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Week 1

Monday, November 12

Back in August the Proteas faced several ‘crisis’ points towards the end of the third test against England. On the fourth day they were short of runs and losing wickets but instead of circling the wagons and gritting it out, they counter-attacked.

Then, when Matt Prior and Graeme Swann launched an extraordinary and exhilarating late charge towards the total on the final afternoon, Graeme Smith kept faith in Imran Tahir and refused to be cowed. His instincts were to revert to his pace attack, set defensive fields – and hope. But he didn’t. It was the surest sign that old habits – ones he’d inherited from many previous generations – were finally changing.

Some part of me still worries about the final day of this test. The Proteas were in a seemingly impregnable position after three days but now face the possibility (probability?) of an immensely pressure-filled final two sessions. Australia will have a lead of over a hundred and a couple of early wickets will leave the tourists white-knuckled and wracked with tension as they attempt to bat the game to safety. At least, that’s how it would have been a couple of years ago.

Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton will, no doubt, have encouraged the players to think of the final day as one of ‘possibilities’, the chance to bat on a near-perfect surface and score heavily against bowlers desperate to prove themselves to selectors who clearly have no idea of their best attack.

It is easy to see the negative, having seen it all before. If the Proteas top order bat through the day with ease and confidence then it should be abundantly clear that Lord’s was not a ‘one-off’ and that mind-shifts have genuinely taken place. As bedtime approaches I feel ‘sure’ that danger will be averted, but the spectre of catastrophe remains clear and has not blurred.

Hopefully that is just my problem, not the players’. But it must be hard to avoid negative thoughts after a day of such hard toil which yielded just a single wicket – an accidental run out at the non-striker’s end.

Sunday, November 11

Brisbane is the only city in the world I have visited which has tackled its traffic problems like Os du Randt used to tackle. Eight years ago I recall making plans to rent a room in a motel on the side of a traffic circle having been stuck there for what felt like half a day, but was probably only a couple of hours.

It used to take at least an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, and that was outside rush hour.

Now, several billion dollars later no doubt, you can drive from the Gabba to any part of the city, at any time of day, in 20 minutes. A warren of two-lane tunnels underneath the city have made the major difference but, where tunnelling wasn’t possible, there are huge highway flyovers.

There is just one problem remaining. You can’t park your car anywhere near the Gabba and, if you employ public transport to get to the ground, you have little chance of being able to use it again when you leave. Having queued for an hour at a taxi rank after the first day’s play on Friday, we hadn’t moved. A further 10 minutes waiting on the phone was eventually met with the response: “We’re not sending cars down there at the moment, it’s too busy.” The city still has work to do.

Greg Ritchie is a former captain of Queensland who played 30 tests for his country. His nickname was ‘Fat Cat’ during his playing days, and not – by his own admission – was it for his ‘feline reflexes’. He was just fat. Not anymore, however. These days he is very fat indeed. He is also humorous and a renowned guest speaker at more than 70 functions a year, on average. At a healthy fee.

He has visited South Africa as a tour guide on a number of occasions and loved the country, which makes it all the more peculiar that he should not understand the level of disgust associated with the use of certain words when South Africans are in town. The vast majority of Australians have no idea of the connotations and history of the ‘k’ word, but that is no reason why he should not. It was the major talking point of the day. A fat former cricketer making heaps of cash while using offensive, racist language. He saw ‘no reason to apologise’ because he ‘meant no offense’ and the context was ‘not intended to offend.’ It’s difficult to decide which logic is the more complex to unravel – the taxi company’s or Ritchie’s.

Hashim and Jacques were glorious in the first hour. Centuries 17 and 44 respectively. All hail, all praise.

But the best moment of the day was the third ball of the 10th over of Australia’s reply to South Africa’s 450-9.

Seven years ago Mickey Arthur became obsessed with a theory he had developed about Ricky Ponting. He was convinced that he could be dismissed within 20 balls if he was fed deliveries pitching around 18 feet short of him and around 12 inches outside off-stump. He believed the great man had a tendency to ‘reach’ for balls early in his innings to settle nerves. The tactic stayed with the South African team well after Arthur moved on to Australia, via Western Australia.

