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Week 4

Friday, December 7

Ricky Ponting happily admitted it was the camaraderie of the team and the atmosphere in “the rooms” that he would miss more than anything in retirement – more even than scoring runs and winning matches for Australia.

His final day in the change rooms was memorable for all who shared it, on both sides. When all the formalities were over, the interviews done and photographs taken, the great man visited the Proteas' "rooms",ostensibly to congratulate them on a fine victory but also to thank them (and all the previous generations he played against) for being consistently the hardest, most competitive team he ever played against.

“We might have beaten you most of the time in the first dozen years we played against you,” said Ponting, “but they were the hardest test matches we ever played. You never gave up. You played the game in the right way, as hard as you could on the field, but always happy to have a beer together afterwards!” A rousing and the obligatory ‘downing’ of a beer followed after which an emotional Ponting held the empty glass above his head as if acknowledging applause and then, pausing only momentarily, said: “That’s the first thing I’ve held up there for a while!”

In a gesture which probably deserves an update to the dictionary definition of the word "souvenir", Ponting’s current and past teammates bought a bottle of the country’s most famous wine, Penfold Grange, for each of the 41 test centuries he scored. A single bottle of a recent vintage costs around A$500 – that’s R4 500. The older the vintage, the more expensive the bottle. The first was from 1997.

Each bottle came with a hand-written leather label bearing the date, venue, opposition and his score. In total, the package was estimated to be worth in the region on A$25 000 – around R225 000.

The question is – would he ever drink one? And what would the celebration be in aid of?

The day after the test match was a quiet one for the Proteas during which they enjoyed a thoroughly deserved lie-in. Faf and Robbie Peterson spoke with their usual eloquence about the test match and the series. I also spent half an hour with AB doing a feature for SA Sports Illustrated (they must be turning back to the ‘old generation’ of writers!)

There will be much said and written in the years to come about this series – legalised burglary, I called it on air with the ABC radio team. But then, that’s what the great Australian teams used to do to the Proteas on a regular, four-yearly basis. It seems only right that Graeme Smith’s team has now gone to Australia and pick-pocketed them for two consecutive series!

Monday, December 3

Four hours after the match was finished, when the Waca was all but deserted, the South African squad emerged from the change room, some a little more wobbly than others, and gathered around the pitch in the middle of the ground to perform their traditional victory, team song.

Four years ago they sang it in the middle of the MCG when they were convinced that nobody else was there – also four hours after winning the series – but it was only 6:30pm and the press box was still well stocked. Those who witnessed the spectacle, complete with beer bottles and cigars, could not help but be moved by the rawness of the emotion and power of the joy.

It was much the same in Perth yesterday, except there were far fewer people to witness it. 8:00pm in Perth is 11:00pm in Sydney and Melbourne, long after newspaper deadlines. The journalists were long gone – except a couple of South Africans who were still many hours away from deadline. It was a touching sight. There were tears, but they were disguised amongst the general wash of emotion. Just as there were four years ago.

Some players have no knowledge of, or even interest in, the history of the game. Others are full of it. They understand the significance of their achievements and accept their place in the record books, even celebrate them. Graeme Smith is far more interested in the effect on future generations of South African cricketers that they have now won two successive series in Australia than he is in the legacy he may leave behind.

There is one mystery, however. How come SAA tell all us individuals that the earlier flight to Jo’burg is full, and then 20 Business Class seats suddenly become available when the Proteas can fly home 24 hours early? Is there something we’re not being told? No resentment, but it is curious.

Cynicism around the Guard of Honour afforded to Ricky Ponting at the start of his final innings is massively misplaced. It was as genuine a gesture of respect as I have ever seen. Smith and Jacques Kallis carry significant scars from previous beatings at the hands of Australia, but with those defeats comes respect. The Guard of Honour was not ‘instinctive’ (Smith organised one for Inzamam-ul-Haq in Lahore in 2007) but it was a genuine display of respect.

