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

Monday, January 5

Jane McGrath day at the SCG and the great majority of the crowd wear some pink to help raise awareness of breast cancer. Over A$200,000 has been raised during the first three days of the Test for practical work in the fight against and treatment of breast cancer, particularly amongst younger women..

As far as awareness is concerned, the impact of the pink theme has obviously been significant around the rest of the world, particularly in South Africa judging by the number of e-mails and sms’s we’ve had from people asking why the stumps are pink.

Glenn spends much of the morning in the media centre and admits to being overwhelmed by the manner in which Sydney and the SCG crowd have embraced the initiative. A bitter-sweet success, perhaps?

“Jane always insisted that everything that was done to raise money and awareness should be fun, not too serious, so I’m pleased that so many people, especially the men, have had fun wearing pink. And I know Jane would be very pleased, too. Every now and then something really hits me to remind me of Jane, and it can be hard because it’s often unexpected. But to see how she affected people is really very special,” says the great man.

Graeme Smith flew to Melbourne at 10.00am this morning to receive treatment on both his broken finger and tennis elbow tendon. We pick the news up second hand and wait patiently for an update through the day, but none is forthcoming until, after the close of play, we telephone the team manager/doctor, Mohammed Moosajee who confirms that the cast on the captain’s hand was changed and, just as importantly, he received the first of two injections of his own blood into the elbow. The second must come six weeks after the first so the fact that he has had the treatment five days earlier than he would have in Johannesburg increases his chances of being fit for the home series.

Everybody says, officially, that Smith will take no further part in the Test match.. I ask Bouch whether that is the case and he replies: “Almost certainly yes, but if we end needing two or three runs to win on the last day and we’re nine wickets down then I’ll be amongst those pushing him out of the change room door with his pads on and a bat in one hand.” Not that the captain would take much persuading.

But it seems very unlikely – even more unlikely than the comebacks in Perth and Melbourne.

Tuesday, January 6

Some Australian cricket fans can be a ruthless lot with a couple of beers inside them but, with a dayful of beers they are shameless.

Legends of the game can be treated with scant respect when they emerge from either the change room or media centre at the end of the day.

No wonder they are guarded when it comes to mixing with the public. Sometimes it is unavoidable, however, such as when you have to share a lift to get to the ground floor. I join a man who is a demi-God in various parts of the world but especially Australia – the great Richie Benaud – and several other people in the lift. It stops at the second floor where a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses who appears to be propped up by a man.

Oh dear – too many wines at lunch? Richie murmurs something to the man next to him. The woman becomes animated: “Richie…is that you? Richie Benaud?” Nobody says anything but there is a silent, inward groan. “Hello,” she says, stretching her arm through the small crowd.

“My name is Andrea, I’m blind – I’m a member here, I would love to meet you…” Oops, everyone has misread the situation. Andrea was being led into the lift by her friend, no wine involved. Richie is more gracious than you can imagine, shakes hands, chats for several minutes and walks with her at ground level for several minutes. When three minutes of your life can make such a difference to somebody else’s life, it makes you wonder why anybody would avoid it.

Another icon, albeit of a different era, admits to taking our injured hero out to dinner “and a couple of beers” last night. Shane Warne and Graeme Smith moved from ‘mutual antipathy’ to ‘great mates’ during their time with the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and the friendship shows no sign of abating. Warnie says he told Smith that South Africa shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking about a draw.

“You bowl us out for 150 and you can win this,” says Warnie. Late in the day, with Australia having declared on 257-4, Warnie and I bump into each other again.

“If Smithy was out there I’d back you blokes to win this one, too,” Warnie says, “but then again, Ricky would never have set you 376 in 115 overs. More likely 476! Pretty decent declaration, I reckon. First session is critical – we bowl badly and you get away with 90-100 runs and don’t lose a wicket then we’re in trouble…”

All day I battled with the ‘impossible’ illusion that the pitch, which looks appalling, has played better on day four than day three. I want to ask Warnie but am afraid I may be missing something – like great batting. As the thought passes, Warnie says: “Can’t believe what I’m seeing, but the pitch is playing beautifully compared to yesterday.” I thank him for saying that.

After the day’s play Mickey Arthur appears determined to focus on reality rather than the possibility of something ‘unreal’ happening for the third consecutive Test. “We have a change room full of guys ready to put their bodies on the line to avoid defeat. You can’t understand the difference between a 2-0 series scoreline and one that reads 2-1. That’s our first goal – we’ll look again at tea and see whether winning is a possibility.” He seems very determined not to tempt fate.

Wonderful moment of ‘security madness’ at lunch-time. Grab a bread roll in the media dining room (next to the media centre) and fill it with ham and lettuce before attempting to return to my laptop. Security woman stops me: “You can’t bring food in here!”

