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Week 5





July 1, 2017

Ask any retired fast bowler and they will tell you the truth about bowling in different circumstances. At 100 percent intensity the possibility of something ‘tweaking or ‘twingeing’ increase dramatically, even from an operating capacity of 90 percent.

They will always imply that they were “giving it everything”, but it is especially not true when the game they are in is ostensibly a ‘warm-up’ exercise four days before a test match. A test match at Lord’s.

Morne Morkel and Chris Morris were clearly concentrating on rhythm and the effects of coming back for second and third spells while Kagiso Rabada was almost certainly doing the same thing but it’s virtually impossible to tell with him because he looks relaxed and languid all the time.

I received this information from a couple of extremely reliable and well-placed sources because there was no live coverage of the game in Edinburgh where I began my three-day, mid-tour break with family.

What a city, looking as it did between 250 and 500 years ago in many places. It’s only been a few hours but already it has found a special place in our travel memories.

Back in Worcester it was important that the three fast bowlers contributed 46 overs between them to the day’s workload and their collective haul of two wickets should not matter.

What did matter, and fast bowling coach Charl Langeveldt was the first to admit to the problem, were the nine no-balls from Rabada and two from Morkel, two of which cost wickets.

One aspect missing from the test team for the majority of the last half dozen years has been a batsman able to contribute between eight and ten overs a day of respectable, tidy medium pace – wickets a bonus, Stiaan van Zyl did the job briefly but, sadly, he didn’t score any runs as an opening batsmen and has now been lost to the system.

So when Theunis de Bruyn collected two lbw scalps today, he reaffirmed his already recognised status as the ‘next cab off the rank.’

If Faf du Plessis does not return to England in time for the Lord’s test next Thursday, his place will be taken by De Bruyn and not Aiden Markram.

Tomorrow the team will travel to London, while I explore Edinburgh Castle, buy something tartan and persuade the younger members of the family to try some traditional Scottish black pudding for breakfast – before telling them what it is.

There is a chance because they like porridge – and they have already had confirmation that, in these parts, it is served with salt, not milk and honey.


June 30, 2017

In the bad old days, when South Africa used to lose warm-up games, or at least battle to make themselves presentable against often vastly inferior opposition, we used to angst about the inferiority and the potential consequences for the more important test and ODI matches ahead.

Then, when we finally learned the Steve Waugh lesson about using practice and warm-up matches for exactly that – and listened to his “there’s only one type of match that counts” rhetoric, we thought we had it sorted. In those days, South African players and media used to repeat the boring (and frankly unbelievable) line “every time you pull on an international cap it is the same.” What nonsense.

So perhaps we should refrain from the entering the third phase of the cycle in which we return to creating symbolism and relevance to the single warm-up game before the first test at Lord’s on July 6. Heino Kuhn retiring on 80, Hashim Amla doing so on 91. Temba Bavuma making a cultured, unbeaten 85 from 148 balls.

If this had been against a Leicestershire 2nd XI at Grace Road, it would have been different. If it had been against a Yorkshire 1st XI at Headingly, it would have different again. But it was against an England Lions ‘A’ team at New Road, Worcester. The ‘next best’.

Actually, to be honest, it wasn’t the next best. Not quite. A full round of county matches precluded that. But Liam Plunkett is certainly the next seamer in line for the England starting XI and he ended up with 1-66 from 23.3 overs.

The 21-year-old leg-spinning ‘great hope for the future’, Mason Crane, delivered 16 overs at a withering cost of 89 runs. Did the Proteas ‘target’ him? Does it make any difference? The answer is ‘no’ to both questions but it is a slight comfort that our talents and abilities are not quite so behind those of our hosts as performances over the last six weeks have suggested.

Flying to Edinburgh tomorrow. Will keep you posted, whenever possible.


June 29, 2017

While all the conjecture and speculation continued during the week about whether Faf and Imari would become parents in time for him to return and lead the test team out at Lord’s, I chucked my own few logs onto the fire.

I wrote at least four articles and conducted one radio interview concerning the impact of his absence and what sort of captain Dean Elgar might be.

