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Week 8





Friday, July 21

Like many of the team, I suspect, today was a day for chilling and watching the golf.

The Open Championship is an event that cricketers in this part of the world relate to deeply.

Playing in drizzle and cold weather, and high winds, is something of a speciality.

I fancy Ian Poulter to hang on to the coat-tails of Jordan Spieth until the final nine holes on Sunday. It could be a great finish.

News from Johannesburg was that the committee appointed to recommend a new Proteas coach to the Cricket South Africa Board of directors had asked for more time to complete the process.

Hardly a surprise. It’s two most important members are both former national coaches and also two of the most mature and intelligent people within South African cricket, Eric Simons and Gary Kirsten.

It doesn’t need spelling out to them that announcing a probable change in coach with two test matches to go in a series currently tied at 1-1 wouldn’t have been the smartest move.

Even if they had made their recommendation, they would both understand the potential distraction and harm it could do to Faf du Plessis and the players if it had been announced.

Adrian Birrell, who briefly took the reins while Russell Domingo was attending to the funeral of his mother, insists that the players and management are unconcerned about the potential change in coaching staff.

The 340-run victory at Trent Bridge can be used as compelling evidence for that, for who would want to risk seeing if the team functioned as well under a coach who had effectively been replaced?

Meanwhile, the rumbling discontent with England’s “approach” to test cricket continues at pace.

Actually, it seems to have gathered pace.

When you’re bowled out for 200 in 50 overs and then 130 in 40 overs, the critics are bound to say there are too many shots being played.

The Proteas bowlers, meanwhile, would (quietly) ask how many of England’s top seven batsmen were actually dismissed playing attacking shots.

The answer is probably no more than three out of 14. The other 11 were dismissed by quality bowling, not rash or indiscrete stroke play. Anyway, whatever.

If Faf du Plessis made most of the difference to the turnaround in fortunes, despite leaving his wife and newborn daughter behind in Cape Town, there is more bad news for England.

Imari du Plessis and the baby girl are due to arrive in London early next week.

With his loved ones close by, the power of Faf might just be enhanced. If that’s possible.

On the other hand, he may have to learn the hard way about not having a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep.


Thursday, July 20

It’s been almost 25 years since the first tour to the UK but the competitiveness of the media to find a ‘story’, or ‘create’ one, never ceases to amaze.

Journalists work and socialise together but the moment they have even a semblance of an ‘exclusive’, they will think nothing of slashing the tyres on the car of a rival to ensure the story stays theirs. OK, maybe not tyre-slashing. Not always.

BBC radio’s greatest rival, Talksport, engineered something of a coup when they had Kevin Pietersen on air shortly before his appearance for Surrey in the T20 Natwest Blast. I think that’s what it’s called. It helped, naturally, that KP’s big mate, Darren Gough, was hosting the programme.

Pietersen spoke, in perfectly serious tones, about his desire and intention to represent South Africa in the 2019 World Cup. He also said he had “had enough nonsense in his life”.

That’s a non-sequitur to match any uttered in any walk of life, never mind the world of sport. KP lives in a parallel universe and, to be fair, when he left KZN in 2 000 declaring that he would play for England, most people scoffed. He tends to achieve what he wants.

The hard part, for me, was being called by Talksport for informed comment on the likelihood of Kevin Pietersen representing the Proteas in the 2019 World Cup, at the age of 39, and with 100 England test caps to his name.

After 30 years in broadcasting, control of emotions should come naturally, and mostly does. But the urge to burst into a fit of giggles was ever-present.

“Perhaps he has a private slush-fund of R100 million which he wants to donate to Cricket South Africa’s Development Programme,” I suggested, “That would probably be good enough to get him into the squad.”

I don’t mind Pietersen in the least. We commentated together on radio during the 2015 World Cup and his insights and reading of the game are insightful, brilliant at times.

He also needs to feel relevant, and saying things which make people talk about him is handy way to stay in the limelight.

Talksport, quite rightly and understandably, give him the platform to do so. It’s just a wee bit tricky having to pick up the pieces and provide ‘informed’ comment afterwards.