“But the food is FROM here!” I reason. “Why can’t I?” “It’s against the rules.” Later I see a sign in the corridor of the Bradman Stand, which houses the media centre, which explains that ‘personal food items’ are not allowed because it impedes the SCG’s in-house catering company from operating effectively. Interpret that as you like. It was, of course, the SCG’s in-house catering company’s food which I was eating. But rules are rules.

Three years ago Graeme Smith was treated like a buffoon by crowds around the country. Just before tea today he walked around a third of the ground, on the boundary’s edge, to be interviewed by Channel Nine during the break. The crowd stood and cheered. What??! “We all noticed it,” said Arthur. “It was incredible – how things have changed.”

Wednesday, January 7

The run chase in Perth was unforgettable as was AB de Villiers’s catching. Dale Steyn’s ten wickets and his innings of 76 during a ninth wicket stand of 180 with the brilliant JP Duminy will be like a tattoo. And I’ll never forget the way I felt when Graeme Smith walked out to bat on the final afternoon in Sydney. The noise the crowd made brought a lump to my throat and made the hair stand up on my arms.

During the Steyn-Ntini partnership which lasted an hour an a quarter, I was on-air with the ABC which was flooded with SMS updates from people who could see into the change room. Smith was getting changed. Smith was looking for kit. He was hitting soft balls with one hand. He was being padded up by other players. Then he was sitting, slumped, at the back of the change room with one pad on and one pad off. We never knew, at any stage, whether he would actually emerge.

When Steyn was trapped lbw there were 10 000 pairs of eyes straining at the bottom right hand corner of the pavilion, the visitors door. And then he walked out. The noise started with those closest but then spread, like a vocal Mexican wave, around the entire SCG. It was becoming very hard to keep talking with the lump in my throat.

Australia mocked Smith three years ago, and gloated over South Africa’s defeat at this ground, even though Smith had declared both innings in an effort to force a win. Yet here they were, on the feet and cheering as though he had just kicked the winning goal for the Sydney Swans in the AFL Grand Final…with a broken foot. Unforgettable.

Afterwards Smith seems a little perplexed by it all and says a number of times “…I don’t know what to say. I never wanted to bat!” But he manages to retain his sense of humour – I ask him during a radio interview what his immediate concerns are for the future. “Well, right now I’m a bit worried about how I’m going to get all my bags on and off the airport trolleys tomorrow morning,” he replies.

Steyn admits to being “incredibly proud” of his own individual performance during the series – “To come here and take 18 wickets and score a few runs is something I’ll never forget. When we arrived in Perth I read all the ‘papers and there was always something about this Steyn bloke and how he had knocked over other teams but what he could he do against the Aussies. I tried not to show it but we were in town for ten days before the test match and the build-up really started to get to me,” Steyn confessed. “Maybe I should become of those players who doesn’t read the ‘papers!” Alternatively, now that he has taken wickets and proved himself all over the world, perhaps he has no reason to doubt his incredible talent.

The Aussie journalists are as mesmerised by Smith’s decision to bat as the crowd – but it’s an absolte bummer as far as deadlines are concerned! Just as everyone was finally sure Australia would win and started to arrange their back pages and write their copy, one of the biggest sports stories of the decade walks out to bat with an hour to go before first deadline. The adrenalin is pumping in the media centre.

The last day of the test series, the best one I’ve covered in 20 years. Absolutely exhausted. Would love to go out for a couple of beers and relax but too tired. Besides, my cell phone was beeping every ten minutes during the last session…I expect it’ll be a busy night.

“If you have to lose, and everybody has to sometime,” I ask Smith, “that must be the way to do it, with a fight like that?”

“I suppose so,” he concedes.

Thursday, January 8

The newspapers are suitably packed with stories and images of the dramatic last day at the SCG. “The day the Losing Captain Won” yelled the broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald. The tabloid Sydney Telegraph had a field day, of course, proclaiming Smith the bravest man in world sport. The majority of the squad catch their first sight of the ‘papers at the airport – all except Smith, Harris, Prince and Zondeki who began the journey back to South Africa early in the morning.

But the article which calls loudest to me and which articulates the enormity of what happened yesterday is written in the SMH by Andrew Stevenson. Here is the conclusion: “Nationalism is, indeed, the last refuge of the scoundrel and I have to admit I’ve had a few sleep-overs there, most especially during those nights in 1999. Steve Waugh accused Herschelle Gibbs of dropping the World Cup. More accurately, Australia robbed it from them.

“Hard but brittle, South Africa was the team I loved to see beaten. But this tour was different. Just when the nationalistic juices began to flow, this young, confident and courageous South African team stilled them – not with a look, not with a moment of luck but over sessions of determined play. When the game seemed lost and the Australians rightfully poised for victory, the South Africans dug themselves out of trouble, turned the pressure back on the hosts and made them look fallible.

