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Week 3

Monday, November 26

Australians don’t make life easy for themselves. It was hard enough swallowing the draw today without being reminded of the newspaper reports which appeared this morning:

“Australia will return to the top of the world today once it completes a crushing victory over damaged and demoralised Test champion South Africa in Adelaide.

“The underdog success story may come with a rush as South Africa heads into the final day of the second Test on 4/77 after being set 430 for a record-breaking victory.

“Australia’s success will be all the more significant without imposing young fast bowler, James Pattinson.

“While Australia must officially win the series in Perth next week to claim the world Test crown from South Africa on the ICC rankings, success today will ensure Michael Clarke’s team is already ahead…”

That was a good one. But there were more. How about this one?

“Hometown hero Nathan Lyon is poised to bowl Australia to a defining victory against South Africa on the final day of the second Test today.

“Australia is certain to roll the No. 1 Test nation and move a crucial step closer to regaining top spot on the rankings with an inevitable win for a 1-0 series lead.

“AB de Villiers (12) and debutant Faf du Plessis (19) face the impossible task of pushing South Africa through the day on a deteriorating Adelaide Oval wicket.

“The Australians’ triumph will mean Michael Clarke’s men go to the final Test in Perth, starting on Friday, needing to win or draw, to leap from third on the Test ladder to No.1”

It doesn’t take long in the journalism game before you have egg on your face, but there’s a skill to be acquired for making sure there’s napkin around to help wipe some of it off.

But that’s not the Aussie way. And bless them for it. As one member of the Proteas squad said after Faf’s heroics: “I love their patriotism but, sometimes, blind patriotism stops you from seeing how the game is unfolding!”

For the second time in the game, Faf held court during a press conference in front of all the men who had written the above – and similar – and yet again had them laughing like a stand-up comedian. Not deliberately, just by being honest.

“It was just great to get an opportunity, I would have been happy just to be a part of the squad. I spent a lot of time in the 90s, especially on 96 and 98. I thought ‘haven’t you guys seen enough of me yet? Just bowl me a half volley and let’s get it over with, but I learned that it doesn’t work that way in test cricket! I had goose bumps but Jacques kept me calm. I just tried to keep them small,” Du Plessis said.

Cramps, exhaustion and dehydration played a role in the final hour, but Du Plessis said the answer lay in the head, not the body.

“One day, when I look back, I’ll remember how I was able to push through the pain. It’s amazing how far you can go if you are mentally strong enough.”

Sledging, too, was something he was able to overcome.

“They kept chatting in my ear the whole day. First they were fighting, then they were frustrated, but credit to them for speaking the whole day.”

Sunday, November 25

In all times of crisis, the refrain is obvious: "It’s time for heroes".

AB de Villiers and his old school mate, Faf du Plessis, have the opportunity to do something for which they will never be forgotten. Bat for an entire day to save a test match. They will, certainly, need the help of Jacques Kallis and the bowlers if the game is to be saved, but they will need to do the bulk of the work – or blocking.

In ordinary circumstances it would be beyond them, but Australia have only three frontline bowlers in the absence of James Pattinson which means they have a full morning session against the old ball and then a critical time against the second new ball which will become available immediately after lunch. Surviving that will be extremely difficult on a fifth-day pitch. Almost impossible. But there’s nothing like hope.

The XI for the third and final test in Perth has more permutation possibilities than a card magician’s birthday specials at the moment. Jacques Kallis will almost certainly be flying home after the Adelaide test to recuperate from his hamstring strain. Ryan McLaren is flying over as a replacement, but he may not play. Thami Tsolekile could keep wicket and Robin Peterson could replace Imran Tahir. If McLaren does play in place of Kallis, then he would bat at No 7 affording Jacques Rudolph a final chance to warrant his place in the top order.

This has nothing to do with the extraordinary noise level of the "rave" party directly beneath the block of apartments I am staying in at the top end of Morphett Street in Adelaide. For three consecutive nights the sound has made the walls on the 14th floor reverberate. No problem. It is vital that people should have a good time and enjoy themselves.

This morning’s run on the banks of the Torrens river was all about people having fun – a charity ‘Santa Claus’ run saw several thousand people lining up in red and white outfits – with cotton wool beards – raising money for charity. They were entertained with a live concert by “Becky Bridges from the band Lumpy Custard” – at least, I think that’s what she said between singing cover versions of well known songs to the backing of a soundtrack. ‘Lumpy Custard’ were nowhere to be seen.

South Africa deserve to lose the test match but, as are the vagaries and beauties of the game, that view will change if they save it. AB de Villiers, at his current rate, will finish with about 45 runs from 450 balls if he bats all day. And that would really break some records.

Saturday, November 24

Moments before you lapse back to the standard view of Aussie cricket crowds, something happens to change your mind. A group of ‘yobs’ from a distance turn out to be highly successful old school chums who have flown from all over the country (and a couple from Singapore, Thailand and Dubai) for a reunion at their old stamping ground.

