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Week 2

Monday, November 19

It’s all too easy to suggest that South Africa’s cricketers should turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the media-related sledging and gamesmanship which so often forms a part of the build-up to important test matches.

But it’s easier said than done, sometimes, especially when the perpetrator is junior wood-chpping champion, Peter Siddle. Strong of arm and heart, Siddle is a captain’s dream, always willing to run uphill and into the breeze for an entire session if required.

But he is not a clever man, let alone bowler. The words dispensed at the end of an over – or between deliveries – are not witty, pithy or sharp. They are mundane platitudes, neither shocking nor offensive. Abusive, certainly, with plenty of common swear words, but too pitiful to have an effect.

So it is a challenge when the Victorian lumber merchant appears on television four days before the second test declaring that South Africa’s batsmen are “obviously distracted” by his verbal tactics and therefore there was good reason to continue them.

Tempting as it may be to respond, however, the Proteas have desisted. Even subtly. They talk about being ‘bigger’ than such plaintiff appeals for attention, but it would appear they really are. Not a murmur in response.

There are rumours that some Australian cricketers have been involved in cocaine ‘binges’ and even been (privately) fined thousands of dollars by Cricket Australia, but they are just rumours. Best to keep everything simple. It is a game of bat and ball, after all.

Sunday was the day the squad reconvened to travel to Adelaide but, originally, it was supposed to be the final day of their ‘mini break’. So it was with me.

I had the pleasure of a long, relaxing ‘barbeque’ at the home of Queensland Cricket’s acting chief executive, Andrew Blucher. And what a fine, hospitable gentleman he is. Dale Steyn will play the opening game for the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash League at the end of the tour before flying home.

Another guest told me over lunch what a fine, unassuming person Hashim Amla was. I agreed. But how did he know? “He was in my chair for two hours yesterday,” said one of the city’s most accomplished orthodontists.

“His teeth are not very good. Must be all that time he spends playing cricket. Must have forgotten to brush when he was a junior,” said my fellow guest. “But who cares about his teeth when he can play like that. But what a genuinely pleasant fellow. That’s what I’ll remember about him.”

As I have said so many times before in this space, what a pity that we should still be surprised when our sports heroes turn out to be decent, normal people. So Hashim Amla had root canal treatment in Brisbane. Apparently he’d been in pain for months. Think of all those runs he scored in pain – and what may become of his performances now that he is pain free.

Saturday, November 17

Torrential, mid-morning thunderstorm in Brisbane which would have made the boat trip out to a couple of islands off the coast an interesting experience for several of the management and players today. Fortunately it didn’t arrive yesterday when a large group, including captain Graeme Smith, visited the Brisbane zoo.

Smith was photographed by the accompanying newsmen holding a baby crocodile. Actually, it was more of an adolescent, and a fair size! The local tabloid newspaper, the Courier Mail, ran a story quoting Barry Richards at some length extolling the virtues of the South African team. His only ‘question’ about the first test at the Gabba was whether they had a ‘plan B’.

The back page headline was “What A Crock” under which was the sub-heading: “Former Great Questions Proteas.” It was a shameless and tacky stitch-up. In the Aussie vernacular, ‘what a crock’ means only one thing. A crock of sh… Richards was rightly and understandably furious. Smith, by all accounts, was unfazed. What else would you expect?

The storm made the journey back from the team hotel more of an adventure than it should have been. A power failure stopped my train on its tracks and I was forced to emerge from underground at the Fortitude Valley station. Or just ‘The Valley’ as locals call it. There wasn’t a cab to be found anywhere, but there was no shortage of strip joints and adult stores. The lesser-seen, underbelly of charming Brissy!

It was the turn of Thami Tsolekile to face the local media and he did so with charm, wit and honesty: “There’s no secret that Australia ended up winning more sessions of the first test then we did after we had made a very good start. But it wasn’t a good test match for us and we know we’ll have to do much better in Adelaide.”

The Lions wicketkeeper was full of praise for AB de Villiers and said he could see no good reason why the Proteas would change the balance of the side to include him as a specialist ‘keeper. “It may be three weeks, three months or a year before I make my next test appearance but, being eight years after my first one, there’s no doubt it will feel like another debut!”

Robbie Peterson was having a late breakfast after a lengthy gym session and it was great to catch up and congratulate him after his recent acceptance of the position as president of the SA Cricketers Association (SACA). He is one of the most widely respected cricketers in the country and, although the job may not carry the same prestige or kudos as the national captaincy in the eyes of the public or media, it is almost certainly the next most important and influential behind those occupied by Smith and AB de Villiers. And there is no better man to be there.

The team will travel to Adelaide on Sunday morning and have a light work-out at the Adelaide Oval on Sunday afternoon. Full, intense training begins on Monday afternoon. By Thursday morning it’s fair to say that excitement and levels of expectation for the second test will be even greater than they were before the Gabba. Australians are placing a great deal of importance in the fact that they finished stronger in Brisbane. The Proteas, naturally, have filed the experience away. A draw is a draw and they know they are capable of a great deal better.

