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Week 4

June 25, 2017

There is no point kicking a team when it is down. Especially when it has tried, believed and failed in the greatest faith. Nobody can, in reasonable faith, point a finger at AB de Villiers or his team and accuse them of a lack of commitment or application which led to defeat in the ODI series, premature exit from the Champions Trophy and further defeat in the T20 series.

Despite the results, it is important to note the individual displays under pressure by Dane Paterson and Andile Phehlukwayo, and also the efforts of Mangaliso Mosehle, who did everything possible to enhance his reputation as players not only of big-match ability, but big match temperament, too.

Unlike the first two matches of this T20 series, this was hard to pigeon-hole. Other than in the most undesirable box: ‘Just not good enough.’

Plenty of criticism came my way after describing the first performance in Southampton as “embarrassing” but little response followed my praise of the fightback in Taunton. That’s human nature, no problem.

Today was a simple case of not being good enough. Just outclassed – or outperformed. Concerningly, England rested even more players and gave opportunities to more young, untested players than South Africa did. But there were positives… it’s just that winning wasn’t one of them.

So it’s 0-3 on tour so far. ODI series lost, Champions Trophy crashed and now the ‘irrelevant’ T20 series lost, too. But all can still be salvaged with victory in the test series. Even if it doesn’t feel like it now, victory at Lord’s and further efforts at Trent Bridge, The Oval and Old Trafford will make us proud once again.

June 24, 2017

It’s very hard not to like Jon-Jon Smuts – not that I can think of any reason you’d want to. He’s not just down-to-earth and, excuse the cliché, salt-of-the-earth, he’s also talented, motivated and ambitious.

The Proteas held a practise match before the T20 in Southampton involving the entire squad and some local players to make up the numbers. JJ opened the innings and got a first-baller. Good to get that out of the way, then. Two days later, he was out first ball in the real thing. So it was understandable that he was apprehensive before facing the first ball in the T20 International in Taunton. He made 45 from 35 balls.

“It was a relief after four international games without producing a meaningful performance for my country – it wasn’t a great performance, I should have kicked on to get 80 or more, but it got the team off to a decent start and hopefully it’s the start of things to come,” Smuts said.

Following the miserable performance in Southampton, and criticism of captain AB de Villiers, who failed to find his mojo as a batsman, JJ was quick to leap to his leader’s defence after the most unlikely come-from-behind victory.

“AB was unbelievable, he made us believe that we could win the game from anywhere, and we did. They needed something like 70 to win after 11 overs with nine wickets in hand and most teams wouldn’t lose from there. It just shows how well we bowled – the seamers and Shamz kept us right in there until the end and it was a great team performance.”

It is all too easy to dismiss these T20 International games as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘inconsequential’ but that is deeply disrespectful and unfair to the cricketers who have dedicated their careers to reaching this stage. It is also deeply dishonest to the emotions we feel when they win. It lifts everyone, even the most cynical. If they are honest enough to admit it.

“It’s massive for the Proteas and South African cricket, I guess I’m fortunate that I didn’t go through the Champions Trophy and wasn’t part of the disappointment but I still feel it with everyone else from South Africa. But this is a new series and it’s now up for grabs, which is exactly what we all aspire to play for,” said JJ. And then you have to forgive him for a sentiment the older readers may have read and heard for two decades.

“We’ll just have to try and treat it as any other game. It’s still batsmen against bowler and one ball at a time.” It hasn’t always worked. But Smuts is the kind of person who might make it work.

The six-day series continues apace. Lungani and Six, unsurprisingly, required collecting from their remote Somerset farm and delivering to Cardiff. They admitted to a late night, and more home-brewed cider -complimentary this time – but blamed their lethargy on something they had not been introduced to the night before. ‘Suicide Cider.’ As strong as gin, it is served in shot glasses.

June 23, 2017

Andile Phehlukwayo will benefit for the rest of his career, as will the South African teams he plays in, from being entrusted with the final over of the T20 International at Taunton and then delivering a near perfect six deliveries to win the game and square the series.

It was rousing and uplifting, exactly what the squad needed after the tepid performance and defeat in the first game in Southampton.