Like the majority of the Proteas squad, hopefully, I am engaged in a few days of ‘cultural orientation.’

An old-fashioned, traditional sweet shop had over 100 jars of gob-stoppers, lemon sherberts, chocolate nuts and so many other, weird things. I settled on Custard & Rhubarb bonbons. Far more likely than KP playing for South Africa.


Wednesday, July 19

“Bayliss wants to stick with test failures.” Nice headline. It’s a hard life being a national coach. You really can’t win, sometimes not even when you’re winning. But when you get thrashed, there’s no place to hide.

England coach Trevor Bayliss reckons the incumbents deserve a chance to redeem themselves following their 340-run demolition at Trent Bridge. No doubt the players appreciate that, but not many outside the immediate circle felt it was the answer.

Gary Balance has been ruled out of the third test at The Oval with a broken finger but all the moaning and groaning about his and Keaton Jennings’s suspect techniques continues.

What very few people have mentioned is that – pretty much every batsman in the world has a technical flaw against Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel at their best. Dale Steyn, too, don’t write him off.

This a strange but also happy period of the tour. What was scheduled as an eight-day break between test matches became a nine-day break courtesy of the four-day victory in Nottingham.

There has been a lot of understandable and legitimate speculation around the wisdom of not playing another ‘practise’ match before the third test at the Oval, but it makes a certain amount of sense to me.

Sure, Andile Phehlukwayo and half a dozen other players would undoubtedly have benefitted from playing some cricket, but their development as people, as well as cricketers, might be enhanced by such an extended spell of thinking for themselves.

Even two or three days of doing something other than slouching about in their comfortable London hotel room, watching Discovery reruns of the Shawshank Redemption.

There is a tendency for young tourists to do exactly that. Hopefully that is not the case and there will be sufficiently mature and coherent leadership to ensure that does not happen.

Fifteen years ago, when Australia toured Zimbabwe, Steve Waugh organised a trip from Harare to Victoria Falls for the squad.

It was ‘almost’ compulsory. It was also a real ‘mission’ regarding time as there was only a few days between games. Everyone but Shane Warne and Mark Waugh turned up, and they loved every minute of the experience. Many of them still talk about it to this day.

Young players cannot easily grasp the concept of holding onto ‘real life’ when they are on tour, why would they? Why should they? Going for a long, rambling run through cornfields and meeting new people in distant villages, discovering new places, would be of as much interest to them as staying in a hotel room all day would be to be.

All that really matters, if we’re brutally and commercially honest, is that everyone turns up in the right frame of mind, and physical shape, to continue with the momentum created in Nottingham.

I have a few more days of running through cornfields, meeting new people, cooking new recipes and discovering stuff.

If that’s all pretty dull to the young guys, hopefully the management have been able to persuade them that going ‘stale’ and developing ‘cabin fever’ isn’t in their or the team’s best interests.


Tuesday, July 18

“You Shockers” screamed the back page of the Daily Mail. It was an angry cricket public today. They appear to enjoy sticking the knife in more than popping champagne corks, although they do both well.

“I watched in a bit of disbelief, it was a poor performance,” said England coach Trevor Bayliss. “The boys are honest and they realise they’ve had a shocker. But we have to make sure we don’t panic.”

Former captains Nasser Hussein and Michael Vaughan both climbed into the team without concern for players’ feelings. They have been out of the dressing room for more than long enough to do their jobs as pundits and commentators effectively.

Vaughan said the way England had batted showed “a lack of respect about what the test game is,” to which Root responded: “I think that’s very unfair. To be honest, I can’t believe he said that. The most important thing is to make sure we put it right. I look at the talent in the dressing room and I know it shouldn’t happen. Unfortunately we’ve just played very poorly this week.”

South Africa’s players really shouldn’t be bothered about the recriminations, nastiness and in-fighting among their hosts.

Actually, they should be enjoying it. But it is also a little understandable that they feel not enough credit has been given to the quality of their bowling.

Reading some reports you might think they England batsmen had simply walked into a wall and knocked themselves out with no bowler in sight.

