Champions Trophy Tour Diary – Week One

MONDAY, 3rd June 2013

Sometimes we sweat the small stuff because, well, we have the small stuff on the agenda for that day. Many weeks ago I planned to arrive in London on the morning of South Africa’s warm-up game against Pakistan at the Oval. That was the plan. So when it didn’t go according to plan, it felt like a big deal.

It wasn’t. Eventually everything sorted itself out and, many hours later, I had a hire-car and life really wasn’t nearly as messy as it felt at the time. It wasn’t even a serious issue – at all. But I missed the match. A thrashing by Pakistan.

But it wasn’t, actually, a ‘match’ at all. It had no official status and counted for nothing – not team records or individual stats. The only thing it counted for was ‘media points’. You don’t have to think very far back to remember how affected, even obsessed, South African teams used to be about ‘psychological’ one-upmanship. In the right frame of mind, it matters far less than what the players have for breakfast.

It used to matter a great deal to me, too, that I missed a single day of play on tour. Recently, I have come to realise that certain days are irrelevant. It just mattered that I was able to attend those which I had planned to be at. Today was a breakthrough. My initial anger was very brief and the frustration which followed barely reached ‘warm’, never mind simmering or boiling.

I watched the ‘game’ on Sky TV. The top order didn’t bat very well. From what I saw. Ryan McLaren did terrifically well which, if a portent of things to come, may be far more significant to South Africa’s chances than the result of a 15-a-side middle-net.

My gut feel is that playing poorly and losing weakly is a bad sign, but I reckon that’s because I have scar-tissue from every other ICC event I have reported on the Proteas playing. My heart tells me they lack form and game-time. My head tells me that’s irrelevant rubbish. I saw, in this very country last year, how devastating a team could be on the cricket field with a terrifying romp across a glacier as their most meaningful preparation.

But that was test cricket and this is three ODI games. Even a 2:1 ration is not a guarantee for a semifinal.

Driving to Cardiff tomorrow to meet up with the team (but not taking anything for granted.)

TUESDAY, 4th June

An idea of how seldom the sun shines as brightly and warmly as it did today could be gauged by how many ultra-white bodies there were spread over the majority of public grass in the city.

The lawns on the outside of Cardiff Castle were strewn with scantily clad flesh as temperatures soared towards 20 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Not grey ones, anyway.

The Proteas arrived sometime after lunch on their luxury coach from London and enjoyed a day off, as has been the custom for decades on ‘travel days’.

Except during the Kepler Wessels era when the hard man of SA cricket usually decreed that travel led to cobwebs developing, and cobwebs need to be cleared as soon as possible.

There were festive scenes inside and outside the Swalec Stadium during the day as India recovered from 55 for five to make 308 in their warm-up game against Australia. If that wasn’t good enough, they then bowled Australia out for 65.

Unofficial practice matches mean very little, of course, but whereas South Africa could only muster 200 in theirs against Pakistan on Monday, it’s hard not to imagine that being dismissed for 65 is a sign of trouble in the camp.

Have lost count of how many ICC events I’ve been to now. But it’s most of them. And never has South Africa been further down the cast-list as they are here.

In the Daily Telegraph this morning their heavy defeat to Pakistan at the Oval did not merit a single word. When favourites lose, even meaningless games, they merit some copy. Instead, the ‘paper devoted no less than five pages to the return of ‘The Portuguese One’ to manage Chelsea.

Dale Steyn’s side-strain, incurred at the Oval, has made most people regard the Proteas as even less likely victors – against India on Thursday, never mind the tournament.

On the face of it, they are right. There seems less reason to be optimistic this time than in most previous tournaments.

Whereas there were always solutions in the past, this time there seem more problems. But that should be of interest only to bookmakers. Any of the eight teams can win this tournament.

WEDNESDAY, 5th June

Around 20 years ago Cardiff looked nothing like it does now. Well, maybe it ‘looked’ similar but it ‘felt’ nothing like the vibrant city it is now.

