Down Under Diary – SA’s 2008/09 tour to Australia, week five

Monday, January 12

Melbourne is beginning to feel like base-camp. Left this morning for Brisbane but will return again on Wednesday for the third time. Despite the MCG holding over 60 000 for the T20 game and David Warner’s baseball slugging, the topic of conversation between me and colleague Mluleki Ntsabo in the taxi on the way to the airport was about the attitude of the security staff at the MCG. Half a dozen kids had arrived at the same time as us and clearly didn’t know about the regulation which bans spectators from taking any cans of drink into the ground. They each had a couple of cans of cool drink in their bags. Security staff removed them, opened them, poured the contents away and disposed of the can. I asked a lady why they did that: “So that nobody else can have them!” she replied, defiantly. Are there no underprivileged, no needy people, no childrens homes? What a shameful waste, and it wasn’t just half a dozen, there were thousands of drinks being poured away. The MCG is one of the greatest sporting arenas in the world, but it takes itself far, far too seriously and it left a sour taste for the rest of the evening.

SA Cricketers Association chief executive Tony Irish is in town for a series of meetings with his colleagues from the players associations of Australia and New Zealand. The boards of all three nations are also in a series of meetings. It’s all very hush-hush at the moment but it certainly looks like there is a shared determination to make a T20 Trinations-type competition happen. I gather it might be called the SPL – the Southern Premier League. If negotiations are successful, there would be eight Franchises divided between the countries (possibly three in SA, three in Aus and two in NZ) and, just like the IPL, they would be free to recruit players from anywhere in the world. Unlike the postponed Champions League, these teams would not be existing Franchises (ie Dolphins, Titans etc). So, if you have R35-million to invest and are happy to rent the Wanderers, Newlands or Kingsmead for a couple of weeks per year, why not get your application in early?

The flight from Melbourne to Brisbane takes almost two hours but you land less than an hour before you take off because Brisbane doesn’t do summer-time daylight saving. So we are only eight hours ahead of South Africa now, not nine. Brisbane did experiment with daylight saving but, apparently, the cows became confused with the sun coming up earlier and it caused havoc with milk production. Seriously.

On the plane they show an episode of Fawlty Towers – the one where Basil persuades Polly to pretend to be a sick Cybil and lie in bed while friends come and say hello. It still makes people laugh out loud, 30 years after it was made?

Tuesday, January 13

The David Warner bandwagon, it seems, is only just getting going. Two days after his amazing innings of 89 off 43 balls at the MCG today’s newspapers carry even more column inches than they did yesterday. “Get into the one-day side” is the backpage headline in The Australian. The tabloid Courier-Mail, as always, goes completely over the top: “Pick him for the Ashes” it yells. For goodness sake.

Far below the radar, Wayne Parnell is selected to make his debut and Jacques Kallis is ‘rested’. Dropped, rested or rotated, it doesn’t matter. In his own quiet, proud way, Kallis is still frustrated and embarrassed by his lack of success in T20 cricket and remains determined to make an impact. Ever since being omitted from the national squad for the inaugural T20 world cup, the world’s best allrounder has been battling to make the shortest version work for him but his $900 000 IPL price tag remains an albatross around his neck and he did little to remove it at the MCG with a two over spell which cost 25 and a six-ball innings of four. Don’t write him off. Something will ‘click’ soon.

Wonderful dinner at a breezy, open-air restaurant last night was interrupted when my old friend, Robert Craddock, receives a phone call tipping him off that Matthew Hayden will resign today. It’s too late for the newspapers but, in a sign of the rapidly changing times, deadlines mean nothing to a website. It’ll be a long night and early morning for ‘Crash’ as he compiles a fitting tribute to a man whose career for Queensland started at about the same time as his did in journalism.

The Hayden press conference is long and straightforward, completely unlike the journey from the hotel to the Gabba for the second T20 game which took 75 minutes and cost A$45 (R280) in a taxi. The distance is seven kilometres. It’s one thing for a capacity crowd to get to the ground for a 2.00pm start, but quite another to combine their arrival with rush-hour!

How unfortunate, but how typical of cricket, that JP Duminy should hold the SA innings together yet again with another spectacularly mature innings, hold a ridiculous catch in the deep, bowl a very tidy over of off-spin – and then drop the catch which turned the match irretrievably Australia’s way. Still, he’d done enough to persuade Crash to write his column on a comparison of JP with a young Brian Lara…but then, he does write for a tabloid!

Wednesday, January 14

One of the rarest days on any modern day cricket tour, a chance to step off the bandwagon. In years gone by, cricket tours would incorporate many opportunities to explore the countryside, meet new people and experience new culture and cuisine. But for much of the last decade there has been little chance to do anything but eat and sleep between fixtures. But today was a ‘travel and rest’ day for the Proteas so I decided to stay in Brisbane an extra day and play golf with my old mate, Robert Craddock, who had been up since 4.30am in order to facilitate a 6.00am morning television crossing with Matthew Hayden.