Up to six new players have been mentioned as replacements for Keaton Jennings, Gary Balance, Liam Dawson and Mark Wood.

The two top-order batsmen look technically flawed and will surely continue to struggle against Philander, Morkel and Morris while fast bowler Wood simply looked ‘flat’.

I still haven’t been able to find anyone who can tell me why or what left-arm ‘spinner’ Dawson is even doing in the team.

Tom Westley, Haseeb Hammed, Dawid Malan, Mark Stoneman and Jos Buttler have all been tipped by various experts for a batting place while Toby Roland-Jones and Liam Plunkett are the fast bowling options.

Leg spinners Adil Rashid and Mason Crane are being tipped to take Dawson’s place – and to actually spin the ball.


Monday, July 17

The most unlikely aspect of the Proteas’ crushing victory by 340 runs – the biggest ever margin at Trent Bridge – is that it made their own efforts seem positively committed while losing by 211 runs at Lord’s barely a week ago.

It would be almost ‘ok’ if England were simply outclassed or tactically naive. They can work on skills and tactics. But they were also gutless and spineless, and that basically makes them jellyfish which, as you will have seen, are useless at cricket.

England batted 105 overs for their 458 on a flat wicket against a rusty attack at Lord’s.

The Proteas responded with 361 but at least they matched their hosts for the 105 overs they spent at the crease. When England came up against a better, in rhythm attack led by Vernon Philander “with a few overs in my legs” they lasted just 51.5 and 44.2 overs. That is pathetic. South Africa’s two innings spanned 96.2 and 104 overs.

Every single one of the Proteas starting XI made a significant contribution to the victory, from Heino Kuhn who batted through the first session of the match when conditions were at their toughest, to Duanne Olivier who had endured a disappointing second test match until Faf du Plessis, for the umpteenth time over the last four days showed his empathy for his players by throwing him the ball with England eight down.

The big man from the Free State promptly grabbed the last two wickets with his first two balls to walk away with 2-25.

The first-innings dismissal of Moeen Ali, described in this diary a couple of days ago, really does look like it may have transformed Chris Morris.

Given the explicit brief and freedom to “just bowl fast”, he dismissed England’s best two players with stunning deliveries. A fast and furious bouncer was too quick and well directed for Alistair Cook but that was nothing compared to the yorker which swung from middle to hit the off stump of Joe Root.

Along the way, Du Plessis was producing his magic tricks again, pushing Heino Kuhn to backward square leg moments before the batsman – Moeen again – obligingly swept Keshav Maharaj straight to him.

And what about Maharaj? Match figures of 6-63, just in case you missed them! Stunning, especially after his disappointing and below par performance at Lord’s.

If there is a criticism, it applies to his batting. He has not yet applied himself and is much better than he has shown.

There is no cricket for this team in the next nine days, which is curious. It is a 16-man squad so there are five players, at least, who would have loved a game – even just a two or three-day match.

Add in Olivier, Bavuma and Kuhn from the test XI, perhaps Elgar, certainly Rabada, and there would be no problem raising a willing XI while Hashim goes home for a week and Vernon indulges his passion for golf at some the country’s most famous courses.

“In all sports you want to keep things ticking over, especially when they are going well,” said Shaun Pollock before packing for his own week at home in Durban.

“Perhaps it will work and they will turn up at The Oval fully fit and refreshed and play brilliantly, but personally I’d be a little concerned about going off the boil. I’m not sure you can prepare for a test match with two net sessions after a week off. But maybe that’s just me,” Pollock said.

For now however, the moment and methodology of the triumph should be celebrated and enjoyed.

Amla, Elgar, man-of-the-match Philander, Morkel…the list goes on.

But the man who made the difference between a flaccid defeat last week and the rousing victory this week was Du Plessis.

It is onerous and uncomfortable to place such a weight of responsibility on a single man for engineering such a vast change in fortunes, but that is his fault, not ours. He did it. And good on him for doing so.

May everyone enjoy their time off, the golf, the shopping, the photography and even, in the case of Hashim, Neil McKenzie and a few others who will be returning home for a week, some family time.


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