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Week 4





March 25, 2017

It is a sign of the lean times Hashim Amla is experiencing that he seemed mildly pleased to have scored 50 on the first day of the final test against New Zealand as South Africa finished a curtailed day of just 41 overs on 124-4.

“There was some juice in the pitch and there was some swing after lunch so it’s good to have some runs on the board and good to get some myself in tough conditions,” Amla said at the close of play. We thought it might clear a bit later in the afternoon but it remained difficult for most of the day,” Amla said.

The decision to omit Stephen Cook from the starting XI seemed to be a challenge for everyone to talk about – publicly. His record as an opener at the start of his career is way above average and his popularity and contributions to the team "environment" meant there was a discernible sense of sadness about his dropping. Amla failed to disguise it, even if he had intended to.

“Decisions are made by the captain, coach and selectors so there’s not much I can really say but it’s tough for anyone to be left out of any test team. Cooky is an extremely mature personality and always adds value but that’s the ups and downs of international cricket,” Amla said.

Given the miserable travails of Stiaan van Zyl as a makeshift opener, was it sensible to put Theunis de Bruyn through a similarly unfamiliar ordeal?

“If Stephen was going to be left out then Theunis was the only option as a replacement. Maybe Quinny could have been used as an opener, that was an option, but the way he has operated at number seven has changed many games for us and that’s pretty much his position to keep,” Amla said.

Perhaps Cook might have appreciated a rest, suggested a member of the media. “Would a game off do him good?”

“A game off?” replied Amla with wide eyes. “No, as a batsman you want to keep playing and believing that, if you’re doing the hard work, it will pay off. Playing is the only way the runs will come.”

More wet weather is forecast for the next two days but Amla believes that, with half an hour extra added to the beginning and end of each day, enough time may still exist to reach a positive conclusion. In truth, we will need a lot of luck and meteorological change for that to happen. But players can’t afford to trust in the forecast, which is awful for the next two days - 70 per cent chance of rain.

It won’t deter some fans, however, provided they have their book and umbrella. They will, and do, sit there for days. Or prevent us from sitting in our commentary box for hours on end drinking meaningless, lukewarm cups of tea and weak coffee.

 

Hamilton has a reputation for being a "weather escaper". It can be pouring down for five kilometres either side and remain dry here. Apparently. Former players have many such tails.

In reality, and let me say so now lest I sound like a smart-arse in hindsight, there is a significant "end-of-term" feeling in the air. And very much from me. Staying focussed will be easier in theory and harder than ever in practice.


March 24, 2017

Faf du Plessis described the third and final test against New Zealand as “massive” for his team, which may have sounded like hype to some readers and listeners.

It is ‘only’ New Zealand, to whom South Africa has never lost, and the series is, after all, already safe. But in the context of the season, winning this game is more clearly understood.

“We started the season at seventh place in the test rankings and our goal was to get back to No 2 – India were just a bit too far ahead to catch. So if we win this series then it will have been an incredible season, we will have won every series and ticked every box. I see there’s a nice little financial bonus from the ICC for finishing second, so that’s something to make the guys smile,” Du Plessis said.

He spoke with obvious pride about yet another tour away from home on which the Proteas will be unbeaten. It is now over a decade during which they have lost just once on their travels.

“It’s been one of the secrets of South African teams for a long time now, starting with Graeme and all the guys before me. I don’t think people realise just how good that record is, it is just exceptional. We were outplayed and weren’t good enough to compete with India last year but otherwise we have been a very resilient team. We know that, whatever the situation on the day, seaming or spinning, you can never make an excuse – you just have find a way,” Du Plessis said.

Once again the Hamilton pitch looks like it might favour the spinners more than the seamers, which has surprised the tourists throughout both series.

“I definitely expect it to turn. The grass is slightly greener than for the ODIs but you can still get ‘sticky’ turn early on. But we know the pitch will go back to the brown colour we saw in the one-dayers and then it will definitely turn. We didn’t expect these conditions at all, hence we only brought one spinner over in the test squad – and a truckload of seamers! We had six in our squad because we were expecting seam and swing.”

The captain also admitted that he was disappointed in the showing of his top order batsmen, including himself.

“The standards we set ourselves are very high and we have not lived up to them. We have been saved a few times by the lower order and could have been rolled over very cheaply if they hadn’t done that, so it’s not good enough. Fortunately, we are still getting a hundred in almost every innings – or two 90s in the last test match, which were massive, but we know we must do better here and in the future,” Du Plessis said.

Honesty and humour no longer surprise during chats, formal or informal, with Du Plessis. But one might have expected just a little deflection when asked whether he was daunted by the prospect of continuing to play virtually non-stop, across all three formats, until the middle of August.

“It’s very daunting,” he said. “Personally it’s going to be a huge challenge. Even after the IPL I need to ensure that I am as fresh, motivated and driven as I can possibly be. I know I need to be at my very best and sharpest for South Africa every day I play because the Champions Trophy is so important for us.