So when Morne Morkel bowled the perfect delivery and Ponting edged it to Jacques Kallis at second slip for a five-ball duck, there must have been a considerable part of Ponting’s coach wondering how much he had contributed to the demise of a man he has very quickly come to admire and respect.

Saturday, November 10

Two of Queensland Cricket’s most distinguished ‘old boys’ are also two of South Africa’s greatest and most distinguished cricketers: Barry Richards and Kepler Wessels.

Richards was the State’s first ever chief executive and Wessels one of its most distinguished players in the 1980s when he left South Africa to seek a new life and an international career unavailable at home.

Both are as welcome now as they were when they arrived – perhaps even more so. The fact that Richards was unable to play more than four test matches remains a subject of intense fascination for Australians and they appear to find it far more difficult to accept than the man himself: “Australians have had a more straightforward existence than they realise,” says Richards with a smile. “The great thing about this country is that, if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen and have it. They find it hard to accept that some things just are not, or were not possible. But history is history and I’ve moved on. All I’d like now is to be able to make a contribution to South African cricket in the future, in whatever capacity.”

Wessels is barely able to move three metres down the corridor outside the media and broadcast areas without bumping into yet another old friend or foe. He is enjoying being back, too.

As tiring as it can be to work all day, writing and talking, somehow doing ‘nothing’ for an entire day can feel completely exhausting. The Proteas did their best to remain ‘switched off’ for the day, arriving at the Gabba in time for a fine lunch (not sure if they actually had any) before returning to the hotel around 2pm. I had Barramundi pasta. An excellent fish which, I was later to learn via Twitter, has a claim to fame which sees it change from male to female somewhere around its mid-life period. Best of both worlds? Or neither…?

J-P Duminy’s injury cast a pall of reality over the whole squad. It is a short and risk-fraught career for most cricketers. There were at least half a dozen journalists who watched the players kicking rugby balls and loosening up after the first day’s play but none saw him go to ground as we typed our match reports. Many made the mistake of assuming his ruptured achilles tendon had occurred while playing rugby. We were all wrong and guilty of making a basic reporting error. Deadlines are no excuse. The injury occurred while running standard procedure sprint shuttles. Once again, apologies for my error.

Phlegmatic as ever, J-P was in good spirits after a successful operation saying that “everything happens for a reason.” He faces approximately six months of rehabilitation. Nobody has a single doubt he will return stronger, both as a person and a player, physically and emotionally.

So, what for day three and the rest of the test match? Amla and Kallis make significant centuries and South Africa bat for the vast majority of an extended day and make 550. Perhaps half a dozen overs at the day and maybe even a bonus wicket?

Or they hasten towards runs and are bowled out for 400 allowing Steyn, Philander and Morkel a full crack at an inexperienced top three under overcast skies! Or – there are enough further rain delays to render the test all but dead. All three are possible.

Friday, November 9

Ordinarily the idea of a 5am start on the first day of a test match would fill me with dread, but with jetlag in full cry I accepted that it would mean a lie-in. Sure enough, I was wide awake at 4am.

The traditional pre-test breakfast, starting at 6:30, was no less of on occasion than the luncheon on Wednesday, barely hours after arrival. Except ‘informal’ attire was happily permitted and the majority of the 200 guests were cheerfully dressed in t-shirts and shorts ready for the ‘long day’ which has signified the opening of the international season for many decades.

South African teams have been lucky enough to experience the Boxing Day and New Year’s tests at the MCG and SCG for the last five post-isolation tours and, with respect, there was every reason to believe that nothing could match them. But Brisbane is every bit as proud of its own place in the Australian cricketing calendar and it is just as special.

It is 47 years since South Africa last played here and the locals were loving their chance to host the best team in the world. And that was their choice of words, not mine. Graeme Pollock made his test debut back then, a fact that Brisbanites seemed far more aware and proud of than most South Africans.

The centre-piece attraction of the breakfast was Glenn McGrath being interviewed by Ian Healy. An awkward case of former teammates chatting in the guise of MC and guest? Not at all. Healy teased, and McGrath responded – with interest.