They drink expensive (and not very good) beer from plastic cups and sing songs, but appearances can be deceptive. What a friendly, knowledgeable and generous bunch. They reckon Australia are on the back foot after three days, they remember South Africa’s chase of 414 at Perth four years ago. But most cricket fans are overly cautious about their team’s predicament and tend to look favourably on the opposition. It’s a natural reaction – expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised by anything, and everything else.

At 111-5, 273 runs ahead and with Clarke and Hussey at the crease, the home side are firmly in control. Lose both of them in the first hour, however, and they could move quickly from strong favourites to win, to potential losers. Albeit strong outsiders.

Faf du Plessis reminded everyone, albeit inadvertently, that test cricket is not a matter of life and death. The intensity of the contest breeds a respect among players and, whereas the supporters of both sides may feel destroyed and bereft in defeat, the combatants are able to appreciate the effort of their opponents.

Cricket has a tendency to take itself very seriously in certain parts of Australia. Very seriously indeed. Eight years ago, I witnessed an obviously wealthy man in a polo shirt, expensive slacks and even more expensive deck shoes entering the Members Enclosure at the MCG. The Steward happened to notice that he was missing socks. Rules are rules.

The wealthy gentleman politely stopped an uncouth youth, in full view of the Steward, and said: “Young man, would you be prepared to part with your socks for $50?” They were terrible, dirty, white towelling socks, too. The youth couldn’t get them off quickly enough. “Are you happy now?” asked the yachtsman.

A similar thing happened today. My colleague and friend, Patrick Compton, walked with me towards the lunch tent. The journey required a 10-metre detour through the Members Area, which requires a collared shirt. Patrick had a t-shirt on. For the sake of 10 paces, he was refused access. “Those are our instructions,” said the Steward, emphatically.

“We have been told to ignore all our natural inclinations towards common sense.” Actually, he didn’t say that. But he didn’t need to.

Friday, November 23

Great calamities on the journey to sporting results are reduced to footnotes when the final analysis is recorded, and although just two days out of five have been played in the second test between Australia and South Africa in Adelaide, two such calamities are already lining themselves up to be sidelined. Possibly!

Australia’s first day run-fest of 482-5 and Imran Tahir’s abysmal return of 0-180 in 23 overs might merit little more than a paragraph each when the last match reports are written. If the test match ends in a draw, they will be worth a couple each. If something else truly extraordinary happens, they may even be combined into a solitary paragraph.

History and statistics are changing so frequently in test cricket these days. Only two teams have scored 550+ at the Adelaide Oval and lost, but they both happened in the last decade. And this game is far more advanced than either of its predecessors. If South Africa can bat for five more sessions, they will lead by something between 120 and 150. The humiliating lashing of the first day will be a distant nightmare.

By the afternoon of the fourth day, and certainly on the fifth day, the pitch will be turning sideways and the bounce will be fiendishly uneven. Tahir will never have a better opportunity to finally prove that he can be as devastating a match-winner at test level as he has been for more than a decade at first-class level. And the horrors of the first innings will be banished.

Australia are still a monumental 333 runs ahead and remain favourites to win. The draw is an even stronger favourite with the bookmakers. But bookmakers calculate their odds in a mathematical, scientific way, incorporating much historical data. They have to. They take only a passing interest in the ‘gut feel’ of those who believe they know. They may disagree, but a positive result in this game looks extremely likely.

Australia’s total was inflated by a lightning fast outfield and short boundaries caused by the reconstruction work at the ground. It was further inflated by Tahir’s profligacy. But ironically, by scoring so quickly, Australia increased their chances of defeat.

South Africa need only to score at three runs per over to set up the chance of victory. It is a very, very long shot. But it is a shot. If Graeme Smith can score another hundred and Jacques Rudolph, AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis can contribute another. And there’s still the hobbling Jacques Kallis waiting in the wings. Who knows?

The man who sells strawberries knows: “The game’s dead, mate. It’ll end in a draw.” The girl who sells coffee knows: “My Dad says games always finish quickly here and he says Australia will win.”

The brave man who fancies his chances of looking into the future might go a different route. It will take a titanic batting effort and an equally memorable bowling one, but history beckons…

Thursday, November 22

The day began with a scenic run along the River Torrens, as most good days on tour in Adelaide do. It is a beautifully sculpted pathway on both sides and many an indigenous plant and bird are available for viewing – free.

There was an unexpected, small marquee erected on the cultured lawns on the river bank close to the Adelaide Oval as I finished my trot and people seemed to be gathering freely. It was hard not to notice the scones and flasks of coffee so, being in the habit of carrying a few dollars in my pocket at all times, I wandered over. It was close to home, after all. Early breakfast, perhaps.

I listened to a talk from a ‘normal’ lady which left me speechless and cold. The marquee had been hired by a group called ‘Get Up!’ which galvanises Australian citizens to DO something about issues which affect their daily lives. The subject this time was the litany of ‘pokie’ machines which blight Australian bars, clubs and restaurants. Gambling addiction is rife in Australia, and the slot machines are the worst form. They are advertised and promoted everywhere.

