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Week 1





June 4, 2017

It’s one of the biggest fixtures in global sport, never mind cricket or any particular country. An ICC spokesman claimed that Edgbaston’s 25,\000 accounted for approximately a tenth of the demand for tickets for the India/Pakistan match. Imagine that. Around a quarter of a million people could, and would have watched a game between two countries on neutral territory.

Bilateral series between the countries have been suspended for five years now so the great rivals only meet each other in ICC events. India have now won the last seven.

The atmosphere before the game was unlike anything else in cricket. An open-top, double decker bus had been hired by a group of Pakistan supporters and it was bedecked in the colours of the country as it made a couple of laps outside the stadium with 50 or so flag-waving, horn-blowing loyalists on the upper deck.

The Indian supporters were face-painted and wearing their blue shirts in their thousands, many hundreds having made special efforts to dress in the manner of their icons – Gandhi, Dhoni, Kohli… It would have been easy to feel intimidated had the vibe not have been so obviously un-threatening.

Having left London the night before and arrived in England’s second-largest city to the news that another terrorist attack had taken place a couple of miles from where we had been, nerves were frayed. But, for all the hostility that has existed between the countries, it seemed clear that this was a festival of cricket, not jingoism.

India smashed 72 off the last four overs,which effectively killed the contest after Pakistan had tried manfully to stem the flow until then. It took the game away from Pakistan and they knew it. Hardik Pandya smashed spinner Imad Wasim for three successive sixes in the final over but had the grace to acknowledge that the players on both teams were not affected by the enormity of the occasion as much as the media, the fans and even the governments of their nations.

“Yes, it is a very big and important game, but for us it is still a game of bat and ball. We respect each other on the field and just try to play and entertain.”

The atmosphere will not be anything like the same on Wednesday when South Africa play Pakistan at the same venue, but it will still be unlike anything many of the Proteas have experienced before and, should they stumble or start to feel pressured, they will be acutely and possibly painfully aware that they are not playing in a ‘neutral’ venue.

It was extremely special to meet up with a dear old friend after the game, Australian citizen and current Pakistan head coach, Mickey Arthur. It is possible that he has been this column’s most regular and loyal reader over the last decade or so, well before we collaborated on his biography as Proteas coach. Cheers John Michael, I’m raising a glass to you right now. Win the next two games and, run-rate notwithstanding, who knows?


June 3, 2017

Lots of people talk about how many Polish immigrants live here in London, and how many Ukranians and Bangladeshis there are, all sorts of nationalities, but very few people mention the fact that certain corners of the English capital are just as equally dominated by South Africans. Perhaps it is a legacy of the Empire…

It’s a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city alright, but not every ‘alternative’ nationality has its own newspaper as the South Africans do. Apparently they have a reputation for being uncomplaining, hard-working and not taking sick days. That, obviously, has something to do with 17:1.

Anyway, it meant that the crowd at the Oval was heavily weighted in favour of South Africa. Not just because of all the émigrés and their coach-sleeping friends, but because there is an unmistakable sentiment among neutrals that now is South Africa’s time.

That might sound kind, even generous, but it comes with a significant dose of sympathy. And who wants the sympathy vote. For the first time in 18 years I haven’t heard the “choke” question at a press conference. Ever since Allan Donald dropped his bat at Edgbaston in 1999 and Lance Klusener failed to communicate about the best way to score one run off four balls.

Obviously everybody wants their team to win but, if they don’t, their second choice appears overwhelmingly to be AB de Villiers’ team. Our team. No 1 in the world. The monkey on their back is old now, and the majority of cricket people seem tired of it. They also seem to believe that there is a very strong chance it will be removed. Plenty of cricket to come, however.

South Africa have been clinical about their preparation and approach. Obviously they wanted to win the preceding series against England but they committed themselves to playing all 15 members of the squad in the three ODIs and making best use of the game time. They know they should have won, too. They take heart from that.

The Kia Oval is a magnificent venue but, just in case you think we always get the best view in the house, that isn’t the case here. Behind two layers of sound-proofed tinted glass, it’s like looking through the periscope of a submarine. But there are escape hatches to catch fresh air and experience atmosphere…!