Actually, I had received a message from a friend (of a friend) who is in the maternity business on Monday asking, in all innocence, why there was speculation about Du Plessis playing at Lord’s. The baby had been delivered that day.

It was confirmation that my journalistic instincts are easily compromised. All I could think was that, perhaps the birth had not gone according to plan.

The only thing that mattered was that Mom, Imari, and the baby were well. It turns out that the birth wasn’t straightforward and that Faf, naturally, wanted to stay in Cape Town and make no announcements until he was confident they were well.

You do wonder what goes through the minds of tabloid journalists, sometimes. Nothing, probably. Just the cheque.

Anyway, we wish them all well and a safe, comfortable, business-class return for the captain with a sleeping pill and extra pillows and some added fuss from the cabin attendants. And a clear, untroubled mind for the Lord’s test.

It’s been cold and wet all day. And deeply grey. Proper autumn weather. Heino Kuhn will have benefitted, even just a little, from his unbeaten 30 against the England Lions before rain ended the day. Full of confidence anyway, it would be the ideal top-up.

Almost four hours on the motorway and I’m finally in my one-night-only room near Heathrow to collect the family on Friday morning, A working holiday. If the players need refuge during an 11-week tour, so does everyone else.


June 28, 2017

If Faf du Plessis was not at home in Cape Town encouraging his first child to make an early entry to the popping crease of life, he would no doubt have said most of the same words that his designated stand-in, Dean Elgar, issued at his first press conference as captain before the three-day match against the England Lions in Worcester on Wednesday.

“We are quite fortunate that we have a lot of new faces in our test squad now so, with regard to what’s happened in the ODIs, Champions Trophy and the T20s, that’s in the past and it’s time to crack on with the proper format of test cricket now,” Elgar said.

Ah – the ‘proper’ format. What a delight. He is, by his own admission, an “old-fashioned traditionalist” but he struck a cord with everyone by suggesting that now is the time for test cricket. It has been too long.

Had the preceding white-ball defeats hurt the team? “It’s a good reflection point of view for us but as I said, we have a lot of new faces and there’s a different energy about this team, irrespective of results in other formats. We’re ready to play test cricket,” Elgar said before answering another predictable English question concerning the absence of AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn.

“We’ve missed them for the last two series and different guys have raised their performances to cover the gaps. It’s great to have them in the team but we have players who really want to make their positions permanent, and they have earned their right to be in the team. The game carries – that’s very important for us,” Elgar, the ‘Bulldog’, said.

“England are also going through a few changes with a new captain who, I’m sure, wants to implement a few things his way. I’m sure they haven’t settled on their final XI but whoever they put on the park we’ll have to deal with. I’d prefer for us to concentrate on what we have to do because, regardless of the personnel, it’s going to be a hard-fought series over the next six weeks – and we’re excited about that.”

As a former captain and often designated vice-captain, Hashim Amla might have been expected to lead the team again in Du Plessis’s absence but the obvious enthusiasm with which Elgar has embraced the challenge made him an obvious choice.

“I’m very excited – it’s been a dream of mine since I was a young boy. Even if it doesn’t happen at Lord’s, it’s still a great opportunity for me to be a senior leader within the team,” Elgar said.

“You have to put your pride away and think of yourself as someone who can influence the environment and the players, that’s the most important thing. Your best qualities have to come out – it’s an exciting time for me, it’s something I have always loved doing.”

The captain-elect laughed at the prospect of offering his new opening partner, Heion Kuhn, any advice before the Lord’s test on July 6.

“Heino is a highly experienced player back home, he’s played 11 seasons of first-class cricket, so he’s quite familiar with his game plans and comfortable with his game. It’s great to see him finally get an opportunity and it’s exciting because he brings a lot of energy to the team. We are the best of mates back home so I’m sure our chemistry will be on the field with us.”

It rained for most of the day in Worcetser today and there is drizzle forecast for considerable parts of Thursday and Friday. Fortunately, the vast majority of the test squad have been busy with county cricket, the SA ‘A’ tour or the ODI games, including the T20 series.

I have been ‘bigging up’ the test team in recent days. A lot. They will be different to the under-performing team in green. Right?