Regeneration is everywhere, not just in the city centre but along the banks of the River Taff, across to the Millennium Stadium and, of course, to the old Sophia Gardens cricket ground – now renamed the Swalec Stadium where the Proteas tackle India tomorrow.

I’m not sure it’s ever been the case before outside the subcontinent, but South Africa can rightly be regarded as underdogs. Especially since Dale Steyn seems certain to sit this game out with a side strain: “It does not look good,” admitted a sombre AB de Villiers at lunchtime.

An interview appointment with Rob Walter was the first business of the day (early morning runs do not count as business) and, as expected, it was both illuminating and entertaining. “I can see, from the outside, that it looks pretty strange for a ‘strength and conditioning coach’ to be appointed as head coach of a franchise,” he joked, “so maybe I’ve got some explaining to do.”

No, he doesn’t. He needs to explain nothing. ‘Strength and Conditioning Coach’ just happened to be one of the last available labels on the management team when he was appointed four years ago. He is brilliant at that aspect of his job, but is, and always was, so much more than that. He holds a Level 3 coaching certificate and plans to complete the elite (and rare) Level 4 in August before taking over from Matthew Maynard at the Titans later in the year. Like Gary Kirsten, this is his last tour of duty after four years with the Proteas.

“I always approached my job with a coaching hat on rather than a strength and conditioning hat on, so those who know me best always knew what my ambitions were,” Walter said. “I’ll miss being with the Proteas very much, but I’m also looking forward to sleeping in my own bed for more than a few days at a time!” He will do well. Very well.

Speculation has been rife for over a week about the composition of SA’s team for the first game. Before the warm-up games most pundits were suggesting it would be very difficult to play without five specialist bowlers given the change to playing conditions which now specify five fielders in the ring throughout the match. The days of the part-timer seemed numbered.

Then, game after game saw early wickets tumble against two new balls in seamer-friendly conditions. India were 55 for five against Australia before rallying to 308. Could South Africa do that with Ryan McLaren at number seven and Robbie P at eight? Maybe. But another batsman would be a welcome relief…

Apparently lost by many listeners in AB’s press conference was this, short line: ”…a guy like David Miller, he brings a lot of confidence to the team. To have an added number six or seven in our batting lineup to know that we can win a game from anywhere is great.”

If Miller does bat at number seven then JP Duminy will be left with the responsibility of bowling the great majority of ten overs as the fifth bowler. It would be a gamble, but then some say nothing worthwhile is won without taking a risk.

As with all global tournaments, media desire grows greater every time. I did five interviews for Indian outlets alone. I told them all that India were the favourites – only because I believe they are. I pointed out many reasons why South Africa are underdogs – because I believe they are. But I like it that way. It makes a pleasant change.

THURSDAY, 6th June

Poor in most departments, the day ended in significant disappointment. Defeat by 26 runs to India may not sound like the end of the world – and it isn’t. No cricket match means the difference between life and death, never mind the end of the world!

But it was a miserable performance and a miserable day nonetheless.

It began so positively in the morning when the team boarded the bus looking confident and relaxed. The newspaper story about a security “ring of steel” around teams during the tournament seemed a little off the mark when I became inadvertently entangled among the Proteas as they boarded the bus.

My only reason for being there was to collect a complimentary ticket for an old friend. Security can only do so much. If ‘strangers’ are recognised and welcomed by players, are they to be bumped aside?

Before the game started, I was asked by my ex-adversary (but now colleague) Michael Atherton why Vernon Philander was not in the team. “He’s not in the squad,” I replied. “And hasn’t been for the last 18 months.”

The former England captain shook his head and began walking away. Then he stopped and returned: “I’m not sure I want to hear the answer, but go on then…let me hear it.”

I did my best. It was a useful exercise because I had to repeat it half a dozen times during the course of the day.

