Champions Trophy Tour Diary – Week Two

Monday,  10th June

As hard as the players tried to look and sound relaxed, there was a tangible feeling of tension in their actions and demeanour in the build-up to the Pakistan game.

When they batted it looked like it might be bad, nervous tension.

But when they bowled and fielded it looked like the very best kind of tension, one which produces nerveless, steely determination and resolve to correct the mistakes of the first match against India last week.

The team’s collective reading of the pitch was also deadly accurate. By lunchtime the day before the match there was unanimous agreement that it was a bat-first pitch and there was talk of playing a second spinner.

Captain AB de Villiers seemed to quash that idea in his pre-match press conference by suggesting that Robin Peterson and JP Duminy offered enough variation.

It was a brave call to include Aaron Phangiso in place of Rory Kleinveldt but fortune (sometimes) favours the brave and the left-arm spinner’s final figures of 1-50 in ten overs did not do him justice. He was better than that and will have grown significantly in confidence and self-belief as a result.

Edgbaston has truly become one of the finest international cricket venues in the world.

The enormous, brand-new main grandstand boasts one of the finest media centres ever assembled and, although there is now no recognisable ‘pavilion’, the benefits outweigh the aesthetic loss.

It was a pretty building, the old pavilion, but the players hated it with a passion with change-rooms built for 12 men, not 24. They were always behind the sight screen for big matches, which made it tricky to watch the game.

It’s curious to know why some commentators start a match without confirming the correct pronunciations of the players they will be talking about.

Maybe it’s nothing more than an innocent oversight, but if players are expected to prepare properly then why not those employed to describe the action?

Lengthy Sri Lankan names containing upwards of five syllables are hard for non-natives but we break them down phonetically. Ka-lu-with-erana. By comparison, Aaron Phangiso really isn’t that difficult.

Some attempts were amusing, others pitiful. The press-box scorer (who doesn’t need to get it right) came up with the best one. “Are-ron Fan-jeezo.”

Hashim Amla, it seems, is beginning to enjoy press conferences almost as much as he enjoys batting.

The Mighty # was in glorious form after the match cracking jokes and putting smiles on everyone’s faces. His final answer was to a frustrated Pakistani journalist who wanted to know whether Amla thought the Pakistan batting line-up should have made a better fist of chasing 235.

“You’re asking me that?” Amla responded, trying hard not to allow his smile to break into a giggle. “What can I say? We bowled well and they couldn’t score the runs!”

Tuesday,  11th June

Another travel day. Another opportunity to ‘step aside’ from the daily routine. It may only seem like a couple of hours for the Proteas players, but they value them enormously.

The road-trip from Birmingham to Cardiff is less than two hours but, on a luxury coach with VIP players moving about, playing cards and ‘chilling’, the driver sticks to the left hand lane. On the reverse journey he was persuaded to pull over into a Service Station because several players had either missed or insufficiently stocked-up at the hotel breakfast buffet.

A decade and a half ago, when a similar situation presented itself, the team asked then ‘fitness-trainer’ Paddy Upton to accompany them to the fast-food outlets. It was 1998. The idea of low-fat pasta and chicken salad was an exciting novelty. For some. Others thought he was the geek prefect. As then, some players went ‘junk’ this time. Others went ‘health’. And some others, who had fed well at the hotel, went ‘cappuccino’. A couple even went for a bottle of mineral water and a pee.

There is something very special about having time off – not only for the players, but all those working a tour. The ‘on-duty’ component rarely leaves you. As pleasing as it was to see a couple of players strolling the malls in low-profile peace, it didn’t compare to the brief freedom I felt playing nine holes of golf on a course which ‘low-profile’ would have been a compliment.

India’s thrashing of the West Indies clarified things even further in terms of the tournament. A victory of any sort against the West Indies in Cardiff on Friday will guarantee a semi-final place.

One aspect of Monday’s victory against Pakistan which appears to have lacked coverage is the captaincy of AB de Villiers. When it goes wrong, the spotlight tends to shine sharpest. When it goes well, nobody tends to notice. It went very well indeed. It was inspirational. Even if slips in the 37th over don’t take catches, they send a message.

Wednesday,  12th June 

It is remarkable to think that many players find it awkward and ‘difficult’ talking to the media even after careers lasting a decade or more. Some just never get used to it. Sometimes it can be deliberate, but mostly it’s because they have never asked for help – and nobody has offered it.

