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Week 2

Thursday, 1 March

The alarm had to be wrong. It went off barely 15 minutes after I set it. But that’s what it feels like sometimes. The ‘adventure’ of driving to Auckland in the team’s kit van suddenly felt like a nightmare. Actually, it wasn’t the alarm. It was a phone call from the fabulous Riaan Muller telling me that the truck was ready to leave – earlier than intended. It was 5:58am, just over three hours after I’d gone to bed.

Riaan, sensing my panic, said: “Stay where you are. I will fetch you, just stay calm.” And he did. What a Gentleman.

I will never forget the trip. It couldn’t be described as ‘comfortable’ – a kidney belt would have been helpful – but driving through the rising sun, and three seasons in the space of three hours, was scintillating. Falling asleep every three seconds and being belted awake by a Richie McCaw tackle from the side of the truck became tiresome.

Countryside Drive

The scenery was fabulous, especially around Taupo with its steaming, thermal countryside. There was so much to see that was both ‘normal’ and remarkable, depending whether you were from Cape Town of Napier, which is where driver Dan resides.

Six hours can be a long time in the company of anyone, even your best friend, but Dan and I never experienced a moment of discomfort or unease. When I was being slapped by the side of the truck, he let me be. When I was awake(ish), we never forced conversation. But when he spoke, he was – more often than not – witty to the point of hilarity. I learned a bit, too.

We passed many logging trucks: “It’s all sustainable and carefully managed,” said Dan. “The trees are all replanted as soon as they are cut down and most of them are exported to Malaysian and China. Then, a few months later, they sell them back to us as furtniture.”

The dairy farms around Hamilton really got Dan going: “We used to be a nation of sheep farmers, but there’s much more money to be made in dairy so everyone’s changed now. But they don’t like paying taxes, so they ‘lose’ all their profit building houses like that, and that,” says Dan, pointing to brand new constructions on pristine land surrounded by large cows. “That’s their profit gone – no tax to be paid.”

Dale Steyn Interview

We reached the team hotel 30 minutes before the press conference was due. Ironically, Cape Times correspondent Zaahier Adams was arriving that same time having flown from Napier just 20 minutes before we set off. He took the picture of me and Dan as we pulled in to offload the luggage.

Dale Steyn was even better value than he usually is. The Kiwi press were not expecting his harmless irreverence and eye-watering honesty.

Nobody ever is unless they have experienced Steyn before. He made everyone laugh, which is a pleasant change.

Wednesday, 29 February

Always difficult to fill the hours before a day-nighter productively and to get the timing right for arrival at the ground. Funny how the time rushes away and before you know it, you're rushing for the ground despite having had five hours to get ready.

I started early with a run the 'other' way down Napier's Marine Parade past the commercial port and onwards... Stopped for at least five minutes to watch two seals behaving in a very peculiar way, alternately waving one flipper in the air followed by the other, time after time. Turns out they were endurance swimmers training in wetsuits. They were quite some distance off shore. Must get eyes tested again after tour.

I knew last night, of course, that Smith wasn't playing today (the glass of wine was the give-away) but such is the sensitivity of anti-corruption legislation that I couldn't say anything to anyone. Not even in yesterday's diary.

Organised to meet him this morning in the team hotel at 9am for an interview, some of which was published on this site and some in Friday's Mail & Guardian. I promised to keep it short - and stuck to my word.

Thing is, he doesn't need it to be kept short any more because his time is no longer suffocated by captain's commitments. I thank him after seven minutes and leave, but suspect that he might have preferred a few more minutes. This 'return to the ranks' really is a brand new experience for him. In fact, it's hardly a return. He was only in the ranks for a couple of months before the captaincy was his. He makes the point that he's only just turned 31 but is frequently classed in the same category as Jacques and Bouch who are 36 and 35.

"I honestly believe I have a good few years left in me, not just as a senior pro for the team but in terms of runs and performance - and as an ally for AB in the one-day game. But it's up to me to score the runs that I'm capable of and prove that I'm worth my place in the team."

My mission to find a way to get to Auckland appears to be at an end. Having failed to book myself a plane ticket when compiling my itinerary, I was banking on the train. But there are no trains from Napier! The bus sounded like a nightmare - eight hours and a change along the way. Efforts to find a car going that way were also fruitless.