Here in Queensland, Hayden’s retirement has been treated with semi-biblical status. At no time has anybody ever questioned his conduct or demenour during the 15 years of his international career. Or even mentioned it. Hayden is quoted repeatedly about his determination to preserve the ‘fabric’ of the baggy green cap and to maintain the integrity and spirit of the game. There can be absolutely no doubt about the integrity of his comments. Equally, there can be no doubt that he has forgotten some of the things he said, and did, on the field of play which make opponents chuckle now that he is departing in what might be construed as a haze of sanctimonious self-appreciation. He wasn’t only one of Australia’s greatest opening batsmen, he was one of the best ever. It would have been interesting, at some point, to hear something like: “I wasn’t always perfect, I made mistakes like everyone else, and I apologise for them, but we’re all human.” Still, cheerio Haydos, you were brilliant. One of the greatest.

The first tee was awesome. Indoroorpillay Golf Club was outstanding and a fine venue to be beaten 3&2. The only ‘news’ of the day was provided by further investigation into the ‘laser light scandal’ from last night. For those of you who missed it, Wayne Parnell had a ‘laser’ beam light shined into his face as he attempted a difficult catch in the deep towards the end of Australia’s run chase.

“There was a green flash and it was pretty bright and the light seemed to be pointing towards me,” Parnell said after the game. It was all a bit strange. I only saw it then but maybe it was flashed around at other times, I am not sure. I am not making any excuses,” Parnell said.

Yet another piece of South African diplomacy. The Aussies are going to explode if this carries on. If there had been an outcry, the Proteas would have been crushed as ‘pansies’. Instead, their reaction led to a morning of introspection rarely seen among ‘proud’ Queenslanders.

Craddock did a Q&A with a local radio station (between the 15th and 16th holes, as we were losing the match) during which he said: “If this had happened anywhere else in the world we would be up in arms, but because it’s in Brisbane we say it’s just ‘a bit of fun.’

Thursday, January 15

In ten years’ time there is a good chance that I may belong to an exclusive breed of sports journalists, if I’m still around and doing the job. Thanks to the perseverance and determination of “The Star’s” cricket writer, Stuart Hess, I can now count myself among those to have seen a live performance of ‘Shane Warne – the musical’. And it was absolutely brilliant.

“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” says the theatre usher, “the performance will begin in two minutes. Please ensure that all mobile phones and blackberries are switched on, we wouldn’t want you to miss any important sms information.”

Like wasabi ice-cream, the production is a highly successful fusion of ‘impossible’ ingredients that renders you helpless with laughter one minute and gulping back the lump in your throat and tears in your eyes the next. How can you take the piss out of someone and revere him as an icon at the same time? The script-writer also plays the lead role; when he isn’t writing, acting and singing, he is a stand-up comic. His name is Eddie Perfect, and that’s his real name.

The scene with Warne and Darryl Cullinan leaves me, momentarily, cold with fear as it becomes obvious that Stuart has lost control of his laugh and can no longer breath. I’m thinking ‘what a bummer if he dies during the show.’ And I know how much he wants to see the whole thing having hammered a window of opportunity into his ridiculous writing schedule. Cullinan is portrayed as a helpless wreck on a psychologist’s couch with Warne singing “he’s a rabbit in the cross hairs of my gun, just waiting to be shot whenever I want” but the line which finishes off Stuart, more in shock than humour, is when Warne sings “I am Robert Mugabe!” and Cullinan replies, singing in a dreadful SAfrican accent, “…and I’m a white Zimbabwean farmer with nowhere to go.”

Many of the songs are deeply irreverent, none more so than when a chorus line of cricketers dressed in yellow sing a song about sledging with a chorus line of “…but we never cross the line, well, at least, most of the time.” Some of the ‘sledges’ are truly appalling and it’s tempting to feel embarrassed at your own laughter. But it doesn’t last. Then, straight after the song about Warnie shagging himself senseless while playing in England, complete with seriously raunchy, semi naked girls and inflatable sex toys, Simone Warne appears on stage and sings a haunting solo in which she says ‘goodbye, enough is enough.’

Met an old friend during the intermission – well, friend from previous tours to Australia. He does consultancy work for Queensland Brewery XXXX which sponsored the Beach Cricket Triangular involving teams of retired internationals from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The ‘old’ Proteas team, he says, were very disappointing.

Because they lost so badly?

No, that doesn’t matter at all. “Mate, it’s supposed to be a fun, festival occasion where everyone gets together and has a good time. And it’s sponsored by a brewery, mate. Four out of eight of the Saffies don’t drink! What’s going on there?!” he demanded, incredulous and indignant. When I pointed out that all of the South African team were ‘invited’ rather than selected, he was no happier.

