neither team can justifiably feel robbed by the rain. Both might have engineered a winning chance.

"There was a lot of work over the four days that happened for both teams,” said Faf du Plessis. “When the day, especially a test match, finishes the way it did, it’s very frustrating. From our point of view, we felt that yesterday was tough, there was a lot of grafting, but we got ourselves into a position where, if today was a full day of cricket, with New Zealand being one seamer down and one of their main batters out of the team we fancied our chances. It’s disappointing from that point of view," du Plessis said.

"In general, to get the first test out of the way for the guys who haven’t played in a while was a positive," he said.

"Someone like Dean coming in and scoring some runs was good. Getting rid of those cobwebs was good, to get the guys going again. I feel we are always very good once we get that engine running, we are looking forward to that second Test match with the guys playing a bit of cricket."

"It was honours even. We were 190 runs ahead on a wicket that was spinning quite a bit. Purely on the match position, if we got 50 more runs, a 250-run lead in 60 overs we would have fancied our chances for a draw or for the win, a loss would have been out of the equation. That would have been a good position to be in.

"From their position, if they bowled us out early this morning, chasing 200 in 80 overs would be doable. We felt we were capable of getting another 40 runs. From a test match perspective, both teams played some really good cricket. We did right and wrong things so we were 50-50 after this test match.”

From a media perspective, the greatest concern was how to stay warm and walk back to our north Dunedin accommodation without being soaked to the bone. Fortunately, play was not called off before lunch which was outrageously good for the fifth day in a row. Al dente vegetables, green salad and a choice of two meats – which were lamb and chicken on all five days.

Jeetan Patel popped into the radio box during the morning hours while we were sating ourselves with cups of tea and instant coffee.

He’s 36, married with a young family, imbued with a deep knowledge of the game and a well developed perspective on life. And an infectious sense of humour. His recollection of the order to do ‘nightwatchman’ duty was worthy of more than a chuckle.

Flight to Wellington tomorrow morning. As disappointing as the result here has been, it does mean both teams might be prepared to take more of a risk in pursuit of victory. Hopefully…

March 11, 2017

There is no doubt that the power of the human mind can overcome many things, like extreme physical conditions and bad umpiring decisions.

But Lewis Pugh prepares himself for the extraordinary things he does and professional cricketers are paid to tolerate the vagaries of umpires.

It is different when New Zealanders mock their visitors for feeling the cold. It's fine when fellow commentators scorn me for wearing two jackets over my shirt and sweater, but it's the part when they say: "It's only in the mind" that irritates.

No, it isn't. It's in the thermometer, that's where it is. The mercury in the glass tube says "10".

That's where it is. It's not in my mind. In my mind, admittedly, is the fact that we are playing cricket. In the summer.

So that might play a part in the temperature feeling even lower than it really is. Also, we sit in sedentary positions for long periods of time.

Perhaps we should do star-jumps and bench-presses between commentary stints. If conditions make our job hard, they are five times more tricky for the players.

Although they are told to prepare for a full day's play, everybody knows what the weather forecast says. Today it was supposed to be scattered showers for 50% of the day. The sky suggested they were imminent at any moment, all day. They never materialised.

South African followers who bravely and devotedly watched through the night might reasonably have asked why there was no attempt to accelerate the scoring rate, but batsmen are less inclined to take a risk under thunderously grey skies which suggest that rain is imminent at any stage.

It also doesn't help their faith in conditions when umpires are checking their light meters between every over.

There was only one team which could have benefited today, and it wasn't South Africa. On a slow and unhelpful pitch, there was little else to do - block, leave and wait for the bad ball.

A murderous weather forecast for the final day has changed considerably over the last 24 hours. Now, scattered showers are predicted rather than incessant rain.

The Proteas are 191 runs ahead and need another 60 to make the lead 250 and, surely, make the game safe.

If the showers scatter themselves elsewhere, that might make for a fascinating and closely contested final day. Here's hoping.

March 10, 2017

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else comes along to remind you that you can NEVER see it all. A fire alarm in the main grandstand, which contains the players change rooms, the executive suites, the long room, and the main bar.