“It’s important for all us to do the same, no matter how we get there. About half the squad won’t be going to the IPL but half will be. The biggest challenge will probably be the test series against England at the end of it all, following a lot of pressure cricket. Being fresh at the start of a test series but at the end of a summer in England is going to be a huge challenge. It’s something I will strive for all the time with the team when I’m captain again for the tests.”

He has started a new hobby to relax – which he will have little time to pursue in India and won’t be of much help in the UK. But it is clear he knows he will need to ‘manufacture’ some escape time if he can’t grab what he needs to stay sane.

“I’ve taken up surfing to get away from the game. Guys play golf, whatever they can to clear the mind. If you stay on tour you are still involved in the game. Sitting in your room, you’re still playing air-shots in the mirror and worrying about your technique. There are three ODIs against England before the Champions Trophy starts…that may be a time when we could look to give some guys a break, if there is some tiredness around. Mental freshness is so important.”


March 23, 2017

Hamilton is a curious hybrid of a city, containing some of the wealthiest properties in the country on multiple-acre properties on the outskirts, and a reputation at its centre of being something of a ‘bogun’ magnet. Or, as Graeme Smith called it in 2004, the ‘hillbilly capital of the country'.

One of the more obvious aspects of walking around the city is the number of once normal cars which have been fitted with extra-large tyres, various aerodynamic fins and ‘go faster’ paint jobs. The only requirement to drive them is a sleeveless vest and a cap worn backwards.

Meanwhile, the dairy farmers and retired Auckland businessmen build themselves huge houses with swimming pools and tennis courts along the banks of the Waikato River and the surrounding, lush countryside.

Vernon Philander was more concerned with how well the Proteas played here five years ago and his 6-44 in the second innings, which set up a comprehensive, nine-wicket victory on the third day.

“Very good memories, me and Dale bowled them out quite cheaply after a slow start. The wicket looks a bit different this time, not quite as green, but we’ll see what it offers.”

The Black Caps made no secret of their intention to ask for pitches which would negate seam movement in an attempt to blunt Philander’s danger and it has worked. His economy rate of just two runs per over has done a great deal to control the series and he says a return of just two wickets is irrelevant.

“I’m not disappointed at all, certain bowlers will shine in certain matches and Keshav has been fantastic in both test matches so far. When teams try to use their home conditions to suit their strengths, it always opens a door for someone else. The pitches have been a touch on the slow side but we just want to take 20 wickets – it doesn’t matter who takes them.”

Dane Piedt’s arrival in New Zealand has given the tourists another selection option, and there is also Wayne Parnell waiting in the wings. Would Vernon make a change?

“Shew… we haven’t really seen the pitch. Let me put my selectors shoes on,” Philander said before pausing for a few seconds. “I wouldn’t say so, but it’s entirely up to the selectors, that’s not my job.”

Showers are forecast for the first two days with heavier rain predicted, at this stage, for days three and four. More showers are predicted on day five, but weather forecasts change hourly in this country.

Did Temba play at this one from Vern, or leave it?

This video is not available in your region


March 22, 2017

Another low-key build-up day ahead of the final test in Hamilton and a chance for coach Russel Domingo to brighten proceedings with his sense of humour –and also observation and research.

When asked about the look of the Seddon Park pitch ahead of Saturday’s start, by a local, he was confronted by the observation of “brown dust-bowl.”

“It doesn’t look brown or a dust-bowl to me,” Domingo said. “Are you sure you’re looking at the right pitch?” It turned out the journalist in question wasn’t. It was the green one on the other side of the square that was being prepared for the test.

“You’ve been looking at the wrong pitch,” Domingo laughed. “The right one looks pretty good to us. It might be dry, it might still favour spin, but we’re very happy with the look of it three days before the test starts. We’ve just got to play well. That’s all it always boils down to.

“Reverse swing could be a big factor because there are a lot of old pitches which scuff the ball, and we have some very good exponents of that. We have missed Vernon more than anyone of the players who have been injured, because of the control he gives us, even if that has not shown in the wickets column, but he could do well here.”

Domingo was at his best when asked if he was surprised by the speed with which the Proteas have bounced back from No 7 in the World Rankings to No 3 – and the possibility that they will be No 2 if they win in Hamilton, and Australia fail to win their final test against India.

“No – did you see the speed we went from No 1 to No 7. That was even quicker!”

“But the public and our supporters should be proud of what we have achieved. I accept that it’s never good enough, but we have done well in the last year or so.”

While JP Duminy and Stephen Cook have looked scratchy in the first two tests, Domingo believes the batting ‘unit’ remains strong: “You always have one, maybe two guys going through a bad patch but that’s why we have a unit and that’s why we are a team. The guys help each out of those dips. Dean, Faf, Temba and Quinny are in great form so we have that to fall back on while the other guys regain their touch.”

Predictably, Domingo confirmed that nothing was being taken for granted: “We have never played a game against New Zealand thinking ‘we’ve got this’ – the teams are just too closely matched. Trent Boult comes back for this test and he is a great bowler – a good bloke, too, who plays the game in the right spirit, our guys have the greatest respect for him,” Domingo said.