“Mate, you’d expect blokes like Lance Klusener and Fanie de Villiers to say ‘no thanks’ if they intended to have an early night after each day’s play!”

You gotta love the Aussies.

Friday, January 16

Having watched ‘Shane Warne – the Musical’ last night, Stuart and I were uninclined to have an early night so we shared our thoughts over a pint of beer at Bridie O’Reilly’s Irish Bar on Little Collins – for the last time on tour. There was a guy playing guitar and singing so badly that we couldn’t even recognise cover songs by Bryan Adams. So I assumed the large bang which woke me up this morning was in my head, but no – there really was an explosion, and right outside our hotel! The scene outside from the lobby resembled a terrorist attack and, just for moment, I thought we’d be heading home early. No doubt if we’d been in Karachi or Colombo, today’s diary entry would have been compiled in an airport departures terminal. Turns out it was nothing more than an overheating electricity capable which blew up a gas tank under ground. The Melbourne Age website later reported that “two buildings in the immediate vicinity were evacuated…” But it happened right outside our hotel! Why weren’t we evacuated? “Probably weren’t enough Australians staying there,” suggests Geoff Lawson as we arrive at the MCG for the first ODI.

South Africa had won five out of five previous one-dayers at the famous ground. A statistical quirk, perhaps? Maybe not. Just as Lord’s inspires visiting teams to raise their game, the MCG has certainly done the same for Soutrh African teams down the years. Albie Morkel and Johan Botha add 51 together for the eighth wicket in 35 balls to win a game Australia should never have lost. Their fielding in the closing overs was the clearest evidence yet of an Aussie ‘choke’ under pressure – they were appalling.

Think Australia have a problem with the likes of Nathan Bracken and, particularly, Shaun Tait. Bracken is evidently sulking about not being considered for the test team while Tait clearly couldn’t care less if he never plays another test match again while he fashions a career in T20 and ODI cricket. He is playing for the money and is unapologetic about doing so. He bowls very quickly and produces the occassional moment of magic, like the yorker which cleaned up Mark Boucher first ball, but bowling quick is no different to driving the golf ball 300 metres, it’s only a start. Tait needs to learn how to chip and putt but he obviously isn’t interested in the hard work required to do so.

After the game Botha and Morkel are chatting about the Aussie fielding. I ask Albie during our interview whether he thinks the hosts ‘cracked’ under pressure. “No, definitely not,” he says a touch too quickly, “maybe it just wasn’t their day, maybe we had a bit of luck. But they are a champion team, number one in the world, and they’ll bounce back.” Not unless they can drag a bit more commitment out of some of their players, I think.

Walk back through Fitzroy Gardens and say goodnight to the possums, also for the last time. Possums are cute to look at but they are vermin, apparently, and have a habit of climbing onto suburban roofs and peeing on them. Possum pee, apparently, smells very strong and rots wood quickly, so not everybody likes them. Some home-owners in the suburbs trap them and then get into fights with their animal-loving neighbours. Possum wars. Most of the trees in Fitzroy Gardens have slippery plastic jackets around them to stop the possums climbing up. It’s comforting and reassuring to know that possums are subjected to the same bureaucratic rules and regulations that people are.

Finally, on that subject, my favourite piece of idiotic rule-making must be the sign at the start of the back nine at Indooroopilly Golf Club earlier this week: “Please note, smoking is only permitted on holes 3, 5, 7 and 9.” You have to laugh…

Saturday, January 17

Hobart, Tasmania. It’s hard to avoid the sarcastic comments about this beautiful little island when you’ve spent the preceding fortnight in Melbourne and Sydney so I’m not going to fall into that trap. Besides, the ‘big city’ mentality can be so narrow-minded. I think it’s just uneducated jealousy.

Most residents of Melbourne and Sydney clearly haven’t even been here. They refer to Tasmanians as ‘two-headers’ but that’s ridiculous – I’ve just been for a walk around the beautiful waterfront area and didn’t see a single person with two heads. I’ve no idea what they are talking about.

I picked up a free magazine at the airport called ‘Sauce’ which details all the live music, happening restaurants, trendy bars and other stuff going on, and it fills me with excitement about the next 48 hours. Not that there’ll be much time to do anything. Early start tomorrow morning and then equally early departure back to Sydney on Monday.

Among the many interesting features in ‘Sauce’ there is an interview section with four ‘random’ members of the public entitled “Street Fashion.” Just four questions each. ‘Favourite band’ and ‘best thing you did today’ are fine, but the next two provide an indication that Tasmania is a little different.

‘How do you feel about facial hair?’ followed by ‘Your favourite cheese?’ make for something different. Three girls reply: “Only handlebar mo’s and epic mutton chops”, “Facial fungus” and “Facial hair is cool”. The cheeses are ‘brie’, ‘brie’ and ‘camembert’. Clearly they have no experience of the effects of old French cheese in a beard, or they really are very different.