The exceptional Riaan Muller, team logistics manager and successor to Goolam Raja, has confirmed that the team kit van is leaving at 6am - and I am welcome to climb aboard.

That's in four hours and 45 minutes time. My alarm is set. The route includes the beautiful Taupo. Hope I wake up. Will send pictures tomorrow. (Wonder whether I'll be in the back with the kit bags, or up front?)

Tuesday, 28 February

It's hard to get stressed in Napier. Not that I want to. Relaxed and informal, the holiday-town beachfront with its brightly coloured apartments disguises the 'worker' interior of the town with its paint-peeling wooden houses and old, wheel-free cars sitting on bricks.

The devastating earthquake of 1931 which flattened the town means that almost nothing rises above two stories now. It gives the place a 'homely' feel and also means that Proteas' logistics manager, Riaan Muller, has an easy job giving directions to the designated drivers of the team kombis.

"I printed maps of the town and drew a line in yellow from the hotel to the ground, but nobody bothered to look at it. They just said 'Riaan, we just follow the floodlights!"

There was some concern at training today that both Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith could be in doubt for the second ODI with the former suffering a head cold and the latter a badly bruised forearm. Amla arrived wearing a beanie to confirm his ailment, but trained normally. The former captain, however, had a short net but spent the majority of his time applying an icepack to the injured area. He did not look comfortable.

Napier Practice - Proteas

Much of the talk at the captains' press conferences was about the quality of the batting surface at McLean Park, and the shortness of the boundaries. While neither AB de Villiers nor Brendon McCullum says so directly, it appears both would like to bat first.

My evening is quiet again although a brief sundowner with Paddy Upton, Russel Domingo and Brandon Jackson is highlighted by the unexpected appearance of Graeme and his wife, Morgan, whom I had yet to meet. (Is she still Morgan Deane now, or Smith? I forgot to ask.) I was able to tell them that baby girls are a good bet for a professional sportsman. Much less to answer to after a bad day on the field. They are expecting one.

Monday, 27 February

There’s something ‘wrong’ about Wellington airport but as I sat waiting for the flight to Napier I couldn’t think what it was. Then I realised – we hadn’t been through a security check. No laptop out of the bag and waiting patiently for the person ahead of you to empty their pockets and stare at the X-ray machine as though it’s the first time they’ve ever seen one.

I asked the lady at the boarding gate why this was. She said: “They only do that for the big flights. This is just a small plane.” So there you have it – dangerous goods can be transported to and between New Zealand’s small cities, and on small planes. Ours had props rather than jets. Maybe that’s the criteria.

The Quest apartments in Napier proudly display their “Franchisee of the Year: 2011” sign outside and it’s easy to see why. It’s brand new, for a start, and the dishwasher fits into a drawer under the kitchenette sink. Neat. DVD player (I didn’t bring any) and the usual washing machine/dryer – and situated right in the middle of town.

Napier Practice - Hawke's Bay

Kallis leads the praise-singing for the Cape Kidnapper’s golf course on arrival for training: “The best course I’ve ever played…well, certainly the most spectacular,” he says, possibly remembering the Honorary life membership at Leopard Rock bestowed upon him by Johann Rupert following his maiden test double-century. Have a look at the website and you’ll see what he means. I’m not the only one green with envy – it transpires that JP bruised a hand during the Wellington ODI and was banned by physio Brandon Jackson from playing. That hurt far more than the injury.

It’s Monday night and time to spend a quiet evening ‘at home’. The middle-aged lady at the supermarket check-out looks sadly at me as I buy one onion, three tomatoes, three mushrooms, one large carrot, some tomato puree, 250g of mince and a jar of oregano for my bolognaise sauce. “Have you tried our freezer meals, darling?” she asks. Nope. Home cooking is therapeutic – and at least I know what’s in it. The poor players in their five-star hotel…they don’t know what they’re missing.

Sunday, 26 February

Sometimes it is not possible to match the team's travel itinerary due to flight costs and availability, but there could be no less harmless (and pleasurable) occasion to stay behind for 24 hours than a Sunday in Wellington. Especially with decent weather. That is, not blowing gale force winds - or even rain.

The Basin
Not everywhere in the world is fussy about the quality of coffee within its borders, but New Zealand - pleasingly - is not one of the ambivalent ones. I only have one cup a day, so I can afford to be fussy.