Ordinarily this false alarm would have been treated with a calm degree of common sense, starting with somebody in authority actually looking to see whether there was a fire anywhere. Or, for those who work in the health & safety business, perhaps just a quiet evacuation of the building in question. But no. Procedure and protocol needed to be followed. So an entire venue evacuation was ordered.

Among many absurdities was that around 500 people who were chivvied off a grass bank 150 metres from the main grandstand ended up herded together about 30 metres from it. By the time those of us in the broadcasting complex had worked out what was happening and had, finally, explained that we might have to go off air, the false alarm had been confirmed and we carried on. “Full venue evacuation” the ground announcer had bellowed. Just doing his job. Strange how all the spectators had to leave the ground but the teams and their support staff were ushered into the middle of the ground.

Naturally the students were to blame…although no evidence was forthcoming for them setting off the alarm. Around 22 000 young people in a town of this size is formidable. As much as they dominate the landscape in North Dunedin, they appear to have inherited a basic respect for the residents – many of whom depend on them for their livelihood. Or, their parents, anyway. Or the very many wealthy parents of the many overseas students who keep the University of Otago financially afloat.

Either and anyway, student life has been, and continues to be, a famous institution in this town and so does the tradition of ‘the sofa’. For four decades the students would carry them down from their digs to Carisbrook, the infamous ‘House of Pain’, which hosted both rugby and cricket internationals as well as being the home venue for Otago and Highlanders rugby teams. When the brutality of the elements became too much for the students in their shorts and vests, they would set fire to the sofas for warmth. These days, the health and safety people have put a stop to that.

But the tradition of the sofa continues. Every student house with an ounce of pride has at least one sofa on its stoep. Some have three or four. They sit there all year long, in sun and (mostly) rain, until rats inhabit their interiors and the cushioning has all but disappeared. But the students still sit on them for their evening beers. Eventually, sofa-euthanasia still takes place. They are set alight in a safe place, late at night, while students cheer from a distance when the fire brigade arrives.

This test match has been slow-going as far as run-rate is concerned, but full of intrigue and packed with determination and intent. South Island weather is likely to have the final word, with icy winds and sweeping showers forecast for the last day-and-a-half, but the tone has been set for a gripping series, with the home side manically determined to beat South Africa for the first time.

March 9, 2017

New Zealand haven’t beaten South Africa in a test series in 15 attempts. This is the 16th. For many decades they didn’t believe they could, which is a fatal attitude to have in this format of the game.

The last six months have been different, however. The Black Caps arrived in South Africa in August truly believing they could overcome history. They only had two tests in which to do it and almost everything conspired against them. The ridiculous washout at Kingsmead, followed by the lost toss at Centurion, and the deterioration of the pitch that left them with no chance of winning. Of course, they were also heavily outplayed in Centurion, but that is easily swept aside when you’re on a mission.

Twice in five series pre-isolation New Zealand fought for a drawn series but only once in ten series post 1992 has it happened. In 2004 a high-scoring first test in Hamilton was drawn before the home side hammered the tourists in the second at Eden Park.

The hype around an historic, first-ever series win was deafening ahead of the decider at Wellington’s Basin Reserve and it was certainly a huge distraction for the locals, who scraped their way to a semi respectable first innings score of 297. The Proteas were equally cagey in a reply of 317 for an inconsequential lead of 20. But led by Nicky Boje’s second four-wicket haul of the match, South Africa had only 234 to chase to square the series. Before they knew it, they were 36-3.

In his last test match, and batting at No 5, Gary Kirsten joined captain Graeme Smith, whom Kirsten had recalled having tears in his eyes at the team meeting the previous evening, so passionate was he about the importance of not losing the series. They added 171 together before Kirsten was dismissed for 76 with the match all but won.

The University Oval was at its very best today. A classy, boutique arena in many ways, it is not pretentious enough to deny the foundation of sports following in a city with a population of 22 000 students. There is a traditional pavilion and members long room as well as corporate marquee enclosure – but there are also sumptuous grass banks on which the students sprawled, cheered and drank cheap beers thrown to them by mates on the other side of the fence.