“They did it once in Perth and it might have been a fluke. Melbourne destroyed that idea and then yesterday, when most tailenders would have chosen spontaneous combustion and hapless capitulation, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini did it again.

“And for the first time in my life as a cricketing spectator I felt my loyalties shift. Having grown up on a diet of Lillee, Marsh and Chappell, I’d found an opponent I could love. With every play-and-miss, Ntini seemed more worthy. Every time Steyn stood in line with the stumps and offered fierce resistance, I was in his corner. Smith’s arrival at the crease was the crowning moment but surpassing what had come before.

“In defeat, South Africa issued a proclamation to the cricketing world every bit as resounding as their twin victories entering this match. If you want to beat us, be ready for a long fight: we will not cencede an inch. “A new champion has arrived in world cricket: long may they reign.”

Wow.

Steyn said yesterday that the team’s motto of the day, before a ball was bowled, was “No Regrets”. How appropriate. Makhaya sounded as though he may have one or two this morning, however. “I said to Graeme, ‘I’ve never batted with you in my life – tell me what to do! I’ll do whatever you want…’ I should have faced Mitchell Johnson, I should have protected him,” Makhaya said. How quickly things change for a number 11. It’s only taken 12 years for him to change from being a hopeless tailender to having regrets about not being able to look after the most prolific Test scorer.

The only worrying news the day after came from the surgeon who performed the ‘blood injection’ treatment on Smith’s right elbow in Melbourne on day two, a desperate attempt to get the captain fit for the first Test at the Wanderers on February 26.

“From a medical perspective he’s undone the good work of the procedure,” said Melbourne-based specialist, Frank Burke. “Usually, that kind of treatment requires two weeks of good rest, but that is his decision. It’s a fascinating move going out there to bat.” Detect any sarcasm?

Friday, January 9

It’s a glamorous life, this, touring Australia. Everything is fantastic. It would be little short of irresponsible, let alone ungrateful, to suggest anything other than I am the luckiest person in the world. There are days, however, when it doesn’t feel like that. The ‘hangover’ after the Test series kicks in with a vengeance as the return to Melbourne brings cold weather and the same hotel that charges R3 per minute to use the WiFi, which makes it expensive to chat to the kids on Skype. Missing the family very much indeed. Fortunately, I have much experience of days like these and I know they pass.

Yesterday I agreed to write a profile on Graeme Smith for the Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper. So I pull the shutters down and prepare for a day in my hotel room. I make myself a cup of instant coffee. I don’t even like instant coffee. I hate it, actually. Five hours later and the profile is written. South Africans, no doubt, have read it all before. But I’ll post it here anyway in case you’ve forgotten the story about the fridge magnet. I have to do in interview for an ABC current affairs programme and then I’m hoping there’s a movie on TV about a little girl whose dog saves her grandmother’s life by licking her after a fall down the stairs and they all have a celebration dinner with the dog at the head of the table wearing a party hat. Then it’s lights off.

Graeme Smith captured Australian hearts on Wednesday when he went out to bat with a broken hand to try and force a draw in the Sydney test match. He had never intended to bat and didn’t want to. He was sore and looking forward to going home. He didn’t even take his whites to the ground on that fifth morning. But as Neil Manthorp writes, he is beginning to wonder how much control he has over his cricketing destiny

Destiny is a much-debated concept but Graeme Smith’s life makes a decent argument for the fact that it exists. His parents, Graham and Janet, decided to name him – in a popular South African tradition – after his father. But they changed the spelling to mirror the most famous left hander in South African cricket history, Graeme Pollock.

They didn’t even know he would be left-handed but by the time he was approaching his teenage years, he was already a strong boy, taller than his peers, with a wide batting stance at the crease. Completely reminiscent of the great Pollock.

“His concentration at school wasn’t always what it should have been,” remembers Janet, “but he always did enough to get by and pass exams. He couldn’t read a book for more than half an hour but the one thing he could do all day, was bat. He would have done it through meals if we hadn’t stopped him during holidays.”

There is a famous story about young Graeme pinning a list of life-time ambitions on the family fridge when he was 12-years-old. Top of the list was “To captain the South African cricket team.”

“It’s a true story, one of the few that is true!” Smith laughs about the many anecdotes which have grown wings and become fantasy during the last five and a half years since the fridge ambition became true.

“We learnt something about ambition at school that day so when I got home I decided to write mine down. There were some on the list to make Mum and Dad happy, like getting better marks in school subjects, but the captaincy was top of the list.”