On Duminy’s and Morne Morkel’s decision to skip the IPL this season, Domingo was at his most sanguine: “Going to India after a three-days turnaround from New Zealand, then two or three more days at home before three months in England… probably a dream if you’re 21-years-old. But a married 32-year-old with kids, more of a nightmare. In the best interests of SA cricket and for them, I’m quietly pleased but it’s a decision they have to live with.

“It is a wonderful tournament to watch, I sit with my son after school and watch it every day. But I don’t have to play and travel in it – mental and physical fatigue play a big role.”


March 21, 2017

Logistics aren’t always easy on tour and sometimes you get left behind. Other times, more rarely, you end up travelling ahead of the team. This is one of those occasions when I’ve got a whole day in the city the team has just left. Fortunately, that city is Wellington.

 

The Te Papa National Museum is remarkable for a number of reasons. There is no entrance fee and 95% of the exhibits are free. Including the current star attraction on the Anzacs Gallipoli campaign in 1915. I had heard it was ‘amazing’ but nothing prepared me for the depth and reality of the exhibits.

Designed and put together by the famous ‘Weta’ production house which rose to international fame with the Lord of the Rings and the Hobit, the models of various troops – and their accompanying stories – are staggeringly realistic. Except, they are 12 feet tall. Which makes them even more extraordinary.

The over-sized, daunting figures are surrounded with photographs from the trenches, audio clips from the last survivors, letters to families from men who knew they were going to die and a host of other exhibits which brought the horrors and realities of war as close as anything public exhibition could.

It was obvious that it was working when the disrespectfully loud and disinterested group of Chinese tourists in close proximity quickly quietened and eventually became silent as they shuffled from one breath-taking model and photo display to the next.

The words which accompanied them were oddly uplifting as well as melancholic, but they didn’t even need them to realise this wasn’t a Hobbit show.

 

The Proteas arrived in Hamilton this afternoon – infamously dubbed the “Hillbilly Capital of New Zealand” by Graeme Smith in 2004 – and were once again struck by the quietness of the town.

Unless you’re into drag-style refurbed cars, tattoos and cheap… actually, I’ll leave it there. I truly, honestly, genuinely like Hamilton and always have. Check these diaries over the last 10 years and that will be confirmed. I’m looking forward to catching up and getting back there.


March 20, 2017

Cobras captain Dane Piedt was in high spirits on arrival in Wellington despite the time difference and jet-lag which he admitted left him with “no idea” of what time of day it was. He was also well aware that his journey may well be a nine-day busman’s holiday in the likely event that he doesn’t actually play in the third test in Hamilton, starting on Saturday.

“I had just got onto the plane when I saw that JP had taken four wickets, so that’s a reason not to change the team,” he chuckled. “But, with my shoulder injury and everything I’ve been through, I wondered whether I’d ever get to play for South Africa again. So it’s a just a privilege to be recognised again and to be back in the environment.”

Piedt admitted that, because he “loves my sleep” he didn’t watch any of the first two tests live but caught all of SuperSport’s generous highlights packages – and loved the success enjoyed by Keshav Maharaj. “He is in unbelievable form, he’s been a very good cricketer for a very long time for the Dolphins and I cannot be anything but happy for him, he was brilliant.”

Like many of the best left arm spinners, Piedt says Maharaj doesn’t need any ‘tricks’ to be successful. “The angles he uses, and changes of pace, he gets close to the stumps and then goes wide, and he is very consistent and even more patient. He is prepared to bowl for a long time and wait for his rewards,” Piedt said.

“Like Rangana Herath, his variations are subtle, and like Ravindra Jadeja, he uses the rough outside the right-hander's leg stump and the left-hander's off stump. If you keep putting the ball in those areas, then you will get your rewards.”

Piedt has bowled in tandem with Maharaj for South Africa ‘A’ and has made many close friends – notably “Quinny, KG, Parny and Temba”, so there was no lack of welcome and camaraderie when he arrived. The likelihood is that he will return home without adding to his seven test caps, but it won’t be a wasted trip.

Bleakness and despondency, meanwhile, pervaded New Zealanders. For a cricket nation which prides itself – and has survived and even flourished – on fight rather than an abundance of talent, it wasn’t the defeat at the Basin Reserve which hurt most, but the nature of it. It was meek and gutless. Being outclassed is acceptable, but not without your best effort.

The NZ selectors chose to keep the same squad together for the final test, which was either a courageous show of faith or an admission that there aren’t any better cricketers knocking on their door. Sadly, the latter is more the truth.

The Cambridge Hotel is the largest pub/bar close to the Basin, and barely 500 metres from my abode. Apart from attracting customers with their chalk-boards on the pavement, they have clearly taken the opportunity this morning of sharing their frustration – and sense of humour. It appeared to have worked, judging by the number of patrons inside at lunchtime. Chris Cairns wasn’t among them.

   



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