After two days the game is seriously ON. New Zealand could bat long enough for a lead of 100, in which case, weather permitting on a dry pitch, they will struggle to avoid defeat. On the other hand, if they can restrict the Black Caps to a score close to their own 308, they will enjoy the advantage of bowling last, provided they can put another 250+ on the board. There is a great deal to look forward to – proof that scoring rates aren’t always the key to exciting test matches.

The 20+ group of boy students who took up residence on one of the banks and cheered, chanted, and jeered in unison were a great highlight – until they disappeared en masse at 5pm, 15 minutes after one of their group had been escorted away by ‘security’ (for teasing/taunting security) and only an hour before the close of play. Why?

Turns out they were all from the same University hostel, which serves dinner at 5:30pm!

March 8, 2017

The New Zealand team have a wonderful tradition of 'capping' every player before every test on the evening before the game.

It is a quick, simple but meaningful occasion at which all of the senior players are reminded of the importance of playing for their country and, of course, how much it meant when they received it for the first time.

Black Cap debutants are still afforded a separate, memorable initiation on the field before the start of play to make sure their first cap is all the more memorable.

On the evening before the first test in Dunedin, the starting XI were re-presented with their caps, the captain had a chat, a guest speaker said a few words and that was that. But at 10:15am, just a quarter of an hour before the toss, there were some frantic deliberations going on.

Was it the right XI? Should Colin de Grandhomme play instead of Mitchell Sandtner, or even Jimmy Neesham? However private these last minute discussions are supposed to be, they never are. And every team has them from time to time. But it wasn't a good sign for the home team.

Still, things looked fantastic when the original XI was maintained and South Africa were 22-3. There were no doubts then with just 20 runs being scored from the first 20 overs. But Dean Elgar is as impervious to pressure as granite is to the wind, and he wasn't going to be affected by defensive bowling outside the off stump.

Leave, leave, leave, nudge single. Leave, leave, leave, cut for two. Actually, it was his clinical dismissal of the rare bad ball that characterised his century. No less than 20 boundaries out of 193 balls faced, 80 runs out of 100. Rare focus.

Captain Faf and Temba Bavuma played almost equally important roles as the tourists characteristically dragged themselves back from a perilous position to equality, and then even, perhaps, to one of marginal superiority. A total of 350 on a slow, awkward pitch will be troublesome for the home side to match, never mind surpass.

Elsewhere, the machinations between India and Australia have not gone unnoticed in New Zealand - especially the captaincy clashes between Steve Smith and Virat Kohli.

Hilariously, Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, felt the need to contribute to the defence of the Australian captain - who clearly cheated by signalling for advice from the change-room in whether to ask for a review on his lbw decision.

Smith effectively conceded that his actions were wrong but Sutherland, like so many executives removed from the action before him, thought he knew better:

"I find the allegations questioning the integrity of Steve Smith, the Australian Team and the dressing room, outrageous," said Mr Sutherland. Ha Ha.

"Steve is an outstanding cricketer and person, and role model to many aspiring cricketers, and we have every faith that there was no ill-intent in his actions."

Right. The fact that he is a role model means...what? That he can't possibly be found to have behaved inappropriately?

"We reject any commentary that suggests our integrity was brought into disrepute or that systemic unfair tactics are used, and stand by Steve and the Australian Cricketers who are proudly representing our country."

To be fair, South Africa doesn't have a great record in this regard, starting with Dr Ali Bacher's spontaneously aggressive defence of Hansie Cronje when the match-fixing allegations first emerged, and followed by Dr Mohammed Moosajee's angrily defiant defence of Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis when obvious ball-tampering breaches had occurred.

Perhaps that's the price you pay in the job, personal pride for team harmony.

March 7, 2017

New Zealand have only played seven test matches at the University Oval here in Dunedin but already there is a great affection for the place – helped, but by no means entirely, by an unbeaten record of three wins and four draws.