In future, when a player fails to do himself or his personality justice, they must be sent without delay to speak to Chris Morris. Or better, just watch him talking, either formally or informally, to reporters or a camera.

Professional sport (and sportsmen) can be as nasty as bitches so there will, no doubt, be those in the future who accuse Morris of being a ‘show pony’ and playing up for the cameras – or microphones.

Actually, the opposite is true, believe me. I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of people give interviews over the last 25 years. Morris’s subconscious modus operandi is to ignore the cameras, not play up to them.

“The whole day was nerve-wrecking; I woke up a lot earlier than usual. Getting out of the bus there was a lot of ‘Pakistan’ going on. The National Anthem got me going, the goose-bumps were huge.

The batsmen did bloody well on that pitch, it was a real bonus. We thought 230 was a good score – what did we get? 233 – See, it was a bonus, more than we thought! We were very confident we could defend it. It was a tough pitch…”

“All you can do is give it everything. If we lost then we’re going home, well, not going home, but out of the tournament. Ryan McLaren was outstanding and Lopsy was brilliant. That’s the way I play my cricket. The spinners did their part, what can I say, I’m just a happy, happy boy. It was mind-blowing. Humbling.

“I’ll tell you a true story, I had to ask (umpire) Billy Bowden if I could nip off and take an anti-inflammatory because I stiffened up so much after my fifth over. That’s the truth. First time I’ve bowled more than four overs in two months. I couldn’t believe it. Happy boy.

“Grey skies and the threat of rain are not what you want to see when you are desperate to play, especially on your debut. Ask me in ten years and I might say I’m happy with ‘no play’ but that’s not the way I feel at the moment! I want to play.

“We played today the way we know we can play. We showed what we can do. If we play like that again then we have a serious chance of progressing.

“What if Dale is fit? That’s up to the selectors, but if I don’t play then the team will know they’ll have a bloody good 12th man. Dale was awesome. Constant encouragement and a pat on the back when it was needed. He loved it, he was awesome out there, he threw a bit of abuse at the batsmen at one stage but that’s just his character and personality.”

Chris Morris isn’t just a breath of fresh air to the squad. He’s a gale of fresh air to those covering the tournament.

West Indies lie in wait in Cardiff. Weather forecast is poor, unlike the sun-drenched day on which South Africa conceded 331 for seven to India and lost.

Win this and the likelihood will be a semi final against England or New Zealand at the Oval next Wednesday. But that’s still a long way ahead. No point tempting fate.

Thursday,  13th June 

There’s nothing like a freezing cold, wet day in Wales – in June – to take the edge off any excitement you might be feeling. Most of us forget just how much the weather plays a part in our day-to-day lives. For a couple of moments this morning it was hard to think about anything except what else we had to wear that was warm and water-proof.

Fortunately that changed with the arrival of Dwayne Bravo for his pre-match captain’s press conference. He is forthright and honest and amusing too. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to stir the hornet’s nest as much as he did with his ‘South Africa have the choker’s tag’ comments, but he did. The hornets were disturbed.

Cardiff showed us her sexy side a week ago, if plump, scantily-clad girls sprawled on public grass is your thing. Seven days later the temperature was 12 degrees and the drizzle was going sideways. The Proteas managed a practise session, of sorts, before scurrying away back to the warmth and dry of their hotel.

Faf du Plessis spoke with eloquence about the difference between knockout matches and the others after which you have a second chance. “It’s not about making a quick hundred or trying to take the game away from the opposition, more often it comes down to those who are mentally stronger for longer,” he said, wisely. “A target of 230 is worth 260 – that’s what it feels like chasing or defending. Runs seem harder to come by.”

They certainly were for Pakistan against a South African bowling line-up rejuvenated by the arrival of Chris Morris. Pakistan’s batsmen allowed themselves to become stagnated against disciplined but not outrageously good new ball bowling. You can’t hit your way out of trouble against two new balls in English conditions, but you can run your way out.

But running quick singles has never been the Pakistan way. And it isn’t the West Indian way, either. Another ‘strangle’ could be on the cards unless Gayle, Pollard and Bravo take the aerial route with success. Bravo mentioned the short, straight boundaries a couple of times, and said he was excited about tackling SA’s spinners with them in mind. If the ‘chokers’ thing was accidental provocation, then this certainly was not.

Not much was written or spoken about how good AB’s captaincy was during the Pakistan match. There will be opportunities in the future, no doubt, to catch up. He speaks very quickly – too quickly for a man in his second language – but his humour is not lost.