“So, you took 563 test wickets – you weren’t very fast and you did bugger-all with the ball, how did you do it?” “I soon worked out that batsmen weren’t very intelligent, and that if you gave them enough balls in the ‘wrong’ area then they’ll play at them. As for my pace, I could have bowled a lot quicker but then batsmen wouldn’t have enough time to follow the ball if I did get any movement. And I also had to look after guys like you, and the slips. I knew you all had delicate hands and fingers so I didn’t want to endanger them. I always thought there was more chance of you hanging on to gentler catches,” McGrath said.

A wonderful day on the field for the Proteas. Watching Kallis and Amla in action has long been a pleasure. Watching them in action together is a privilege. Sublime, calm, clinical and…deathly. Beautiful.

The total (255-2) is not huge. South Africa could still be bowled out for under 400, and then the game would be very much ‘on’. But it was an emphatic first-day display and that has not happened, ever before, in six post-isolation tours to this country. That can’t be a bad omen.

Thursday, November 8

The ‘revelation’ of a ‘secret dossier’ containing the Australians’ plans for each member of the Proteas team dominated the day – much to the apparent amusement of both captains.

Michael Clarke said they “contained nothing new” but admitted that some of the entries were “interesting.”

Graeme Smith appeared tickled by the notion that his former coach, Mickey Arthur, would have drawn up such a document: “We have similar ideas about the opposition but we keep it in the guys’ heads to avoid leaving dossiers lying about.”

One suggestion in the ‘game plan’ brochure was that Vernon Philander may not be as effective if he was forced to come back for a third, fourth or even fifth spell. That he was, dare we say, a ‘new-ball bully’?

“'We have played a lot of test cricket together and we haven't always bowled teams out for 100 or 150. England at the Oval is a perfect example. We have been equally good in different conditions all around the world. You don't travel from 2006 and be unbeaten away from home if you don't have the capabilities to adapt, to think on your feet. It would be awesome if they don't have to come back for a third or fourth spell because then we are ahead of the game and that is the goal. But if they do, they can,” said Smith.

Another subject of conjecture was AB de Villiers's role as ‘keeper. Graeme Pollock recently added his view from Jo’burg that it was “expecting too much” for him to remain one of the world’s best batsmen while ‘keeping wicket. He is not alone in that view.

What nobody seems to realise is that De Villiers has a view himself – and that it is not only sought by team management and the captain, but appreciated. If he said he wasn’t happy ‘keeping, then he wouldn’t be. Smith and Gary Kirsten respect his views well enough to keep him as a batsman and give the gloves to Thami Tsolekile. But De Villiers is loving the job and, being a team man, understands the coach’s desire to have both batting depth and bowling options.

“AB is focused and very determined to do well. He has prepared superbly for this tour and wants to do the job. His ‘keeping is under-appreciated. He took the gloves at the last minute in England and did a great job in difficult conditions. Nobody knows what will happen after this tour but for the next four weeks, things will stay the same,” Smith said.

Headingley, in England, has a century old reputation for captains for being a ‘look up, not down’ venue. The Gabba is probably only second in that regard.

“Anyone who has watched cricket knows The Gabba has good pace and bounce and that overhead conditions play more of a role than what’s underneath. It’s just a question of making use of whatever the conditions offer,” Smith said.

The record attendance for a non-Ashes test match here stands at 21 000. That looks set to be well beaten on Friday. Interest and intrigue is immense. Having somehow busked my way through the traditional pre-test lunch as part of a three-man panel of speakers alongside Barry Richards and journalist Robert Craddock on Wednesday, I have been promoted to the pre-test breakfast panel at 6:30am on Friday. Jetlag is screaming. The eyes are heavy. Excitement is huge. Sleep is much needed.


Wednesday, November 7

No country in the world, not even England, has pre-test functions on the scale of Australia. The entire event and occasion is celebrated, not just the forthcoming contest on the field. It is a chance for everyone to feel a part of the ongoing history of a venue and its combatants.

At least, it is for the 500 people who paid for a fine lunch at the Brisbane Convention Centre and a chance to hear one of the country’s most amusing guest speakers, Greg Ritchie. The man nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ during a playing career which included 30 test matches has made a successful career out of his (successful) battle against anorexia, and the jokes at his own expense flowed thick and fast.

At the centre of it all, however, was his relationship with Kepler Wessels whom he greatly admired during their time playing for Queensland and Australia together, but which was even more greatly enjoyed – by Ritchie at least – for the ‘banter’ between them. Or ‘piss-taking’ as he would have it.