It’s late here in Perth now… time to celebrate. Hashim Amla played one of the greatest, attacking innings in South African history. Smith’s wasn’t far behind. Their partnership of 178 on the second evening of the test match was the single, biggest difference between the old, ‘dig-in and grind’, traditional attitude of South African teams and the future. When the game is at its most evenly balanced, that is the time to strike. The greater the gamble, the greater the potential reward.

Sunday, December 2

Test Cricket has changed so much over the last decade that nobody really knows where they stand any more. A fourth innings ‘target’ of 632 runs was absurd for much of the last century. Even when test matches were ‘timeless’, such a target was regarded as fanciful.

In 1939, when England were set 696 by South Africa to win at Kingsmead, the tourists were comfortably on course for victory on the ninth day at 654-5 when the match had to be called off because the ship could not be delayed and the players had to catch a train from Durban to Cape Town to get on board.

History often gives us a perspective on the deeds of the present which we cannot see at the time. Hashim Amla, 99 not out overnight, progressed to 196 before a brilliant, reflex catch off his own bowling by Mitchell Johnson denied him a double century.

One of Australia’s longest serving and most respected cricket writers compiled a list of ‘great innings played by tourists in Australia’ over the last 40 years. Brian Lara’s 277 at the SCG in 1997, Sachin Tendulkar’s 241 at the SCG in 2004, Michael Vaughan’s 145 at the MCG in 2002, Roy Fredericks's 169 in Perth in 1975 and JP Duminy’s 166 at the MCG in 2008 featured in the article.

Hashim Amla’s 196 at the WACA in 2012 was placed top of the list. It was hard to find a detractor. Everyone, it seemed, agreed that it was that good.

And yet, here we are, going to bed on the third evening of the test match with the fourth innings well under way and nobody confident enough to predict a result, despite a target of such monstrous proportions.

Not averse to having egg of my face, as regular readers of this column will know, let’s just say that South Africa will create history by becoming the third team behind England (many, many years ago) and the West Indies (30 years ago) to win successive series in Australia.

Saturday, December 1

There have been too many extraordinary days since South African test cricket changed forever four years ago to rate them, but few have compared with today’s, for one simple reason. Never, in the history of the pre- and post-isolation game, has a day been more convincingly dominated – with bat and ball.

The Proteas claimed eight wickets at a cost of 130 runs to earn a first-innings lead of 62 runs after struggling to a first-innings total of 225 from a nadir of 75 for six. Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla then launched a batting assault of such savagery it will take months, even years to sink in.

As tempting as it is to assume that gentleman Amla was merely taking advantage of moderate bowling, the opposite is true. He was brutal, he was savage and he was utterly unforgiving. He was ruthless, mean and…horrible. It was almost unfair.

It was also extremely beautiful. It was glorious, thunderous, emphatic and crushing. Come up with your own adjectives, there’s plenty more. But one you may feel cautious to use is ‘historic’. With good reason.

‘Moments’ in sport are difficult to categorise when they happen, but today should be an exception. It should be recognised immediately. South Africa scored 206 runs in the final session. It was one of the most brutal assaults in the history of the game, never mind South Africa’s history.

The test match hung in the balance, albeit significantly weighted in South Africa’s favour following an eye-watering spell of fast bowling from Dale Steyn at the beginning of the day. Then Amla launched an assault on Australia’s bowlers rarely, if ever suffered by the country before. Given the significance of the match, and everything at stake, it deserves to be placed and remembered among the most brutal of all time.

The irony of such outrageous brutality is that it gives the vanquished the tiniest of glimmer of hope. All this fierceness means that South Africa lead by 292 runs, with eight wickets in hand – BUT with three days still to play. Even if Amla, Kallis and the rest of the batting line-up continue for the entire third day and build the lead to 550, even 600, the home side will know that merely batting for the remaining of the match will, almost certainly, mean they will be close to winning.