June 27, 2017

Heino Kuhn is one of the good guys, not just in cricket but in any walk of life. He helps others when he can’t lead, and cherishes the success of comrades when he isn’t at the forefront of the game.

He had not only consigned himself to a bit-part role in Franchise cricket two years ago, but had given up on his dream of playing international cricket in any format, let alone the premier league of test cricket. Now he stands just ten days away from walking out to open the batting at Lord’s, on debut.

His desire to succeed will be nothing compared to that of his friends, colleagues and team mates, past and present. Too many to mention have praised and thanked him for his support in their professional journey and many have rued the fate that appeared to have left Kuhn in their wake.

But consistent run-scoring, relentless ambition and a refusal to ‘go away’ have led to this. His insistence on remaining true to his values and remaining a ‘good person’ have contributed, too, according to those with whom he has served.

Logistics meant there were just a couple of journalists present at his press conference today and the answers were understandably, and amusingly clichéd. “There was a good vibe in the (SA ‘A’) side but unfortunately we just couldn’t produce the wins.”

“My form was good with a couple of big hundreds for me so hopefully I can bring that into this test series. I’m going to try and approach it in the same way I approach every other game although I know there will be more pressure, especially making my debut, but I just see it as another game and I’m not going to think too much,” Kuhn said, as though reading from some time-warped script. It just wasn’t him. Although, who would be themselves in such circumstances?

“What’s better than playing at Lord’s? Hopefully I’ll make my debut there, I’m looking forward to it and very excited. England are always tough opponents, doesn’t matter where you play them, so they’ll come hard at us but we’re ready for them, it should be a good series.”

If you can expect anything from a seasoned pro on international debut, it’s the required soundbite. Especially about his debut at 33.

“Rather late than never. I’ve matured a lot as a cricketer in recent years and everything happens for a reason. Maybe five years ago wasn’t my time but I’m happy to be here and looking forward to this challenge. Opening the batting is pretty tough anywhere but here in England it’s really hard – but my job is to take the shine off the new ball so I’m just going to leave as well as I can and know where my off-stump is,” Kuhn said.

My hope is that he scores runs and succeeds, mostly because I hope to bring you more of the ‘real’ Heino Kuhn, not the expertly self-trained, media-friendly version that he presented here.


June 26, 2017

AB has left the house and the test brigade have been welcomed back into the fold. Several of them have been here for some time already.

Theunis de Bruyn, Temba Bavuma, Heino Kuhn and Duanne Olivier have been in the country for the last three weeks along with Aidan Markram, who has been named in the squad as cover for Faf du Plessis in case he doesn’t arrive in time from paternity duty.

For now it is a case of breathing deeply and taking stock. The new intake of playing staff represents a new start on tour. While it is a natural and normal reaction to ‘take the positives’ from the tour so far, the stark reality is that both the ODI and T20 series have been lost and the Champions Trophy was a miserable failure. So it’s 0-3 so far.

   

Much rests on the form, fitness and leadership of Vernon Philander who represents so much of the best elements of South Africa’s test results over the last five years. He needs to breeze in, smile, gush confidence and believe and remind everyone that the tour starts now. What precedes them has gone.

One aspect of a long tour, especially one as long as this one, which is curiously understated, is the effect those who remain for the full 11 weeks may have on those who arrive during the course of it, full of hope and open-minded optimism.

The management and coaching staff remain, as do some of us, the media. We live through the misery and disappointment of defeat, we miss our homes and families, and we see players flying home for a week or 10 days of rest and recuperation while we remain here. Oh well. That’s life. But on the subject of reality, it’s hard not to reflect that incoming players may be affected by the demeanour of those they join.

The Proteas will be based in Worcester for the next week or so, and I am just a dozen miles south in the historic town of Tewkesbury. Many of the buildings are over 500 years old and there is a splendid man in a red tunic who patrols the streets at weekends. He is the ‘town sergeant’, a position which dates back to 1417.

The abbey predates him, as do some of the pubs. It is important to step back from the tour, step away from the reality of day-to-day business, in order to refocus on what lies ahead. Look around you, appreciate your surroundings. Not all of us can pop home for a week, much as we’d love to.

   


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