I don't particularly need to know the layout of the city, but it's a good opportunity to explore on foot. It's not unlike Cape Town - except it has many little hills and a complex traffic system to disorientate you rather than one big mountain (and a complex traffic system.)

I hear from the team that at least eight players are spending the day at the famous Cape Kidnappers golf course just outside Napier. It was one of my ambitions for the tour, outside of the cricket. I'm a bit bleak - and jealous. Still, I wouldn't have made the trip even I was there.

Instead, I get to properly relax for the first time on tour. It's always a concern that something newsworthy may happen while you're not with the team but, at the same time, you can't fight the itinerary.

At least I found my way to the Basin Reserve where the test will be played at the end of the tour.

Saturday, 25 February

It's never easy knowing quite how to fill the 'extra' hours in the morning before a day-nighter, even for the players. They are able to lie in bed a bit later than usual and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, but for those of us who make our living off the field, it feels like 'wasted' time waiting for the game to start.

It's an opportunity to work on logistics and think about travel and accommodation that has yet to be finalised for the rest of the tour, not to mention negotiate discounts for vital things like wi-fi connections. Fortunately, the manager of the Quest Apartments in Wellington is originally from India and a significant cricket fan. Thank you, Prasad.

The morning run around the harbour coincides with a schools 'dragon boat' racing event which is fascinating to watch, if only because it is so different from anything which happens at home. At least, to my knowledge.

Wellington Harbour

Clearly very competitive and taken seriously by all aboard, my attention is drawn to the inclusivity of the sport. It's obviously not just for the 'strong' and 'sporty', but for all those who want to be part of a team. It seems the strongest paddlers are in the middle of the boat and the smaller kids at the front and back.

The 18-year-old boys are understandably impressive, but it was the girls' boats which stood out because teamwork so obviously made up for the lesser strength and power. They seemed to be moving their huge boats just as fast as the men.

It looks very uncomfortable. No seats, just a single knee pad on the appropriate leg, depending on which side of the boat you were paddling. Timing is everything. No matter how much power each paddler could contribute to the team effort, the most important thing was the timing. Fine for eight men of equal strength; quite a different challenge for 22 kids of very different builds.

Much of the build-up to the ODI focussed on the form and influence that Johan Botha displayed during the T20s. I didn't say anything because I wasn't sure whether he would play - but I suspected the starting XI would be similar to that which played against Sri Lanka. My NZ colleagues were startled when he wasn't in the XI. "You boys are determined to win without playing your best team, aren't you?!" asked commentary anchor, Bryan Waddle.

"One thing this team will not be in the years to come," said De Villiers eight hours later, "is predictable."

Brilliant performance all round. De Villiers scored the century and won the man of the match gong, but the bowling was outstanding. Tsotsobe and Steyn were the pick. But unless the figures shout loud, the batsmen will always grab the attention.

Friday, 24 February

The first opportunity to properly unpack the travel bag and, in the process, discover a note from the family wishing me well and hoping the time will pass quickly. Ironic given that the day passed at the pace of a freight train, but it was well appreciated nonetheless.

Laundry days are the greatest reminders that touring is not all fun and games. A man unused to wielding an iron is a painful sight, even for the man wielding it. Even the t-shirts take 20 minutes each - and there's still a thick, random crease down the back of it when the job is 'done'.

The Proteas looked particularly slick and organised during a slightly shorter than usual training session. One of Gary Kirsten's principles is that players should take more personal responsibility for their training and preparation rather than being told what to do by the coach.

Players need to identify and recognise what work they need to do and also how much physical preparation works for them before a game. To the untrained eye, training can look more haphazard then it has in the past. In fact, the opposite is true because the players are doing more and more of what they need to do rather than what the coach tells them to do.

The captain's press conference was good value. AB was accompanied by Kirsten and they were bombarded with questions about sledging. The coach certainly controlled his irritation, but did not attempt to disguise it. It is a game, afterall, which is won with bat and ball, not words.

Decided to run towards the Karori Hills which rise steeply to the south of the city and dominate the skyline. With nothing but the prospect of ironing to return to, had an attack of the 'Forrest Gumps' and kept going until I was at the top. Extraordinary, luxury houses built entirely on stilts on the steep hillside. The run took over two hours and an early night beckoned lovingly.

Late radio crossing for Cape Talk interrupted sleep. Have no recollection of what I said. Hope it sounded sleepy rather than something else...!

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