“They say he doesn’t have a meaningful faster ball. No change of pace. Lack of variety, no ‘tricks’ like slower ball bouncers. They say that the strength of his Test game is the Achilles heel of his one-day game. His metronomic, probing accuracy in Test cricket makes him vulnerable in the ODI game because batsmen know what is coming and can attack him.”

“Hmm…Your best seam bowlers will always profit in English conditions,” replied Athers.

One other recurring question was asked of the tiny SA media contingent. It concerned Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Rory Kleinveldt. They both happened to concede over 80 runs in their 10 overs, but bad days can coincide. The question was why they ‘looked’ so untypical of Proteas players. Ungainly, ‘heavy’ and lacking natural mobility. They were described in many unflattering ways in the field. They did not have good days. At all.

The Proteas started this tournament in the middle of the pack. They are now firmly at the back.

FRIDAY, 7th June

A couple of weeks ago I had a private, ‘off-the-record’ chat with Andrew Hudson about who would replace Graeme Smith in the squad when the former ODI captain was ruled out with injury.

‘Off the record’ chats are, sadly, all too rare these days. They benefit both parties and, more importantly, lead to greater awareness of the facts for the reading/listening/viewing public.

I suggested that Chris Morris would be a wise but admittedly bold choice. Hudson suggested that it made sense to have a reliable, experienced opening batsman to take the place of Smith. It made sense. I didn’t agree, but several days later it was announced that Alviro Petersen would take Smith’s place.

On Thursday Petersen was left out of the starting XI and Morne Morkel was ruled out of the remainder of the tournament. Morris was named as his replacement.

There is nothing precise about selection, no matter how meticulous the research. It all comes down to ‘gut feel’ ultimately.

Morris is fast and skillful and – judging by his performances for Chennai in the IPL – largely fearless. It’s a stretch to call him an all-rounder, but he can certainly whack it.

Whoever loses between South Africa and Pakistan at Edgbaston on Monday is 99% certain of elimination. Morris, it seems, has some X-factor about him – or if not yet X-factor, at least he looks the part of an international cricketer.

It’s over a two-hour drive from Cardiff to Birmingham. More and more of Britain’s motorways have solid concrete barriers between their two sides which gives no chance to the confused badgers, foxes and…other furry creatures attempting to cross from one side to the other. They lie in their battered hundreds. At least, in the old days, they had some chance.

The drive was a chance to reflect on many things, not least AB de Villier’s post-match press conference. It requires remarkable maturity and self-control to speak with such measured control after a game with as many chances as that against India.

De Villiers is an emotional cricketer and leader, yet he never came close to uttering a word of criticism against the bowlers who had a poor day or the batsmen who made the errors which undermined the run-chase.

It is pointless to do so, of course, but it’s much harder in reality than theory. His support for his team and positivity after a desperately disappointing day was impressive.

As always after a bitter loss, the wounds are rapidly being licked clean. Thanks in no small part to the captain’s wise words. It’s simple from here on.

Pakistan must be beaten in front of an even more partisan crowd at Edgbaston than India enjoyed in Cardiff – and then West Indies must be beaten in Cardiff next Friday. Easy on paper.

SATURDAY, 8th June

If ever there was a day to be reminded of where the English media’s priorities lie, it would be the day when England play Australia in the Champions Trophy. And Chelsea continue their interest in Celta Vigo’s left back. And Manchester City secure the services of Stoke’s left back. And Swansea confirm their interest in signing, on loan, Reading’s left back in exchange for their left back in part-exchange for a right back, on loan.

The Proteas were left well alone by the media on Friday and Saturday. It’s always nice to think that that peace and quiet are conferred. It’s less appetising to think it comes from indifference or apathy. Not great to think that the Proteas are no longer an interesting story. Or, is it?