June 2, 2017

Several of us arrived super-early at the Oval for AB de Villiers’s pre-match press conference – you can never be certain how long it’s going to take to get around London but you can always rely on an official security person blocking your attempt to enter the ground and/or misdirecting you to the wrong end of the ground. Or just not having a clue where to direct you.

Half an hour before it was due to begin, the ICC venue manager appeared with the Champions Trophy, placed it carefully on the interview table and then polished it with a pair of white, cotton gloves. A photographer, another early arrival, took some artistic close-ups of it.

When De Villiers arrived in the company of regular security officer Zunaid Wadee and the ‘extra’ man appointed by the ICC (who is only just smaller than a terraced house) he was in great spirits, smiling and chatting with the journalists as we walked in.

There was a glint in his eye as he spied the trophy and was only too happy to oblige when the photographer asked him to pick it up and pose with it.

I reminded him that Graeme Smith had been far too superstitious to ever handle a trophy unless he’d won it – “don’t touch the money before it’s yours,” he would say.

“Oh really?” replied AB, smile widening. “Then I’ll have to remind him it didn’t work after we’ve won it!”

It’s almost certainly irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, of course, but if you were forced to read something into his body-language you’d have to say it was positive and confident.

Who can be bothered with superstition? And what’s wrong with a jocular reference to winning? If you’re concerned with how it “may look” if you don’t win, perhaps you had too many doubts to start with.


May 30, 2017

There is a wild scattering of teams, players, officials and journalists in the days leading up to the Champions Trophy. It always looks like a ‘small’ tournament in the years and months leading up to it, but the reality is so different nearer the time.

There’s no doubt that the World Cup is more important to all the players involved, but there’s also no doubt that they believe this one is harder to win.

No room for error. You can lose a single game in the round-robin section and still lose out on a semi final place.

Professionals profess to enjoy the high pressure, high intensity games, and this tournament gives them three, or four – and a maximum of five in a row.

Proteas coach Russell Domingo said after Monday’s demolition of England at Lord’s that “every international game is important – we try to treat them all with the same intensity.”

Domingo has moved wonderfully far from platitudes and clichés in his tenure, but that was a dire slip into tired history.

The fact that selection policy had been committed to giving everyone in the squad a game said all you needed to know about the priorities of the pre-test tour. And there are no injury concerns before the first Champions Trophy match against Sri Lanka at the Oval on Saturday.

“David Miller tweaked a hamstring but it’s nothing major and he should be fit for Saturday. Immie tweaked something carrying gloves out to the middle during the second game in Southampton but we’re confident he’ll be okay too,” Domingo said.

“Having Morne in the line-up will strengthen our bowling but it’s a catch-22 because it might also give us a bit of a tail not having the three all rounders there. It’s his first ODI for a long time, he’s had a long-term injury and the bowler who played in his place have done well. But Morne is a quality bowler and it’s good to have him back in the mix,” Domingo said.


May 29, 2017

Lord’s was sold out for the bank holiday series celebration and it’s fair to say that the crowd could claim to have been sold out by the England team, too.

There were still around 5000 people queuing to get into the ground by the time the home side had collapsed to 20-6 in exactly five overs. Half of the wickets came courtesy of exceptional bowling from Kagiso Rabada and Wayne Parnell but the other three wickets were the result of poor shots.

England had won the series, made four changes and had their minds on their opening Champions Trophy fixture against Bangladesh on Thursday. Nonetheless… they were rubbish.

It was comfortably England’s lowest score at the fall of their sixth wicket in an ODI and the third lowest ever. It was also the earliest any sixth wicket has fallen in an ODI, coming from the final ball of the fifth over. So Canada’s collapse against the Netherlands in Toronto in 2013 is pushed into second place at 6.2 overs. Slight difference in quality of teams and scale of the occasion, of course.

Dark grey skies and a bouncy, well-grassed pitch made a welcome change and the fast bowlers flourished. If England had made 250 rather than 150 it might have been a close game. But they didn’t and it wasn’t.