But nothing will change the memory of Amla’s remarkable stroke-making. And it was, in every way, remarkable. He was a man on a mission. We’ll probably never really know what drove him to such extremes, because he’ll probably never tell us. But there was a depth to what he did which will never be forgotten – by those who saw it, suffered it, and celebrated it. And certainly by him who did it.

Plans are being made to celebrate a fifth day of leisure. Do not do so yourself. This game may yet go deep into the fifth day.

Friday, November 30

Live radio is one of the most intimidating – but rewarding – aspects of the job. But ‘live’ can mean different things. Sitting in a studio with no natural light but a red one with a sign beneath it saying ‘on air’ is one thing, broadcasting beneath a tarpaulin directly inside the main entrance to the WACA is quite another.

The ‘fishbowl’ effect has been discussed often, but when you say things like: “South Africa has not played to anywhere near its potential in the series so far and they are lucky to arrive in Perth at 0-0. However, there is simply too much talent in the squad which is due to perform to think they can be outplayed again as they have been in Brisbane and Adelaide…” and there are people standing around you listening and making facial expressions, it is a different challenge.

My words of optimism looked shaky at lunch with South Africa on 63-3. Shortly afterwards, at 67-5, I was heading for ignominy. Then it was 75-6. Oh dear! Thank goodness for Faf, and don’t forget the tremendous 30s from Robbie P and Vernon. Very mature, very impressive. Will they be enough?

The Gloucester Park ‘Trots’ track is even closer to the WACA than Newlands Rugby Stadium is to Newlands Cricket Ground. Literally over the road. So I have become a regular visitor. Once every four years.

Tonight was very different to previous visits, however. An impromptu guest of the committee, I was wined and dined like rarely before. Prawns, oysters and roast beef. Not to mention the fine wines of the Margaret Valley. What an evening. I even won on a race, the winner picked purely on its attractive name. It was such a red-hot favourite that my $5 wager returned a less than impressive $6-40.

The real highlight was a ride in the mobile starting gate vehicle. Unlike standing starts in horse races, trots (harness racing) employ a running start in which the horses line up in their designated positions behind the starting gate mounted on a bakkie which then accelerates to 46km/h before accelerating away and ‘releasing’ the horses and their chariot drivers.

In the final 100 metres before the race begins, the horses are so desperate to race that their nostrils are pressed hard against the ever-accelerating starting gate, just a metre away from where I sat alongside the official starter. Flaring, snorting, desperate for the race to start, they press hard against the gate as we drove. Unforgettable. Great memories.

A couple of races were watched from the public areas, too, in case you think it’s only the smarty-pants areas for me now. And I would have been happy to spend the entire evening there. Great facilities, great fun. My first race win was cancelled out by six successive losses thereafter, but who cares. Especially if Steyn takes 6-60 tomorrow.

Thursday, November 29

Three years ago, when Mickey Arthur was appointed head coach of Western Australia, he promised to have me over for a barbecue to celebrate the fact that we had managed to collaborate together on his book while he was living in Perth and I was in Cape Town! We never did have time to celebrate the publication of “Taking the Mickey.”

He insisted that I should stay in the guest room with him and Yvette on the next South African tour to Australia. Little did either of us know that he would no longer be coach of WA when we did arrive.

Having agreed over dinner in Colombo during the ICC T20 that it would not be appropriate for me to stay while he was head coach of Australia, he promised nonetheless to have me over for that barbecue (he uses the word with a smile!). We both have mixed feelings about the fact that our friendship needs to be compromised by our jobs – but so be it.

As we were chatting about the possibility of having lunch the day after the Perth test, somebody caught his eye and he left – in a hurry: “Sorry, go to go – big news…Ricky!”

Barely ten minutes later the former Proteas mentor was walking into the WACA gym (used as a press conference room) along with the entire Australian squad. They stood at the back of the room and waited for Ponting and his wife, Riana, to enter. And there it was, end of the road for one of the all-time greats.