Perhaps the reality should be welcomed. The split between test and ODI teams was deliberate and decisive, so the result in interest should be accepted without complaint. Not good enough in Cardiff. Lack of attention. The squad enjoyed their ‘under-the-radar’ status against India, now is the time to make it count against Pakistan in Birmingham on Monday.

Squad practice on Saturday was hard but relaxed. It was clear that everybody had been fed a diet of encouragement rather than criticism following Thursday’s grim display against India. Positive affirmation works better than negative criticism (as long as the results back it up).

England’s “conservative” approach against Australia at Edgbaston netted 269 – more than enough in the end. The balance between attack and caution in South Africa’s approach against Pakistan on Monday will be crucial.

“We weren’t quite on fire against India, which was disappointing. We don’t have long to turn it around,” coach Gary Kirsten said after training on Saturday. “It’s good to have Chris Morris here – he’s only just arrived but I’ve had to tell him that he might be playing.”

The recently refurbished Edgbaston ground is a sell-out. The vast majority will be supporting Pakistan. The atmosphere will be alien to the majority of South Africa’s players. If they lose they will be eliminated – with humiliation.

Much to look forward to.

SUNDAY, 9th June

It’s a hard one to explain, but there was undoubtedly an air of ‘flatness’ in the squad before the India game. Perhaps it was the defeat to Pakistan in the warm-up game. Whatever. There simply wasn’t the ‘up’ that one associates with a big game.

This time there is no doubt. The disappointment and negativity has gone. AB de Villiers said as much today.

“We took a lot of positives out of the first game. Obviously, a lot was said in previous interviews that I was quite disappointed and hurting a bit. That’s gone now, and we’ve taken our learning from that game. We had a nice team meeting about what went right and wrong in that game.”

De Villiers defended his bowlers in the aftermath of their dismal performance against India. He said their ‘positivity’ had been good. Today he admitted that the start of the Indian innings “had not been great.” Now is the time to get real. If Pakistan can be beaten on Monday then there is a very real possibility that three teams could end with similar records: won two, lost one. In which case the semifinal places will be decided on net run-rate. If that is the case, the value of Ryan McLaren’s heroic, unbeaten 71 and Morne Morkel’s brave effort at number 11 may prove crucial.

There was a stoic resilience at training today. Few smiles, much grimness and determination. It was hard to distinguish between belief and resignation. Much will be revealed on Monday.

‘Baggage’ is another difficult concept to unpack, excuse the pun. Some players have it, others do not. One who undoubtedly does not is Chris Morris. A breath of fresh air is welcomed, particularly when the team is gasping for freshness. Too much pressure and expectation on one so inexperienced? Yes, probably. But he arrived in the IPL as a big-money signing and was expected to make sporadic appearances for the Chennai Super Kings. Instead, he played almost the entire tournament and was never out of his depth. We are entitled to hope for big things from him against Pakistan, and he should be excited and honoured to be in such a position.

Edgbaston has been transformed into the second best ground in the country behind Lord’s. It is now a stadium rather than a quaint collection of mini stands around a field. It is modern, extremely well-appointed and… even more intimidating that it was before. It will be packed to its 25 000-capacity rafters on Monday, and largely with Pakistan supporters. The challenge for South Africa will be enormous.

CSA’s excellent marketing manager, Marc Jury, arrived in Birmingham with a posse of sponsors who keep the game alive. SAB’s Alastair Hewitt and Momentum’s Danie Botes were among those throwing their support behind the team. It may seem irrelevant to everyday supporters, but when these men fly 17 hours via Dubai to be at the event, it matters to the players. It matters a lot. It’s the difference between playing sport at school without your parents watching and when they are there, on the touchline.

Misbah-ul-Haq admitted it was a “huge advantage” for Pakistan that Dale Steyn and Morkel would not be playing. Morris has very many hopes and expectations resting on his shoulders, but the truth is that Rory Kleinveldt and Lonwabo Tsotsobe should have many more resting on theirs. They were both poor last Thursday and South Africa are unlikely to win if either is as poor again.

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