Saturday, January 10

Nothing like a good night’s sleep. Wish I’d had one. How much coverage of ‘Beach Cricket’ is there in South Africa? South Africa’s line-up is a veritable list of Superstars. Jonty Rhodes, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener, Allen Donald, Andrew Hall, Fanie de Villiers, Paul Adams and Darryl Cullinan. The spectacle greets us on morning television. The South African ‘VIII’ is hammered by New Zealand in the first match. Hally looks as though the ICL has been treating him well. Very well.

This may be old news, but one of the highlights of the day is when I’m told that a South African fan was told to remove his banner of support during the Sydney test or face eviction. It read: “Go Steyn!” The SCG steward, apparently, was simply enforcing Cricket Australia’s strict anti ambush-marketing policy. The steward insisted the spectator was promoting the New Zealand beer ‘Steinlager.’ Hilarious, as always.

It comes to my attention that Doc, or ‘Moose’ as the players call him, the wonderful team manager (and doctor) Mohammed Moosajee has also experienced a few difficulties with the rules and regulations which so strictly govern life. Neil and Kerry’s son, Luke McKenzie, had an ear infection a few days ago which precluded him from getting much sleep. There wasn’t much sleep for Mum and Dad either, for that matter. Normally the Doc would carry everything he needs for such inconveniences, but you can’t bring an apple into Australia let alone penicilin. So hard was it to get the required treatment, it came down to a favour from an expatriate South African dentist.

There is a scandal brewing, I gather. The Channel Nine commentary team are shamelessly plugging the gambling organisation ‘Betfair’ during their commentary. Having accepted Betfair’s sponsorship of the ‘hotspot’ technology which helps determine where the ball made contact with a batsman, it seems things have now gone too far with Tony Greig and Bill Lawry interjecting their interpretation of the match situation during the test series with the Betfair odds on who was favourite to win. During the Sydney test, it was reported that even Richie Benaud had been persuaded (or was that paid?) to stoop.

“We do not approve of television commentaries which promote gambling or betting,” said ICC president, David Morgan, without needing to add the obvious rejoinder “but there is absolutely nothing whatsoever we can do about it.”

Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, was unaware of what was happening: “I’ve been at the matches so I haven’t been listening to the Channel Nine commentary.” He has a over a dozen people in his communications department – you would have thought one of them might have let him know.

Sunday, January 11

Much of the talk before the Twenty20 has centred on David Warner, the 22-year-old promoted to the Australian national squad without the benefit of a single first-class game for New South Wales. Ricky Ponting, an old school traditionalist when it comes to serving your time and paying your dues before earning a baggy green, or at least a baseball cap in a confused hue of naartjie orange for the Twenty20, was unmistakeably not convinced in his pre-match press conference. “I guess that’s the way things are going now,” he says with a sigh, “but we’ll see. If he can reproduce what he’s done at domestic level then good on him.”

At the change over between innings I bump into Warnie again at our favourite meeting place, the urinal. “Shit, shit and shit again!” exclaims Warnie, captain and erstwhile coach of the IPL champions, the Rajasthan Royals. “We could have signed him but I said ‘no, he’s only done it twice at domestic level, let him prove himself first. Shit!”

Warner had just bludgeoned a ridiculous 89 from 43 balls at the MCG and Warne was forced to commentate on his blunder. Despite J-P’s delightful 78 there was virtually nothing to support him and the result is a 52-run hiding. Warne, no doubt, was thinking how devastating Warner could have been as a replacement for Graeme Smith who will surely miss the second IPL season to fix his elbow, either with surgery or more Dracula blood injections and rest.

During the match a sponsors representative enters the commentary box with a enough KFC to feed a village. For some reason, despite not having eaten it for over ten years, I take a piece. Now, at midnight, my stomach is making the noise of an alien before it bursts out in a flying froth of guts and blood. Clearly, one has to be KFC-fit before just randomly helping yourself and expecting everything to be fine. Still, if Channel Nine can gratuitously promote gambling with Betfair, it hardly seems inappropriate that the fittest, fastest form of the game should be sponsored by a deep-fried fast food chain.

Pity Lonwabo Tsotsobe wasn’t given a second spell after two good overs with the new ball. Perhaps it was to protect him from the same sort of onslaught which damaged Dale Steyn’s confidence for a while three years ago. Then again, Steyn’s hammering helped make him the cricketer he is today. Tsotsobe is one for the future, especially with Makhaya beginning to talk privately, in the context of Matthew Hayden’s painfully prolonged exit from the game, about the importance of knowing when your time is up.

Off to Brisbane tomorrow and, hopefully, the first chance on tour for a game of golf. Having carried my travel bag around the country for over a month the only club to have seen the light of day is the putter, and there are only so many times you can aim for the corner of the hotel room door before the novelty wears off. Hotel carpets are impossible to read.

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