“He likes certain bowlers more than others,” De Villiers said of his experience with Gayle as teammates in the IPL. “He has a look for an over or two and then he decides. ‘OK, now it’s you and me today.’ Hopefully he doesn’t get in that mood against us. But if he does then we just have to try to limit the damage and chase down whatever we have to.”

 

Friday,  14th June

What’s the point in trading “what-ifs” and “maybes” after a game like that? Because it’s FUN, that’s the point!

Robin Peterson was smashed for 17 in his fourth over! And what about the 3-0-5-1 he produced before that? Match-winning? I’d say so.

Ryan McLaren is a wicket-taker. His approach is ‘high-risk’ and he paid the price in his first three overs. But he took the wicket of Kieron Pollard with the first ball of his fourth over which made the difference between victory and defeat.

What about the awareness of AB de Villiers and David Miller who both noticed that McLaren had inadvertently broken the stumps with his foot before running out Darren Bravo with both batsmen stranded at the same end? If they had not told McLaren to remove a stump in contact with the ball the game could easily have changed there.

Despite cricket being a game obsessed with and built around statistics, there is even more which is immeasurable by anything other than subjective opinion. Apparently, Chris Gayle was irritated by Chris Morris. If true, that is a harder achievement than irritating the new Pope. If true, how much did that contribute to his ‘soft’ dismissal against the Lions paceman? Unquantifiable.

Oh. Let’s step back a bit. South Africa were 238-7 against India in the first game chasing 332 against India. Soon after, they were 257-9. Morne Morkel was injured. Yet he hobbled to the crease and added 48 for the last wicket with Ryan McLaren. Without those runs it would have been South Africa ruing yet another heartbreak.

But never mind the “miniscules.” Some moments were glaringly and brazenly obvious. Marlon Samuels had wrenched the game away from South Africa in a blazing flurry of boundaries which took both breath and confidence away in one and the same motion. Where there was calm, there was chaos. Steyn had been saved for “the death.” De Villiers had been calm and organised. His decision to bring Steyn back into the attack, prematurely, was the most public admission of panic any captain could be forced into making. “I’m desperate. We’re losing. I’m playing my last big card.”

Steyn bowled Samuels in the second most emphatic way possible – middle stump flattened. Only cartwheeling is more emphatic, but that’s merely aesthetic. Steyn says the expectation of the team to deliver under pressure is “the biggest thrill in the game.” No wonder he keeps delivering.

So. The semifinal will be at the Oval on Friday and the opposition will be one of England, New Zealand or Sri Lanka. There will be no return to Cardiff. Thank you, Wales, for the warmth of your welcome and hospitality, if not your weather. It has been truly appreciated. See you next time.

Saturday,  15th June

Last year’s tour of England was so long I made the decision to buy a car! Second-hand cars are absurdly cheap in the UK – clearly the island is flooded with them. You can buy a car, with a roadworthy certificate, for 100 pounds. I paid 600 and but saved thousands on train tickets, taxi fares and even accommodation because I was able (and willing) to drive a long way between games.

Easy to buy means, of course, ‘difficult to sell’ and I had a plane to catch at the end of the tour. I sold it for 150 pounds!

This year is different but still very much worth hiring a car. Mind you, the price of unleaded is making my eyes water, and it has nothing to do with the fumes when I fill the tank up myself. In the interests of economics, I chose a 1.3 litre hatchback. A full tank of 45 litres costs 70 pounds! What?! 60 litres of diesel at home ‘only’ costs 700 rand!

Dale Steyn tweeted a photograph from the team bus of some of the players sleeping in the aisle. After 25 years watching and writing about professional sportsmen, my instincts told me that they must have had quite a party to celebrate their unlikely progression to the semifinals. Sometimes you need to question your instincts, and then ignore them.

This team simply isn’t a ‘big, boozy night out’ kind of team. I’d be very surprised indeed if AB and a few of the other players didn’t have a couple of beers to celebrate their good fortune – and some excellent cricket, it must be said – but their evening was far more likely to have ended with a glass of wine and a decent meal than a 2am visit to the VIP area in a tacky nightclub drinking tacky cocktails. And there certainly wouldn’t have been any punches thrown.

I couldn’t help wondering about the wisdom of Steyn’s tweet, however. With all the health and safety issues in this country I was wondering whether the ‘guilty’ team members might receive a knock on their London hotel door from PC Plod inquiring about their failure to implement the use of their safety belts.

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