The University of Otago is one of the oldest and most revered centres of higher education in the southern hemisphere, having been founded in 1869, but is also one with a reputation for fun and famous high jinks. The campus grounds are studded in almost equal numbers with historic, classic building, modern additions, completely whacky student digs with trademark sofas outside on the stoep and endless sandwich and coffee bars. It makes for a happy if unconventional blend.

Each time Kane Williamson referred to the ‘Uni Oval’ a smile appeared on his lips. It represented a bit of everything, from whimsy to delight, curiosity to suspicion. But you get a strong feeling there isn’t anywhere else he and his team would rather be.

For the last two days we have had the pleasure of a southern wind, with sideways drizzle. The south wind comes pretty much straight up from the arctic and cuts through visitors like a guillotine, no matter how many layers we are wearing. Local students still wander about in slops and T-shirts as though 12 degrees (wind-chill 8 degrees) is a balmy summer pleasantry.

There is good news and bad news ahead. The first three days of the test are scheduled for a return to autumn with dry weather and a whopping 16 degrees forecast. After that the weekend will see a return to happy days for walruses and polar bears.

The Proteas decision to confirm the starting XI 24 hours before the start of the test was unusual but clever. Morne Morkel has won the global “most unpleasant bowler to face” award around the world for five of the last six years. (He missed the last year because he was injured.) Batsmen hate facing him – really hate it. It hurts, over after over.

They dread it. So the decision to let them sleep on it was smart. As always, it doesn’t matter how many wickets he takes if he is bowling well. They will fall at the other end and the opposition batsmen will be praying for two hours at the dentist without anaesthetic instead of facing him.

A welcome function was held this evening for media and broadcasters, and a gift-bag was presented. There were no pens, notepads, lanyards or promotional DVDs. No memory sticks, stickers or key-rings. Just a bottle of locally produced red wine, two packs of local cheese and a box of crackers. And a letter of welcome encouraging us to make ourselves at home. Clearly the Otago Cricket Union did not have the budget to employ an expensive PR firm and just had to make it up themselves.

People, if you want to, or plan on coming to New Zealand, come to Otago. For so many reasons.

March 6, 2017

When Brendan McCullum scored New Zealand’s first, and only, triple century in test cricket he was asked in the post-match interview whether there was a tear in his eye, or even if there was one close. “No,” he replied, “I’m from Dunedin.”

Strangely, for all its toughness and the uncompromising approach to life for which it is famous, there is a sensitivity among the people which even they probably don’t recognise, or even see. For every bit of ‘hard’ there is a ‘soft’. For every hard-nosed bastard, there is a soft-nosed one.

Years ago South Africa played an ODI at the original ‘House of Pain’, one of rugby’s greatest bastions of “unbeatability”. If Eden Park looks a little awkward as a cricket stadium, you should have seen that. There were students burning sofas on the open stands, just as they did during All Black test matches. It was incredible.

Now the House of Pain has gone. There is a new stadium which has taken its place. And cricket is played at the University Oval, which is delightful rather than raw, pretty rather than rugged. There will be no more than a thousand spectators at the venue but each and every one of them will be there because they want to watch cricket, test cricket. Nobody will be there for the ‘atmosphere’. For the Proteas who have never experienced it before, it will be rugged. In the best possible way.

Directly opposite the motel in which I am staying is a student residence. They don’t care for curtains. Or, if they have them, they don’t care to close them. Rugby balls are thrown around and, in one room, boys are playing drinking games, while next door a couple are more amorous than they realise.

The test match will start at the beginning of the new term at Dunedin University and also a week of fringe theatre and comedy. The week will feature dozens of alternative ‘initiation’ ceremonies for new students, some of which will include spending an hour or two at the test match. It happened the last time we were here and it was brilliantly irreverent and amusing.

For cricketers used to ‘traditional’ arenas of combat, this will be a challenge. For some it will empty, for others it will feel irrelevant. Neither will be true. It will be up to them to find the atmosphere they need to trigger their best game.

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