Jacques Kallis fielded at second slip during the training drills, almost always a sign that an injured player is likely to play. Jacques Rudolph, however, spent more time kicking a rugby ball around – a less promising sign for him.

More rain around in the afternoon and howling winds. Forecast is better…

Wednesday, November 28

The Aussie media have finally persuaded Cricket Australia to see the "bigger picture" regarding access to the players. It’s just NOT about the media – it’s about the people who are interested in the game and might want to buy tickets to watch it!

So, after a decade of "supplying" a player (often reluctantly) to speak to the media before or after practice, CA have now instituted a new system of "integrating" players in an Olympic-style "mixed zone" for 20 minutes after breakfast during which they can speak to print, radio and television. It has been such a success that players are now even asking if it’s their turn yet.

No doubt the Proteas will catch up soon. For the moment, however, we will make do with our designated daily voice, even it means we all have the same one.

Ryan McLaren is not your run-of-the-mill, ‘normal’ cricketer. The Knights allrounder was his usual, affable self at training on Wednesday and looked sharp with both bat and ball. “I had a couple of days to get over the jet lag when I arrived so I’m feeling good and very proud to be here and involved again,” he said.

Did he watch the Adelaide test? “As much as I could – like everyone, I woke up early to watch the last session and a half.”

Did he expect to see live cricket in Adelaide when he woke up on Monday morning? Honestly?

“Well, yes, absolutely… not! Really, the writing was on the wall, wasn’t it? But I woke up extra early to see what was happening and watched for at least the whole final session. It was awesome, I’ll never forget it. So to be here now, with a chance to be involved, is fantastic.”

Another recent arrival (same flight, in fact) is selection convenor Andrew Hudson. He could have convened most of his meetings over the last 18 months in a rave bar given how much conversation was needed. Now, suddenly, all the work they never had to do has been concertinaed into one match. As many as seven major decisions have to be made, all of which constitute a gamble, of varying degrees.

Do we gamble on Jacques Kallis’s fitness as a batsman? Do we play a spinner? Is Robbie P up to the challenge? Is an all-seam attack the right way to go – given there’ll be no respectable part-timer? Is Ryan McLaren up to the task, given the importance of the test match? Is Jacques Rudolph merely suffering a run of misfortune, or is he out of form? Is it time to play Thami Tsolekile and bank on a return to form for AB de Villiers?

For all this time we thought selecting the national team was easy.

Tuesday, November 27

It’s a long day coming ‘back’ against the time zones, even with a two-hour delay of the flight from Adelaide to Perth. Arrived at the airport at 9:20am for a 10:40am departure only to hear it’s delayed by 20 minutes, and then another 20, and another… there is only so much airport coffee you can drink. It’s a tight call between which is more offended, the wallet or the taste buds.

The Proteas were on a much later flight so could enjoy a much deserved lie-in. Although their flight landed soon after mine and involved much less hanging around. Despite what anybody may say to the contrary, they were a buoyant group. Irritating as it may be when the opposition are smug about avoiding a defeat, nothing changes the deep sense of satisfaction when insurmountable odds are overcome. The Proteas were utterly, and justifiably ‘Faffed’ as they travelled to Perth.

Many of them still remember all too vividly how cock-a-hoop England were when they hung on, nine wickets down, in back-to-back tests. Can anyone forget number 11 Graham Onions fist-pumping? Thank goodness Faf and Morne Morkel didn’t resort to such embarrassment. In fact, the whole team behaved with impeccable dignity which can’t have been easy when all their instincts would have been to roar with delight.

Travel days on tour very rarely involve any practice and this was no exception. Rory Kleinveldt, however, revealed that the famous concrete floodlight pylons of the Waca represent his earliest memories of Australia on the television and it has been a childhood dream to play for South Africa there ever since. The chances are pretty good that he will. Early indications would suggest that South Africa might do as they did in Brisbane and play an all-seam attack, as Australia are likely to do.

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