The sniffer dogs at Perth Airport catch their usual share of unsuspecting ‘victims’ who are either too groggy or too careless to notice the signs about carrying food or drink into the country.
A female customs officer wearing an odd combination of shorts and boots instructs passengers to place their hand luggage at ground level while they wait for their main bags and her miniature beagle sniffs away.
The dog becomes animated around a woman’s rucksack and is rewarded with a biscuit which, ironically, is exactly what the offending passenger had in her bag. I know this because the unsmiling customs officer rather embarrassingly spreads the contents out on the floor.
This tour is going to be different to all the others. I know this not because Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist have retired, or because Steyn, Morkel and Ntini make up the most potent attack we’ve brought here, but because last night I was upgraded by SAA to Business Class. That NEVER happens to me. For those of you don’t know, the seat really does lie flat.
This tour is going to be different to all the others. I know this because the hotel room booked for me by Radio 2000 is not a hotel room at all but an apartment in which my entire family could happily stay for a month. It has a full kitchen, a laundry, a double king-sized bed and the gym is right next door. Shame it’s not like a tour of Sri Lanka where you spend a month in Colombo. I’d happily stay here for a month.
Met up with old friend Malcolm Conn, cricket writer for The Australian, and Australia team manager Steve Bernard for an evening meal despite feeling exhausted. But some fantastic red wine revives me and by the time I get back to the apartment my body tells me it’s 5.00pm whereas it is, in fact, midnight. It’s going to be a long night.
The security guard at the main gate of the WACA is a classic. He won’t let me in to collect my accreditation without accreditation. “I’ve already been through this once with another South African journalist – it’s not my problem, it’s yours,” he says helpfully. Fortunately I have my Cricket South Africa accreditation which takes and reads, very close to his eyes. “Wait there!” he snaps as he returns to his office to make a phone call.
Fully five minutes pass before he returns and aggressively hangs my CSA tag around my neck: “Keep that on at all times so you can be identified!”
The Kookaburra Suite, where interviews have been conducted on previous tours, is now an office full of people who are unable to tell me where interviews are now conducted so I start looking and end up in a room with Brett Lee and Dale Steyn! The two men chat chat and joke for a couple of minutes before a photographer arrives and makes them do ridiculous things for a promotional shoot.
Sitting back-to-back, the fast bowlers are required to toss a ball up and down and “look mean!” Steyn fails totally and keeps grinning. “He’s making me laugh – tell him to shut up!” Steyn explains.
The evening is spent at the home of The West Australian cricket writer, John Townsend, who traditionally hosts the local and touring media with a traditional barbeque.
There is much bonhomie and reminiscing about previous tours and, at one stage, Luke Alfred of the Sunday Times begins to explain how the guard at the WACA wouldn’t let him in to collect his accreditation because he didn’t have…
Townsend welcomes everybody with a short speech and then jokes that Adam Gilchrist lives just around the corner and will be popping in to join us later. About 10.00pm Adam Gilchrist, wearing a suit, pops in and apologises for being late and for wearing a suit to a braai – sorry, barbeque. He was guest speaker at a charity dinner. He chats to everyone until he’s the last man there.
“I know some players don’t see eye-to-eye with the media but we all share a common passion and you blokes have to work just as hard and show just as much commitment as the players,” he says “…and obviously without the same financial rewards!” Thanks Gilly.
Perth has an enormous population of Oriental Asians, many of whom have now fully integrated into the ‘Aussie Way’ and speak with spectacular accents as flexible as gymnast’s body. But there are still some who haven’t been here long and are still learning. I was offered ‘foosayad’ for breakfast today which was absolutely stunning. Fresh melon, strawberries, grapes, kiwi fruit and lots more – topped with a large dollop of yoghurt. Perfect start to the day.
Graeme Smith was brilliant in his captain’s pre-match press conference. An Aussie colleague who had called him a ‘poser’ a couple of days earlier, but hadn’t seen him ‘live’ for three years, was gobsmacked. “He’s turned into a real bloke! How did that happen?” he whimsied.
How much of his ‘performance’ was an act, I asked the bemused hack. “About one percent,” he replied, on the basis that we all fake it, all of the time, a bit.
I am ‘ghost’ writing Smith’s column for a tabloid newspaper here. I ask him whether he would like to reveal the fact that Shane Warne gave him advice on how to succeed against Australia when the two men were playing together in the IPL for the Rajasthan Royals. The captain grins and says that is a good idea, so he tells me the story and ends his column by urging his colleagues not to take the Aussie media ‘personally’ and says he actually enjoys the “voracious” newspapers very much.