The lady described in concise, matter-of-fact form, the journey of her lawyer husband’s decline into ‘pokie addiction’ to the point where his debts reached A$25 000 and he presented himself to his wife and children on their way back from school one day at the bottom of a rope under a tree in their garden. Dead.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it was an uplifting experience. What could possibly be worse than that? And, from a professional point of view, what if South Africa had their worst day in tests for 102 years? Imagine if they, say, took only five wickets as Australia scored some utterly absurd total like, say, 482! No. That would be ridiculous. Not possible.

Seriously, think about that for a moment. 482 runs in a day. The last time it happened was when they bowled 120 overs in a day. We didn’t even manage the mandatory 90 this time.

Never before has a South African team found itself in as deep a hole after one day as this one does. And never before will greater digging be required to excavate itself. Strange as it may sound, I can actually see it happening.

Australia declare at 670-8. South Africa make 410 in reply with two days remaining. Australia add another 170 (just to give the bowlers a rest) leaving South Africa a target of 430 in 130 overs. The chase would be highly unlikely, but survival might not.

Wednesday, November 21

The day before any test is exciting but, to corrupt George Orwell's 'Animal Farm', some are more exciting than others. And this is more exciting than most.

Michael Clarke's jingoistic call-to-arms may have been rousing for his players, and they may respond with an impassioned, heartfelt display of blood and guts, Aussie passion, in which case it will have worked. It is in stark contrast to the calm, almost peaceful approach adopted by Graeme Smith.

Clarke has spoken of "The Australian Way" that cricket is played. He said today that he would make "no apology for the aggression of my fast bowlers" and stated that there was "nothing wrong with a bit of banter - it's good for the game." And he's absolutely right. It does add to the spectacle and drama of test cricket. Clarke even went as far as suggesting that his team knew there was "a line not to be crossed" and that his players believed in "mutual respect" - hard on the field but have a beer together afterwards. It was all good stuff.

It wasn't dissimilar to the South African approach spanning many generations. The difference between the teams now, it seems, is that one is sticking to its tried and tested formula while the other is trying something altogether very different.

Gary Kirsten copped a lot of verbal 'intimidation' in his time as a player but he never understood why bowlers would go to so much effort, and use so much energy, on something which fundamentally did not improve their chances of claiming his wicket. That approach appears to be rubbing off on the current team. Those who enjoy the verbal challenge (like Alviro Petersen, perhaps, who said "sometimes it turns you on") are free to engage. Others are encouraged to turn their back. In the past there has been a misguided belief that it was a sign of weakness.

The Adelaide Oval is a strange sight. Hectic building work surrounds an entire side of the ground as it begins its transformation from quaint cricket ground to international, multi-purpose stadium. The contrast between the lush outfield and beautiful, completed main grandstand could hardly be more stark.

It is the last test ever to played on the famous old square. This time next year, when England play their Ashes test here, they will use a drop-in pitch.

If the rest of the squad are as relaxed as Graeme Smith appears, they should sleep well tonight and be ready for a match which could shape not only their careers, but the next decade of South African cricket.

Tuesday, November 20

It’s one thing being late for a press conference and opening the door while it’s going on. It’s another thing when it’s started 10 minutes early. And it’s yet another thing altogether when it’s the wrong press conference.

Having been told that Gary Kirsten would be addressing the media at 1:30pm, I plunged into the SACA media room only to discover that South Australia Cricket Association Director of Cricket, Jamie Cox, was explaining why star batsman Dan Christian had been given a one-match ban for trashing the changeroom after being dismissed. Three times in succession.

It was hard not to feel the weight of patronisation when Cox said “some time away from State cricket will be of benefit to him.” In other words, we’re sick and tired of him and told him to bugger off.

I do like Australia immensely. As I have recorded on many occasions in this space (and others), the tendency towards over-regulation can be stifling for those unused to it, but regular citizens tend to find a way around the ‘fun police.’

A horse was recently entered in its maiden race under the name of ‘Lost East Estes’. As in every other country which takes its racing seriously, Australian authorities are on constant guard for horse names which may embarrass viewers or patrons and apply strict censorship regulations.

Somehow, this one slipped through. It makes more sense when said slowly – or quickly – and bearing in mind it was a race for two-year-old geldings.

Kirsten never did show for the press conference. Instead it was Alviro Petersen. Short, sharp and to the point, the Lions captain was the definition of efficiency. Although his efforts at providing a ‘controversy-free’ day for the media trailed off when asked about sledging – and Peter Siddle’s assertion that it had “distracted” SA’s batsmen at the Gabba.

“Cricket is a game played on the pitch, so whatever you might say has to be backed up on the field,” said Petersen. “If that’s their tactic then fine, but they need to back it up. I don’t mind a bit of that – sometimes it can turn you on.”

One man who wasn’t turned on was CSA acting chief executive Jacques Faul, on a flying visit of just three days. Jet lag may sound like a glamorous affliction to those who have never experienced it, but it is truly horrible. Imagine having to conduct four important meetings in a row between 1:00am and 5:00am. He did a remarkable job. Hopefully he is finally sleeping now.

Tuesday’s practice was optional, unusually. Although only Jacques Kallis skipped it. In recent times the training session immediately before the test match has been the one which has been voluntary. More and more is being written and said about Gary Kirsten’s philosophy on training and preparation. But no conclusions can be drawn until the results arrive.

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