Happy Birthday to my darling daughter, Mia. 12-years-old today. Another birthday with Dad away. I will make it up to you, my darling.

Thursday, November 15

The Brisbane train network is excellent. The carriages are air-conditioned and everything runs on time. The trip from Eagle Junction to Brisbane Central takes about 12 minutes and the team’s hotel is directly above the station, connected by a series of escalators and enclosed shopping hallways. Never has it been easier to get to a press conference.

And rarely has anyone had it harder than poor old Rory Kleinveldt who was the ‘victim’ on Thursday. Expecting, at most, a couple of journalists to quiz him about his inauspicious start to test cricket, the Cobras seamer was confronted with a couple of local television crews, four Australian print media – and the two South Africans.

“It was pretty tough,” he said humbly. “I wish it had gone better but, it didn’t, and that’s what I have to deal with. I just have to pick myself up and try to do better in the second test.”

Virtually everybody is speculating that there will be no second test for him, however. Imran Tahir seems certain to be recalled for Adelaide with Kleinveldt making way. “Nobody has spoken to me about that yet. Gary chatted to me the night before the first test to say that I would be playing so I’ll wait until closer to the time to see what might happen.”

The most embarrassing aspect of the big Capetonian’s first appearance on the big stage was the no-ball crisis which saw him contributing a dozen runs to Australia’s mammoth total of 565-5. “It was unacceptable,” he said, echoing precisely the words of bowling coach Allan Donald. “There is no excuse for that. I cannot explain it. But I will certainly be addressing it when we start preparations again on Monday.”

Not being a fisherman, Kleinveldt did admit that “a bit of golf” might be on the cards during the Proteas’ five-day mini-holiday between tests. “This is my first tour with the test team but I understand that Gary’s way is to give guys time off between matches to refresh mentally and physically.”

The local newspaper, Brisbane’s Courier Mail, suggested that Kirsten’s (admittedly remarkable) decision to return to Cape Town for three days may be “just the slip-up Australia has been waiting for.” If Australia have been waiting for a “slip-up” from Kirsten rather than Kallis, Amla, Smith, Steyn, Morkel or Philander, then they really are clutching at straws.

Kirsten’s decision is understandable on a number of levels. He has four members of senior management remaining in Australia, so his presence is irrelevant given that he has instructed everyone to take a complete break from cricket. He is the hardest working member of the squad when they are together. Nobody arrives earlier or leaves later than him.

And finally, having encouraged the players to discover what works best for them in terms of recharging emotional and spiritual batteries, would it not be hypocritical of the head coach not to do what works best for him?

Tuesday, November 13

There was a moment, two balls after Peter Siddle thought he had Hashim Amla caught behind, when time did not just stand still – it reversed.

We were thrown back to an era in which Michael Holding kicked stumps out of the ground, Dennis Lillee tried to physically attack Javed Miandad and Colin Croft shoulder-charged an ‘unhelpful’ umpire – all during test matches. And what price did they pay? A high one, at the time. They were all frowned upon (albeit briefly).

There was no doubt they went too far. That sort of behaviour really doesn’t set a good example, but then neither did John McEnroe. And how much harm did he do the global game of tennis by being an embarrassing brat?

This moment was pure, untarnished passion. A bullish, slightly stupid fast bowler, bristling with aggression and overflowing with testosterone and adrenalin, accusing the most placid cricketer in the world of ‘cheating’ because he didn’t ‘walk’ after an eyeballs-out appeal for an edge to the ‘keeper.

Hashim has been a serial back-turner in such situations throughout his career. Not because he isn’t ‘up’ for the challenge, but because he worked out long ago that fast bowlers HATE that more than anything else. So what did he do? Turn his back? Not this time.

It was the end of the over and Hash wanted to have a chat to Jacques. The ‘Sid’ stood in his way. Hash walked towards him. Siddle didn’t move. Hash kept walking. The only surprise when their shoulders touched was the lack of sparks, because there was no lack of electricity.

After the match the process of attributing and distributing ‘psychological points’ to the teams began. Who will take what to Adelaide. It’s an old practice that makes no sense whatsoever except to fill newspaper space and radio airwaves. One day, it is the team which finishes on top which is the winner. On another day, it is the team which is crushed to within an inch of its life which walks away with the glory – like when England escaped with back-to-back draws against SA a couple of years ago with nine wickets down.

Much excitement about Wednesday, and absolutely no guilt whatsoever. Whereas I could spend the day writing post-mortems on the test match and declaring someone the ‘moral victor’, I’ll be playing golf instead. The Proteas are going on holiday, so I’ll be having 18 holes at Indooripillee Golf Club and enjoying every one of them.

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