Lonwabo Tsotsobe, originally named in the 15-man squad as a glorified trainee to ‘acquire experience’, is named in the 12-man test squad. He won’t play, barring something extraordinary, but his progress on tour has been nothing short of spectacular.
“We have all been blown away by his professionalism, his fitness, his attitude…everything,” admits Mickey Arthur. “He’s something special. From what I’ve seen so far, I can see him playing for South Africa very soon – and doing well.”
Fantastic night’s sleep before the ‘big day’, first of the series, the series which will be different. Some things don’t change, however, and the security buffoons at the WACA remain as intransigent as ever. More so, actually.
I am required to participate in a live, ABC Outside Broadcast of the build-up to the test match which is being conducted at the entrance to the pavilion. Having passed through to drop my laptop at the press box five minutes before going ‘on air’, I am denied access back to the OB point because the South African players have started arriving.
“I don’t give a toss what your badge says mate, you’re not going anywhere near the players,” says the attendant. The ‘badge’, which is embarrassingly large and hangs around my neck like an unaccompanied minor label on a child, says ‘Access All Areas’ and even includes the words ‘Playing Area’ which is only usually afforded to very important people. Anyway, the attendant swears at me and I back down.
Team manager, Doc Moosajee, realises that something is amiss and chats and waves, attempting to break the ice. Neil McKenzie also makes a conscious effort to great me. But this makes no impression on Mr Security.
At the end of a very long and hard day in the field, I seek an interview with Paul Harris who is tired but only too willing to oblige. He has bowled 21 overs, aches and is hungry. After rushing a quick snack, he emerges in creaky fashion to find me. He sits in a chair behind a barrier and calls me to come for a chat. There is a five foot barrier between us.
As I step over it, another security guard becomes aggressive and charges me. Harris is outraged and angry. He asks what the problem is. “My job means nobody gets in there!” snarls the official. For once, it’s me urging the player to be calm. All part of the beautiful experience of touring Australia, and I mean that. Late at night, as I finish my daily diary, I really mean that it is a great tour. It just has little ‘difficulties’ along the way.
So ‘Harry’ steps stiffly over the barrier and sits down next to me, in the public seating, all of one metre away from where we would have been sitting in the players area.
Thirty seconds later he is calm again and smiling. “We’re not disappointed at all with 341-9,” he says, “we bowled well and it’s a very good wicket. If we bat well then we can be in a dominant position.”
Not everyone loves ‘Harry’, but his team mates certainly do. And, I must confess, so do I.
Thursday, December 18
Despite bowling an astonishing spell of 5-2-5-5, probably wrecking South Africa’s chances of winning the series and making an instant national hero of himself, Mitchell Johnson might be interested to know that still nobody has noticed the stud through his bottom lip. Or if they have, nobody has mentioned it. Maybe it’s just that journalists and broadcasters are generally a conservative bunch and the sight of it makes our toes curl. I’m sure it’s a very attractive addendum to his girlfriend.
He was a tennis player in his youth who worshiped Pete Sampras and didn’t take cricket seriously until he was about 17 years old. The story goes that, when he was ‘discovered’ it was in the back of beyond in Queensland bowling in rickety old nets wearing his father’s second hand golf shoes. In my experience, these wonderful stories have inevitably been been given more top spin than a Shane Warne flipper. More likely he was a talented schoolboy cricketer who also enjoyed tennis and golf and his father was a second hand car salesman. Either way, he was brilliant.
The WACA security staff continue to drive everybody mad. Rude, arrogant, stubborn, aggressive and completely incapable of independent thought, they added Kepler Wessells to their list of victims today – to the great amusement of the former Aussie and Proteas skipper.
Kepler managed to sneak past the rottweilers on to the field of play in order to conduct a television interview but wasn’t as lucky trying to get OFF the field! “You have no right to be on the field and no right to walk here!” snarled the overweight brute. Several minutes of gentle persuasion from Kepler had absolutely no impact whatsoever – “It’s my job, and you’re not getting past!”
In a last, desperate bid to get back to the commentary box, Kepler played his last card: “Look mate, I don’t know if you’re away of this, but I’m Kepler Wessels…”
“Oh don’t worry, I know exactly who you are – and you’re not getting past!” So walked 100 metres in the opposite direction to find the first gate through which he was permitted to exit.
“They’ve always been like that here, it’s a Perth thing,” said the unflappable Wessels.
A local reporter had the final word: “Two weeks ago we had a domestic match here and the crowd must have been 200, maybe 250. A couple of kids were playing with a toy bat and ball on the grass bank – there were the only people on the whole bank – and the security guys evicted them. No bats and balls allowed, that’s their job…!”