Chris Morris, too, was outstanding with the ball and Dane Paterson will have gained as much credibility and confidence as anyone else after holding his nerve in the penultimate over.

His body-language was thrilling for one so inexperienced. “Give me the ball back,” he seemed to say after every successful delivery – “I’m not done yet.”

The batting was again below par and the score was at least 20 below par for the conditions. But the bowlers breathed unexpected life into the contest and the fielding was reliable.

What a pleasure to be able to travel to Cardiff on Sunday with the prospect of genuine atonement for what has been a miserably disappointing tour so far.

It is 19 years since Taunton hosted a men’s international and the Somerset capital exceeded all expectations with extra, temporary grandstands ensuring a new record attendance.

It was packed – those with claustrophobia issues would have battled. But it was a triumph for the ECB’s decision to take an international to a non-international venue. Brilliant.

Occasionally this part of the world resembles a caricature of itself with huge, empty cider barrels outside farm gates with painted signs on them proclaiming: “Get Yours Here!” Part of being a farmer in these parts, it seems, is to master the art of home-brew. And then selling it.

Readers of yesterday’s column may be wondering what befell Lungani (image right) and Six (image left) last night. They had their first experience of Somerset hospitality and it lived up to everything they had been told to expect. And more.

A 15-minute walk from their farm guest-house was ‘the local’. They were served the landlord’s personal cider brew which, Lungani enthusiastically recalled this afternoon, “looked and smelled a bit like traditional Zulu beer – but with apples.”

It was eight percent which they weren’t told about until their third pint. Neither can recall their walk home but were in good enough condition to be early for the traditional English breakfast served by their host – including black pudding.

Lungani has toured England before and chose not to share the ingredients of this ‘delicacy’ with Six, who loved it. “I’ll tell him later, sometime,” he said.

The caricature continued for me, too, when I visited a different ‘local’ in a different village many miles away.

A group of guitar and ukulele playing singers sat in the corner of the pub strumming and singing their way through dozens of Devonian, Cornish and Irish folk ballads – to an initial audience of three people until it swelled to a peak of eight by 9:30pm They couldn’t have cared less. The music was lovely and they were happy.

Onwards and upwards to Cardiff.

June 22, 2017

What a day, Afghanistan and Ireland awarded test status and me driving across the West Sussex, Devon and Somerset countryside from Chichester to Taunton, for the second T20 International.

There have been many low moments in South African cricket history over the last 25 year and, fortunately, many high points, too.

This is currently a bad period, and getting worse. The Champions Trophy was awful and the hope that redemption could be found in the T20 series was shattered with a defeat of embarrassing proportions in Southampton.

The drive was made so much livelier – and quicker – by the company of the marvellous duo of Six Sotyelelwa and Lungani Zama, the heartbeat of Umhlobo Wenene and Independent newspapers. When they weren’t extolling the beauties of the countryside, they were asleep. But only briefly.

The ‘hotel’ they were booked into in Taunton turned out to be neither a hotel nor in Taunton. It was a large farm house some ten miles out of town. “We don’t have many guests like you out here,” said their delightfully startled hostess as she ushered them inside.

“Reckon she means black or journalist?” said Lungani as I headed back to the car. “Both,” I replied, “but I think she was thinking black…”

It’s a tough gig for all journalists at times like this, even those on (limited) expenses. The team is losing and becoming increasingly cranky, they don’t like criticism at the best of times but hate it when they are losing.

Six and Zams are booked into the middle of nowhere when all they really want to do is have a soothing ale in quiet, downtown bar.

AB is becoming more and more desperate to end his miserable tour on a high but the demise is assuming the look of something with momentum hard to stop. We have to hope the test squad really can draw a line under what has happened so far and start afresh.

There was no ‘bar’ at the farmhouse tonight, but hopefully Six and Lungani were offered a cider or three. It is Somerset, after all, so I suspect they were. Hope so. Will let you know tomorrow.

June 21, 2017

Having already treated the T20 series as an opportunity to give players on the periphery of the national squad a chance to shine in the absence of the established stars, perhaps we should be consistent and not be too alarmed or upset by the first loss to England at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton today.

