Champions Trophy Tour Diary – Week Three

Sunday,  16th June

The hardest thing on tour is balancing work with family commitments, especially when young children are involved. But it’s a fantastic problem to have and one I wish I had more often.

Hopefully it will extend beyond Wednesday’s semifinal in London and onwards to Sunday’s final in Birmingham. That way the children may get to see the famous ‘Black Country Museum’ in Wolverhampton as well as Tower Bridge and the Tate Gallery. And Hamleys.

Children are, presumably, some way off David Miller’s radar having just turned 24 on the day of South Africa’s resounding victory against Pakistan.

He is a relaxed young man who is obviously confident without ever giving the impression that he might suffer from a surfeit of it. His innings at the back end of South Africa’s 230 for six against the West Indies wasn’t perfect, but it certainly made the difference between defeat and, err, a tie.

“We spoke a lot about the format of the tournament and about how every game was going to be ‘big’. We expected every game to feel like a knockout game. But the West Indies match was emotionally very draining. On the field, off the field, raining – we didn’t know when it was going to end. Even the next day I still felt drained,” Miller said.

“I enjoyed the chance – that is what you train so hard for, to make a contribution when it matters, to make a difference. I haven’t given a thought to who we might play in the semifinal, we’ll do that later. Right now I’m just happy to leave the stressing and worrying to the other teams trying to qualify.”

Amidst all the dreadful weather which is beginning to plague the tournament, Wednesday’s forecast stands out like a beacon of hope – or should that be a ray of sunshine?! Remarkably, the prediction is not only for dry weather, but a temperature of 25 degrees, which is five degrees higher than any other day of the tournament so far.

“I hope that’s right!” said a sceptical Miller. “We knew the weather was going to be bad and we prepared for that. We expected the bad weather.”

The impression that the ODI side is finally beginning to establish an ‘identity’ in the way the test team has done is not an illusion. Being on tour together helps, obviously, and the five days spend in Holland before the tournament brought the players together far more quickly than an ‘average’ training camp might have done.

“It’s a younger side than normal but we are comfortable with each other and the team spirit is great. We are playing with freedom and backing each other, giving each other plenty of support. It’s been one of the most enjoyable tours I’ve ever been on.

“I’ve been fortunate to play quite a bit of 20-over cricket which has helped me work out my game plan in the longer format, too. I still try to play myself in and then, when I feel the time is right, then I ‘go’…”

Monday, 17th  June

I wonder how many more press conferences Gary Kirsten has left? Hundreds, I would bet – but not many more as head coach of the Proteas. Not in this stint, anyway. Who would bet against him being appointed for a second term in a decade’s time when James and Joshua are at Varsity and Joanna can keep Mom company while Gary’s on the road.

The international set-up would have to be quite different for him to be tempted, but I’m sure it would be. At least, I would hope so.

In the meantime, speculation continues to mount as to what his next career move will be. IPL Franchise? Almost certainly. The question is, which one? He is not in a hurry and is not going to take a position with one of the ‘political’ teams more motivated by deals and finance than cricket.

Today was full of speculation that he might be tempted to take the reigns at England’s richest county, Surrey, which remains in disarray despite flashing the cheque book to land Graeme Smith on a three-year deal and Ricky Ponting for this season. JP Duminy has since been announced as Smith’s replacement. At least the county are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the leadership skills of Duminy, especially if they were only expecting his runs.

Surrey’s full-time coach, Chris Adams, was dismissed with immediate effect a couple of days ago and the rumour mill has been working overtime that Kirsten could be persuaded to relocate his family to London. They have not been fueled by me! Half a dozen colleagues have asked me and I told them all it was extremely unlikely that he and Deborah would be happy to move the boys from Rondebosch Boys and leave Cape Town on a mid to long-term basis. But that’s just my gut feel. What do I know? Money talks.

Just one more practice day before the semi final. There are no visible signs of tension within the squad, either individually or as a group. At least the crowd won’t be an issue. Having played India in Cardiff and Pakistan in Birmingham, lining in front of 25 000 Englishmen to play England in London will feel like a neutral venue.

Wednesday,  19th June

I should have known it was going to be a bad day when I kicked the leg of the bed so hard in the morning I thought maybe I’d broken a toe. There was only just enough space between the end of the bed and the wall to walk past sideways, but it was a manoeuvre beyond my capability at 6:45am as I prepared for a match-day run.

Things did not improve when I became completely disorientated in the charming but confusing Holland Park and ended up running in the wrong direction for a couple of miles. There was no time to cool down sufficiently before entering the sweltering Underground on the hottest day of the year. The walk from Vauxhall station to the Alec Stewart gate at the Oval seemed longer than ever.

It seems peculiar entering a stadium through an entrance named after a co-commentator, but there he was sitting in the box looking as fit and strong as he was when he stopped playing at the age of 40 a decade ago.