Few Australians do a passable Afrikaans accent, let alone a decent one, but Ritchie’s dour Wessels monotone was hilarious. “Listen, Fat Cat, this is the day you could die,” said Ritche imitating Wessels on the eve of their State’s game against the touring West Indies in 1988. “Pay attention to Andy Roberts. He’s gonna give you a bouncer which you can hit for four – then he’s gonna bowl you the one which could kill you – much faster!”

Ritchie recounts duly hitting the first bouncer to the fence. He narrowly missed the second one, courtesy of not seeing it at all.

Wessels walked down the pitch for a chat. Ritchie turned his back. “Hey, Fat Cat, come here. Look at you! Tuck your shirt in! You are a disgrace. I can smell the fear in you from 20 yards away. You are a pig in a man’s body, now sort yourself out!”

The story duly concludes with Ritchie having his eye-socket and nose broken by another of Roberts’ ‘quicker’ bouncers and waking up in hospital with his last memory that of his teammates saying “Jeez, he’s down for good. We’re gonna need a forklift to get him out of here…”

The South Africans were represented by Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy among the playing staff and a healthy smattering of back-up crew. They were due to be practising before the main course was even served, so it was good to see them represented. JP was interviewed by MC Ian Healy at one point and played beautifully, albeit in a strictly defensive manner, during which he let most questions sail harmless by to the keeper. Especially the one about the history of ‘quotas’ in the national team.

If tension is mounting in the Australian team, as it clearly is with the disparity in comments between coach Mickey Arthur and captain Michael Clarke about the assuredness of vice-captain Shane Watson’s place in the second test line-up after missing the first with an ingrown toenail, strained eyelash or calf muscle, then things could hardly seem calmer or more assured among the Proteas.

The pitch certainly looked ‘green’ and fast-bowler friendly, but that could all change (by being shaved off) on Thursday.

Tuesday, November 6

The Sydney warm-up match was watched closely, but from afar. While the players need to be fully acclimatised and recovered from the jet-lag by the time the test series starts, journalists and commentators can get by for a few days with scratchy eyes and attacks of extreme fatigue in the middle of the day.

I am having one right now in Perth airport as I wait for the flight to Brisbane. The next few days are going to be a struggle, but it was the right thing to do, spending a final weekend with my family. By the end of the year I will have been away from home for almost seven months. Millions of people face far greater hardship, but that doesn’t wash with a tearful nine-year-old as Dad leaves, again.

The status of warm-up matches has been changing for a decade or more but Gary Kirsten is the first international coach to formally let them be what they are – net sessions for the real thing. He refused to agree to a series of soft, meaningless encounters against county 2nd XIs in England and was quite satisfied with a single game against a strong Australia ‘A’ team in Sydney.

The irony is that Aus ‘A’ captain Andrew McDonald’s stated intention before the game – “to deny them as much preparation as possible” – appears to have played right into the Proteas’ hands. All the bowlers had a full, hard workout and every member of the top six spent quality time at the crease.

On past tours, the failure to bowl the opposition out in 130+ overs would have been the source of great concern. But Kirsten knows the pitch in Sydney was as flat and lifeless as it could possibly have been, and he encouraged the bowlers to concentrate on rhythm and the ‘mechanics’ of their job rather than results.

It’s a four-hour flight to Brisbane this afternoon and a three hour time difference…it’s a big country! It means I don’t arrive until midnight. Sleep is usually elusive on the first night but it will be enforced tonight with the use of strong medication! There is a breakfast for 400+ on Wednesday morning, one of several, traditional pre-test events at 'The Gabba’. I have been invited to join a panel to discuss the series with the great Ian Healy as the MC!

Peculiar selection, I agree – especially given the array of big names and former stars that will be in and around the series. But there is, apparently, method in the madness. Someone at Queensland Cricket spotted that I am the author of both coaches’ biographies! “Gazza” was written after his retirement as a player in 2004 and “Taking the Mickey” after his five years in charge of the Proteas. So that’s it! I’m going to be introduced as an ‘expert’ on the coaches!

Bloody Hell. It’s going to be hard enough keeping my eyes open, never mind talking sense about two of the most successful coaches in cricket history…

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