Kallis says after a catastrophic collapse that the team remain confident of bouncing back. Nobody wants to believe him more than me, but its hard.
Friday, December 19
Mark Boucher is seen eating breakfast by himself in the team hotel, interpreted by the Australians as a negative sign but the look on his face was one of steely determination. He is focusing on the ‘impossible’, 50 runs stands with Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini. He bats beautifully, too, but falls to a good catch for 26 leaving South Africa 94 runs behind. Things continue to look bleak.
Lunch is served down at ground level, five floors below the media centre and 100 metres walk through the public area behind the Lille-Marsh stand. The media dining room is, in fact, the WACA gymnasium.
Today, however, there is a strong and delicious smell of curry and rice right outside the commentary box door. With plate in hand and serving spoon poised, there is a short, sharp bark: “That’s Channel Nine food, mate. Yours is downstairs!”
Perhaps Bill Lawry and Tony Greig didn’t fancy the waiting for the lift, or tackling the stairs. Or maybe it was taking the ever popular Ian Healy too long to get to and from the gym because of the demand for autographs. Or perhaps it was because Mark ‘Tubby’ Taylor preferred to have his lunch as soon as possible. Either way, it confirms the oldest adage in sport: All of us are equal, apart from photographers who are treated like dirt, newspaper men who are trouble-makers and radio men who are just frustrated TV men. It’s a batsman’s game, and television is king.
On the field South Africa come within 45 minutes of producing the greatest day of fightback Test cricket since isolation ended. At 162-7 Australia’s lead was just 256 and South Africa, for the first time since the first morning, had their noses in front. But the quality of the Australian tail is far superior to South Africa’s and, for the second time in the match, they frustrated the Proteas bowlers.
But the good news is that rain and thunderstorms are predicted for the weekend. I point this out to AB de Villiers at the end of the day and he replies: “Hopefully not, we want a result in this game and we are backing ourselves.” Huh??
The rest of us are praying for rain.
Saturday, December 20
John Townsend, who featured earlier in this diary when hosting the media for a fantastic pre-series braai, arrives for the fourth day’s play with an unusual tale to tell, unusual for Perth, anyway.
“Someone put a brick through my car window last night,” he says. It raises a smile on South African faces, as he knew it would. Move to Perth and escape crime. Anything stolen, we ask?
“Yep, they took my favourite Elvis tape out of the stereo.” They left the stereo? And the car?
Townsend phones the police to get a crime number for insurance purposes and tells them he has kept the brick, just in case it helps catch the offenders.
“The forensic value of bricks, Mr Townsend, is limited. Feel free to dispose of it,” replies the policeman. I take part in a four-man panel discussion on ABC radio in the half hour before the start of play and we discuss how many runs Australia need to make the game “safe.” My opinion is irrelevant, especially as I am in the company of two great Test cricketers, Terry Alderman and Justin Langer. I am able to confirm, however, that SA team believe a run chase of 350+ would be “extremely difficult” according AB de Villiers. Alderman and the ABC host, Jim Maxwell, agree that 350 is the benchmark.
Langer displays the same patience and timing that he showed during 105 Test matches. As we look to him for affirmation, he slowly replies: “I don’t know what you blokes are talking about,” he states. “This is the flattest pitch you’ll find anywhere in the world and Australia have one bowler who looks like taking a wicket. South Africa could chase 400.”
Off-air I ask him whether he really believes that. “Yes, I honestly do. Smith will be the key – I was in England when he scored that 154* at Edgbaston. I’d say that if scores another 150 then they’ll win.” Crikey. I begin to look at the game in a very different way. I still think 350 is the cut-off point, however.
Brad Haddin makes certain that the target is beyond 400 with a brave, counter-attacking 94 and I start looking at the weather forecast again. Minimal chance of scattered showers.
Langer joins us for a commentary stint on radio and entertains like few others. He showers praise on Graeme Smith as he approaches his brilliant century and describes him as “a genuine, honest, mature and decent bloke.” I suggest that he didn’t always think that.
“Ah, mate, he was a complete goose when he started out. In his first series against us he ran between me and Haydos during one of our chats between overs and elbowed both of us out of the way. We couldn’t believe it. But by the time we came back for the next tour, he was a different person. When Makhaya Ntini hit me on the head in my 100th Test and sent me to hospital, Graeme was the first person to call me that night after play to make sure I was OK. He didn’t need to do that, but he did and I’ll always respect him for that.”
After the day’s play, Smith talks to the media and, once again, impresses everyone.