Stewart is, as they say in this part of the world, a ‘top bloke’. Utterly unpretentious and widely respected in equal measure, he is forthright and entertaining on the radio and terrific company away from it. He took no pleasure in South Africa’s demise and even mounted a spirited defence against accusations of ‘choking’ as the top order dissolved in the first hour and a half.

“You choke at the end of the match, not at 11:30 in the morning. They have made some poor decisions and perhaps been too aggressive, but that doesn’t mean they have choked,” Stewart said.

Another England captain, Michael Vaughan, concurred: “I was shocked when I was reminded of their record – not having won a single 50-over knock-out match since 1998 – so there’s obviously a problem.

“But this didn’t look like a choke to me. It seemed more of a tactical problem. The pitch looked horrible but the way Robin Peterson played on it would have told them it was a 280-run surface. By then they had lost both openers so they would have felt like they were playing catch-up. But they were always going to need wickets in hand. They could have caught up against England’s part-time fifth bowler allocation between Joe Root and Ravi Bopara,” Vaughan said.

I was genuinely shocked by the level of vitriol in the Twittersphere. No doubt it was the same on Facebook and other platforms I don’t have licenses for. The ODI team is not a collection of prima donnas although there is undoubtedly a different attitude within this squad compared to the test squad. And I believe the management know why that is. All they have to do now is find a way to resolve it.

I walked back to Vauxhall Tube station in a Trott-like bubble. Fortunately I had my aerosol anesthetic which I take to all ICC events and had applied an all-over coat. I had a seat reserved on the 8:30 to Loughborough although I had also taken the precaution of reserving an old friend’s sofa in case a few celebratory drinks seemed in order.

Finally, something went right. A ‘special’ at St Pancras station allowed me to upgrade to First Class for an extra fiver. Complimentary Wi-Fi, drinks and snacks and an extra comfy seat.

For two years Gary Kirsten asked the media to tread sensitively around the word ‘choke’. He asked what good could come of using it. Then he threw it out there, literally, as his parting shot. No doubt he will spend some valuable background time helping the players learn from this experience. He wouldn’t just call them chokers and disappear. That is not and never will be his style.

Thursday,  20th June

There is some confusion surrounding the return of several of the Proteas although there was no doubt that AB de Villiers and new coach Russell Domingo flew home on Thursday evening, via Dubai, and are scheduled to address the media sometime on Friday afternoon in Jo’burg.

Clearly there weren’t enough business class seats on Emirates for everyone to fly back together although another reason for the lack of clarity may well be the fact that several members of the squad have chosen to stay on in the UK – or mainland Europe – for a holiday. Perhaps they feel that could give rise to gratuitous and unnecessary taunts. “Thought you were on holiday all the time…” that sort of thing.

But life does carry on and it is only right and proper that the players plot their own way forward through the combination of reflection and relaxation that should follow a long, largely successful season which only ended with one large, bitter pill right at the end.

“This was a new-look, new-feel South African team. Criticised in the past for an uptight approach, they came to the Oval all happy-clappy, relaxed enough to talk openly in the build-up of the concerns over their temperament in previous knock-out games. Didn’t matter: new line, same old story,” wrote Michael Atherton in The Times.

“…the match was effectively done after the first hour and a half by which time South Africa’s top order had been blown away, devastated by …James Anderson and, more tellingly, an array of self-inflicted wounds by batsmen who looked fazed by the task of confronting them,” Atherton wrote.

Everyone agreed in the post-match analysis that it was a good toss to win and that every other team would have enjoyed bowling first. Nonetheless, as Atherton points out, conditions “were not unmanageable.”

“AB de Villiers did well to reach what would have been a wide from Stuart Broad…but South Africa’s torment was best encapsulated by J-P Duminy’s innings. He spent a skittish 11 balls at the crease during which time he could have been dismissed three times.”

“For South Africa, another chance to lay an old ghost to rest went begging.”

The ICC media department sent out an invitation on Wednesday to all the writers and broadcasters covering the tournament to a ‘smart-casual’ but ‘informal’ dinner at Edgbaston on Friday night. The invitation stipulated “7:00pm until midnight” which is a decent night out in anybody’s language but an expensive commitment for the host when it involves TV production crews and journalists! Pity I won’t be attending.

The ICC come in for a lot of criticism, and I’m not far from the front of the queue when handing it out. However, I have always tried to differentiate between those who make decisions in boardrooms and those who roll their sleeves up and get on with the job on the ground. This tournament, for example, has been a celebration of efficient organisation and friendly service. The volunteers (“Cricketeers” they’ve been called here) have been outstanding and, at the head of it all, has stood a South African.

Steve Elworthy has quite a bit of experience as an ICC Tournament Director and it shows. What a pity the recruitment agency tasked by CSA to find its new chief executive weren’t able to persuade him to apply.

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