But that would be to lower our standards and expectations to an unacceptably low level. It was a dismal performance from start to finish and completely unacceptable to the players, management and, most importantly, the followers of South African cricket. And nobody should be apologetic or ashamed about saying so.

If AB de Villiers and Farhaan Behardien thought the pace of their partnership was appropriate to the conditions, then their judgment was spectacularly poor. Or England’s bowlers were just infinitely superior. Either way, it was a bleak day.

Fortunately, not so grim in the morning when Chichester Cathedral provided the cultural excursion for the day. Parts of it are almost a thousand years old and provide hours of meandering for the day visitor.

The surrounding grassed areas are consecrated but open to people to picnic and relax, although there are reminder signs that unacceptable behaviour (alcohol, ball games, music etc) are not permitted.

Back at the cricket venue, a 45-minute drive away, the bizarre experience of entering a Hilton Hotel to gain access to the media centre was re-enacted once again, as it was for the ODI last month.

Guests wander along the corridors in bathrobes between the spa and their rooms as we file into our work area past them. The really well-off are checking in to watch the match from their room balconies as we pull lap-top bags past them.

Despite the obvious meaninglessness of the series (with apologies to the many players on both sides who made international debuts and for whom it is obviously very significant) it was an almost capacity crowd – and despite the difficulties in gaining access, and exit, from the venue.

No doubt some of the parents who had accompanied their children to the game on a school night were delighted that a three-hour game finished half an hour early, but it was embarrassing from a tourist’s point of view.

Not a single member of the Proteas’ team tonight will start the first test match at Lord’s on July 6. We truly have reached the point of separate teams. Some might say ‘thank goodness for that.’

June 20, 2017

In many ways it was a bewildering pre-match press conference by AB de Villiers who will captain the Proteas in their three-match T20 International series against England starting at the Ageas Bowl here in Southampton tomorrow.

First of all, he misunderstood the first question, about this being his ‘last chance’: “ Last chance…? It’s not my last chance – oh, now, you mean on this tour. I’m certainly not done yet…” Appropriate laughter followed.

“It was a tough few days after being knocked out of the Champions Trophy. It was a period of reflection, reading and hearing some of the criticism, it’s never easy but I’ve always tried to see the positive in that and look for areas to improve,” De Villiers said.

“These three matches give me the chance to do that as a player and for the team. I don’t feel I need to prove anyone wrong or prove anything to anyone, I just want to go and play. I feel like a youngster at the start of my career, I just want to go out there and score some runs again.”

It was the English media rather than the South Africans who were curious about how he felt following the “horrible” display against India which saw the Proteas eliminated before the semifinals.

“I’m past the stage of really harping on about it for a long time. The really difficult thing is the criticism, hearing all the negative stuff all the time. But I’m past nagging about losing games of cricket because that happens, it’s happened quite a few times to us now, so I’m not looking too deep at that,” De Villiers said.

“I know I’m still a good player and that this team can still achieve amazing things, and it’s important for me not to think too much about what has happened in the past or spend too much energy worrying about what has happened in the last 10 or 12 tournaments I have played in.”

There are many who say that “thinking” and “spending energy” are exactly what De Villiers and the players need to do but there are also those who expose the “free spirit” approach.

Opinion is also divided on De Villiers’s approach to the game. On at least eight occasions in the last 15 months he has talked about “managing his workload” before the 2019 World Cup.

Today he said: “It’s never been about managing my workload, it’s more about prioritising certain things that I still want to achieve. I’ve never been picking and choosing my games. It’s about making sure I’m at the best of my form in 2019 for that World Cup, that’s the main goal with, obviously, quite a few stepping stones to get there. I still have to regroup with CSA when I get home to see where and how I can best fit in.”

He has the best intentions, he is passionate about winning for South Africa, he is brilliant and entertaining.

He is also confusing and frustrating.

If “managing his workload” means staying at home to be with his young family, then he should say so.

Otherwise it sounds like a sore back issue. The family is a far better reason for workload management than nets.

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