South Africa had four slips at one point, although it was a peculiar decision by AB de Villiers to take both Rabada and Parnell off after just five overs each. Later, when England’s seamers took three wickets within the space of three overs and six runs, they too had four slips.

   

The highlight off the field was, always, the catering. It’s like popping into the restaurant of a five-star hotel for lunch here. I used to feel guilty about it but not anymore. There are much more important things to feel anxious about.

Concerned that the match might be over before they could put their afternoon tea on display, the catering staff brought the spread forward by an hour so we were confronted with cream scones, salmon and prawn sandwiches, fresh raspberries and blackberries and, naturally, chocolate cake. Among other stuff.


May 28, 2017

Much has been made of AB de Villiers being “upset” by the inference of on-field umpires Rob Bailey and Chris Gaffaney that the Proteas had contributed unfairly to the unduly hasty deterioration of one of the balls during the second ODI at the Ageas Bowl. He said it had nothing to do with his players and that it was just “a bad Kookaburra ball.” It may well have been.

But it is also a fact of life that repeat offenders in anything, from smoking in banned areas to speeding and playing loud music tend to develop a reputation that precedes them. The Proteas may well believe that the umpires should provide them with a clean sheet of judgement for every game, but that is wishful thinking.

Two ball-tampering ‘convictions’ for Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis in recent years and a compulsory ball-change by the umpires in New Zealand two months ago make umpires wary, and human instinct makes them bound to be more vigilant, just as rugby referees are with repeat off-side offenders at breakdowns. Unless they are All Blacks, obviously.

David Miller described his near match-winning innings at Southampton today as “bitter-sweet” but it was obvious that it was considerably more bitter than sweet. Yes, naturally it was good to be among the runs, but he knows better than anyone that failing to score 10 runs off ten deliveries with five wickets in hand is a damning failure. It was like hitting a glorious drive on a par-five, rifling a 2-iron onto the green – and then three-putting, including the last from two feet.

England captain Eoin Morgan admitted he was desperate and thought the game was lost. His last hope was to ask Mark Wood to bowl the entire last over short of length in a bid to “get them to hit the ball in the air because it’s harder to keep the ball on the ground when it’s short.” Miller and Chris Morris failed to read the tactics and carried on swinging – and missing. They didn’t choke. They just didn’t make good decisions. But as Miller said, “rather it happens now than during the Champions Trophy.”


May 27, 2017

You just wouldn’t have thought it possible that South Africa could fail to score 10 runs off the final 10 balls with five wickets in hand – and two established batsmen who’d just spent half an hour smashing the ball out of the ground.

Four things: It was a terrific run chase until the last 10 balls. England’s Jake Ball and Mark Wood did superbly not to concede more than a single from any of the last 10 deliveries.

Chris Morris and David Miller lost their cool at the end having batted brilliantly up to that point. And finally, the game wasn’t won and lost at the end. It was lost in the first innings.

Shabby fielding, including five dropped catches, and too many loose deliveries meant South Africa served up their worst back-to-back performance in the field in two decades. Ben Stokes was dropped off the first two balls he faced and scored a hundred.

If the Proteas are to challenge for the Champions Trophy it is their traditional strength that needs attention.

The Ageas Bowl has changed dramatically since the Proteas’ last visit to the headquarters of Hampshire County Cricket Club but access isn’t one of them – at least not for those driving themselves.

Security measures were understandably and rightly more vigorous than ever before in the wake of the Manchester bombing but it’s not possible to add extra access points and there’s only so fast the searchers can look through a backpack.

By the time the game started at 11am somewhere between three and four thousand supporters were still outside the ground waiting patiently in long queues.

The iconic pavilion, designed by famed architect Sir Michael Hopkins, bears a striking resemblance to the Mound Stand at Lord’s.

There’s a good reason for that, of course. Hopkins also designed the Mound Stand. The two matching stands either side of it had only just been erected that last time we came here but the northern end of the ground was ‘au natural’.

Now it is completed dominated by a Hilton Hotel with 175 rooms, all of which look directly onto the field of play.