“We are not kidding ourselves – it’s a target of 414, after all! But we are sitting in that dressingroom with a lot of self-belief,” he says.
“In my own mind things have gone a lot better than I expected. If we do chase it down, it certainly will be a wonderful achievement for any team. From our perspective it would be huge for all of us.
“This team has learnt not to look to far ahead and in our own heads it is really feet on the ground time. To chase down 414 would be an incredible achievement.
“Even if we don’t get there tomorrow, the confidence we have gained has been huge.”
Interestingly, the Australian coach, Tim Nielsen, arrives for the press conference for the second day in succession. It’s a pathetic neglect of duty and responsibility on behalf of the players. Overpaid, pampered and pompous. The Australians used to be brilliant, world leaders in PR. Not now. This lot seem to have forgotten that it’s not the ‘media’ they are talking to when the talk to the media, but their fans, the ‘real people
Sunday December 21st
Potentially the most significant and important day in South Africa’s Test history. There have been many others – winning in India, England, Pakistan and the West Indies were all huge achievements over the years, but to win the first Test in a series on Australian soil and set up the possibility of a first ever series win here would surpass all of them.
The air is dripping with anticipation, hope and expectation at the start of the day. Our taxi driver to the WACA is from Ethiopia – he doesn’t know much about cricket but he knows the match will finish today and says it is a lucky omen that we are all from Africa. “You will win, 1-0,” he predicts. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
In the first few minutes after the alarm went off this morning, I have a vivid, half-asleep dream that Makhaya walks out to bat with five runs needed and is met by Jacques, 115 not out. Kallis tells him the same as everyone always tells him, get forward and block it. Makhaya swings across the line to a full pitched delivery from Brett Lee…and connects, the ball sails away over deep backward square leg and, with the wind behind it, lands over the ropes for six. Silly. I decide to ask all of the SA media contingent for their predictions.
Supersport commentary team:
Robin Jackman: “I’m too superstitious to make predictions, especially when they involve the team I’m supporting. I’m not going to risk a jinx.”
Kepler Wessels: “South Africa win by four wickets. Australia only have two effective bowlers and their only chance is to take an early wicket with the old ball and then knock two more over with the new ball. There’s too much pressure on Mitchell and Lee.”
Pommie Mbangwa: “Jacques will finish with 120 not out and South Africa will win – can’t say by how many wickets but I don’t think Makhaya will be needed!”
Brett Procter: “I’m shi**ing myself, I can’t think straight. I’ve no idea…”
Radio 2000 commentary team:
Mluleki Ntsabo – “Australia have the upper hand and they should win it. We have a debutant in next, it’s a lot of pressure for him. But…no.”
Aslam Khota “I haven’t seen Jacques this determined before. You have to go with South Africa based on him.
Print journalists: Luke Alfred, Sunday Times: “One-wicket win for South Africa, as dramatic a finish as you can get.”
Stuart Hess, Independent newspapers: “Australia, mate. Nobody chases 400 against Australia.”
Eduan Roos, Rapport: “South Africa win by two wickets.”
Word has reached some of the WACA staff about my uncomplimentary words regarding ‘security’ in this diary. Can’t believe that people are reading me in Australia. The joys of the internet. We chat about when rules are rules and when they might be considered ‘guidelines’, like when a player wants to do an interview with a journalist and is forced to climb over a balcony to get to him an hour after play when all the spectators have gone.
The game is over. I commentated on the last few minutes with Justin Langer as our guest. What a phenomenal man. No wonder he was the ‘rock’ upon which so many Australian players depended for their emotional support during his 105-Test career.
His final words after J-P has hit the winning runs are: “That officially ends Australia’s domination of world cricket and, judging by the way South Africa has played here, and the age of most of this team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they go on to dominate themselves for a while now. Great captain, good balance in the team and a very good attitude.”
Makhaya does a quick interview after the game and then runs over to a section of the crowd which has stayed behind, long after everyone else has stayed behind, and chats for ages while signing autographs. They are, needless to say, South African Perthites. There are a lot of them here.
The players all talk about “celebrating the occasion” but, funnily enough, it is the wives and girlfriends who appear to have had a few more ‘cordials’ (Aussie vernacular) than their partners by the time the sun has set. AB said he would limit himself to “two, but no more” beers. I’m sure some of his team mates will make up for his miserliness.
Smith admits he is travelling three hours before the rest of the team to Melbourne to “see a surgeon and get and injection, or whatever…anything it takes to get me ready for the next Test and the rest of the series.” His tennis elbow condition remains as serious as ever, if not worse.
Celebration time. Talk tomorrow.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to get in touch.