The centre of Hobart is tiny. Even a brief walk around town leads to chance encounters with Johan Botha and Vinnie Barnes while Makhaya makes himself known to us from 200 metres away with a characteristic yelp in the company of some of the ‘new boys’, Vaughn van Jaarsveld and Wayne Parnell among them.

Herschelle is there, too. We have had no contact with Hersch since he arrived. Editors have been requesting interviews but sometimes you simply have to respect people’s privacy. He knows he can’t avoid interviews forever. As soon as he scores 50 he will be obliged to speak. He could ease the pressure of expectation by speaking before then, but probably doesn’t want to increase expectations by talking prematurely. He may see it as a lose-lose situation for now, but it wouldn’t be. Everyone desperately hoping he scores runs tomorrow.

Facial hair really is serious business among Tasmanian men. Long, biker beards are as common as goatees and out-of-control-moustaches. Tattoos, it seems, are not just popular – they are compulsory. The centre of Hobart is pristine – restaurants, wine bars and boutique fashion stores everywhere. Stunning scenery, too.

The test series was so epic (in a sports context) to have enshrined itself forever in cricket lore, so feeling excited about the one-day series carries no guilt attachments. The prospect of victory tomorrow is deeply enticing.

There is only one thing better than winning against Australia, and that is winning when they are convinced that you have already lost. After five weeks, that feeling is becoming worryingly addictive.

Sunday, January 18

The crew of the anti-whaling vessel, the ‘Sea Shepherd’ were in town last night and, as you can imagine for people who attempt to place themselves between Japanese harpoon guns and the whales, they are an alternative bunch. No less than 15 body-piercings per man/woman and showering is strictly optional. They are treated like minor celebrities, and rightly so. What is it with the Japanese and their quota of whales for “research purposes”? What are they researching? How whale tastes with plum sauce? Whether it is better fried or boiled?

Hobart’s waterfront is delicious, at least it smells delicious because the scent of grilled fish and garlic prawns wafts out of every second restaurant. We bumped into national selector Craig Matthews last night and his hunt for a good steak house was taking longer than he had expected. But he found one – and a very good one, too – there is something for every taste here. Including those who prefer to drink beer from the bottle and break the empties over somebody’s head. Just like ‘Shane Warne The Musical’ – a fusion of ‘impossible’ ingredients, but it works.

Like many people who live in perenially cold climates – New Zealanders and Lancastrians come to mind – Tasmanians either don’t notice the temperature or choose to boldly ignore it. Arriving at the Bellerive Oval this morning it was about 12 degrees but the locals were clad in vests and slops (sorry, ‘thongs’). Even at night the ladies seldom appear to need more than a single layer on top and something pretty short below. Apart from the crew of the ‘Sea Shepherd’, of course. They make their own rules.

Lunch at Bellerive today was extraordinary. Never in 21 years have I encountered such a display of high quality food at a cricket ground. Actually, never mind cricket grounds. The oysters came on platters, not just a couple for those at the front of the queue. Cold fillets of beef which melted under the knife, mustard ham, smoked chicken and octopus seared in ink sauce. Potato and olive salad, rocket, tomato and parmesan salad, freshly baked bread – a cheese board with virtually antique blues, brie and mature cheddar complemented with dried fruit and a selection of fresh fruit tartlets. Tasmania is rightly proud of it’s culinary heritage and the display was designed to attract our attention. Topless waitresses wouldn’t have done a better job of that. Well…

A local writer turned to a colleague moments after slipping his second oyster down the hatch: “Are these Bruny Island, or are they Barulla Bay?” What? You can tell where an oyster comes from by the taste? Surely not! A couple of minutes later he forks a lump of octopus into his mouth. “Hmm, nothing like a Bass Straight octopus.”

A brilliant come-back with the ball, led by Makhaya and ‘Steynkie’, leaves South Africa chasing just 250 to win when 300 seemed a certainty at 150-1 after 30 overs. But throughout the run chase South Africa seem to have their pacing wrong. Always behind the rate. A five-run loss may seem close, but it wasn’t. Poor Bouch seems stuck in quicksand and his frustration is evident at the end. Albie makes 11 off five balls but it’s too late. The management admit that Morkel should have come in earlier. No doubt they will address the reasons why he didn’t before the next match, five days away in Sydney.

Some time after the game it emerges that a spectator was arrested and chucked out of the stadium for “racially abusing” Morne Morkel while he was acting as 12th man. Morne did not hear what the man said, but a policeman nearby did. No evidence of what the man said exists, apart from what the man himself and the policeman heard. If it’s true, then he deserves the life-ban coming his way. If it’s not, or has been exaggerated or misunderstood, there will be much egg on many faces.

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