So for the well-heeled, there’s no concern with snarled up traffic queues at the beginning and end of the day. In fact, they can watch the game from their beds if they so fancy – literally.


May 26, 2017

Today, it was 30 degrees – the hottest day of the English summer. When the temperature reaches such highs on this island people begin to behave very strangely.

The ill and infirm tend to faint, if not worse, while elderly men roll their trousers legs up and undo a second button on their shirts. Young ladies remove their blouses in public parks at lunchtime and eat their sandwiches in their bras. It’s very risqué and, naturally, dominates polite conversation even more than normal weather does.

Being on the coast presented an opportunity for me to visit the beach. Along with many thousands of other people. But perseverance paid dividends and I found myself at an almost empty West Witterings which was hardly surprising considering how long it took to get there. The Isle of Wight is in the distance (image above).

No such opportunity for Faf du Plessis and the team who went about their training blissfully unaware of the “heatwave” which was “gripping the country.”

“We’ve played some really good cricket recently but there were some cobwebs on Wednesday and we also made some silly mistakes tactically. Fortunately, there is a bit of time before the Champions Trophy to get back into our groove and make sure we’re playing our best cricket when the tournament is at its peak,” Du Plessis told a considerable gathering of English journalists.

“If you’re playing well then great, you take the momentum into the tournament, but if you’re not playing at your best then you need to make sure you learn from it. I’m not saying this series isn’t the ‘major league’ but the Champions Trophy is certainly the main focus,” Du Plessis said.

“Confidence is still high despite the disappointment of Wednesday. We’ve been really solid for the last year and a half and that was the most mistakes we’ve made in a game for a long while. We’ll be looking to put a lot of those mistakes right in this game. We know we’ll have to be at our very best to reverse the pressure and put it back on them,” Du Plessis said.

“We are similar teams because we also bat deep and, for the majority of times, we are also difficult to get on top of. We got ourselves into a good position for the run chase at Headingley and, with a strong middle order, we should have done better. From a bowling point of view we also made too many silly mistakes and gave then English batsmen too many free runs.”


May 24, 2017 - The epic begins

With respect to Sussex and Northamptonshire and the warm-ups they provided last week, the 11-week tour of the UK is now officially underway, following the first ODI at Headingley.

And what a way to start.

Games of 600+ runs are no longer the headline grabbing affairs they used to be but they are no less appreciated.

This one promised to be a thriller, with Hash and Faf adding 112 for the second wicket to reach 145-1 three balls before the halfway stage, but they were dismissed within seven balls of each other.

JP Duminy and David Miller were caught cheaply and softly in the deep and Chris Morris, one of the cleanest and most powerful conventional hitters in the game, top edged an oddly chosen reverse sweep. That left AB needing another miracle.

It is hard to imagine a Headingley crowd subdued. Before the last few days it was even hard to imagine what might, possibly make one of the most exuberant crowds in the world subdued. But that was before the Manchester bombing.

Sure, it was still a near-sell out at the home of cricket (in the north) and they drank their beer. But they sat as though attending a classical music soiree, even in the cheaper seats of the great Western Terrace, which would normally have been rocking with the sound of bawdy chants and swaying under the weight of beer mug snakes by 5pm, never mind the day/night status.

Rarely has a crowd given itself more freely and with less complaint to the security checkpoints than the Headingley thousands did as they waited patiently in longer than normal queues outside the ground.

Manchester and Leeds are just 50 miles apart, separated by the Pennine Hills but joined by the M62 motorway which is infamously shrouded for much of the year in drizzle and low lying cloud.

Manchester is the capital of Red Rose Lancashire, Leeds the capital of White Rose Yorkshire. Before they played cricket matches against each other, they fought battles clad in armour.

But for all their traditional rivalry, they are simply too close – geographically and culturally – not to be drawn tightly together by such an abhorrence and tragedy.

The Yorkies were feeling the pain of the Lancies and sharing their grief.

Much of central Leeds has been developed beyond recognition over the last two decades but many of the suburbs, particularly the terraced houses and cobble stone streets remain as they were 150 years ago. That’s my room (image right), left hand side, top floor, half way down.


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