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

Monday, January 26

“South Africa wins one-day series – thrashes Aussies on ‘Australia Day’.” That’s a headline nobody expected a couple of weeks ago!

Sense of foreboding this morning when a note from the hotel management was pushed under the door explaining which streets would be closed off for ‘Australia Day’ celebrations, and they all seem ominously close to the Adelaide Oval! Fortunately, the cricket is an intrinsic part of the celebrations so access is unimpeded – yay!

The squad looks extremely relaxed over breakfast, which bodes well. For the first time on tour I am struck by a sense that victory is almost inevitable. This sort of confidence is infectious – perhaps I have caught it from the players. Or perhaps it has as much to do with finally accepting that this Australian team has some very obvious shortcomings, not the least of which is the lack of form amongst the Hussey family, the loss of Nathan Bracken, the fact that Shaun Tait begins to lose stamina after four deliveries with the new ball, Ricky Ponting is too quick to panic and doesn’t have a clue what to do with the batting power-play, they don’t have a spinner and most of their all rounders are either injured or giving drunken interviews to radio stations.

My certainty that South Africa will win is enforced even more when I venture, briefly, into the 40 degree heat to inspect the wicket and overhear the head groundsman saying that between 280 and 300 would be a par score. Seeing as Ponting is, statistically, due to lose a toss, I have no doubt that South Africa will bat first and make 300. Ponting wins the toss, again! At 110-2 in the 20th over, it becomes clear that my ‘vision’ is in reverse – it will be Australia who make 300 and South Africa who chase it down!

But then Johan Botha starts his magic again and the Aussies are like mesmerised frogs on a highway. Botha claims 2-28 from ten overs giving the ODI skipper figures of 5-60 in 20 overs in the last two, series-winning games. “Things have gone my way, we had good field placings and the guys backed me up very well. I was aware after eight overs that I hadn’t conceded a boundary, and that’s quite rare, so I was determined not to serve up an easy four-ball, but things have been going really well, what more can I say?”

I decide to serve a four-ball of my own for the next question in our interview, just to give him something to ‘hit’. “On ‘Australia Day’, where everybody is celebrating all things Australian and everything is supposed to go right for them, do you feel a bit sorry for them after ruining their big day?” The question is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the skipper’s eyes light up nonetheless: “No! Not at all. If we had ‘South Africa Day’ at home do you think they would care about us? No, it makes the win even better!” Bang. Four runs. Not quite ruthless enough to have cleared the boundary for six however, skipper. Hit it harder next time.

Bracken’s withdrawal from the game is staggering. The last chance to reclaim a bit of pride from a horrendous summer for the Aussies lies in winning this game. Presumably, we thought, it must be a serious injury. Yet the physiotherapist says he has “a good chance” of being fit for the Perth game! What? It’s only four days later! Mark Boucher batted for 45 minutes with a seriously broken toe to win in Sydney. Yet Bracken, a one-day specialist, sits out a must-win game with a ‘niggle’. Bizarre. Dale Steyn played two test matches with ‘niggles’. The Aussies have many things which don’t ‘add up’ at the moment. I suspect they are not a happy bunch. Ponting is a man under siege and doesn’t appear happy in his job. He may be a man in denial. He needs a ‘buffer man’ between him and his players, a strong, mature vice-captain, or senior pro.

But right now it’s time to celebrate. Mickey Arthur’s “we are rebuilding” comments before the series were honest, but clever too. The team is rebuilding, but by lowering public expectations, he raised the players’ expectations. They weren’t going to play like novices! A lot can now be learnt from the final game in which ‘Lopsy’ Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell will feature in the bowling attack and Vaughn van Jaarsveld, if his ankle is OK, will get another chance. An exhausted AB de Villiers found time immediately after the match to remember his captain: “Smithy, we did it for you!” he said.

Later, many of the squad is dismayed to find the hotel bar has closed early. “That’s what you get for ruining ‘Australia Day’,” says AB before heading to his room. Yet another memorable day on this extraordinary tour.

 

Tuesday, January 27

By a happy accident the team were booked on a late flight out of Adelaide today which meant at least half never made it to breakfast. That doesn’t make sense. It means they didn’t have to worry about getting up in the morning so they didn’t worry about how late they stayed up last night to celebrate the series win. But there were some in the breakfast room, the usual group of ‘sensible’ squad members who are either non drinkers, like Hashim Amla and the Doc, or who allow moderation to control celebration, like Johan Botha. Mickey Arthur was a little bleary-eyed as he contemplated his fruit salad but freshest and bright-eyed amongst them all, of course, was Herschelle. Herschelle?? Gibbs? Yep.

Having played two consecutive innings of breathtaking quality, surpassed perhaps only by Botha’s combined analysis of 20-0-60-5 in the last two games, Hersch is tickled by the headlines and match reports in all the newspapers. “There’s only ever one team playing, and they either play well when they win, or they play rubbish when they lose. And when Australia lose, it has nothing to do with the opposition or how they played.” And it’s true. Never does a story or a headline do justice to the quality of the opposition’s cricket. Instead of “De Villiers and Amla lead rampant SAfrica home” the headline is “Meak Aussies surrender series”. I didn’t see anyone surrendering but, come to think of it, they might as well have.

Hashim says again that the squad will not become fixated with ICC rankings, either Test or one-day. If they win the final match in Perth they will officially overtake Australia at the top but that won’t make any difference to team selection, says Hash. “It will be fantastic to give Dale a break – he’s played every game on tour and has been absolutely brilliant…” Jacques and Makhaya will also carry the drinks at the WACA.

Taxi driving in Melbourne and Sydney is the occupation of immigrants – very recent immigrants. Since the popularisation of the GPS, all you need to drive a taxi in the eastern states of Australia is a driving licence. A knowledge of the city is strictly optional and being able to speak English completely irrelevant. In Perth, however, you are still more likely to get a bit of ‘character’ behind the wheel. The man who drove us from the airport was pure, animated cartoon. He never stopped talking…

“Cricket, hey? I no understand that game, you play for five days and nobody win? I’m Italian, been here 40 years now, but still support anybody who play against Australia! You remember World Cup? Ha! Ha! we beat them 1-0 but they say it was robbery! Five days, heh? You talk for five days? I can talk but not on that game, nothing happens. And Ponting, he so full of himself, they all looking arrogant to me. Ten percent of Perth is from Italian blood, you know? My mother and father live near us, you know when we go out for dinner we go to Italian restaurants, drink Italian wine – crazy heh? I drive a taxi because my wife and daughters don’t want me at home – when I get back they say ‘what you doing here – go to work’ so I say ‘don’t talk to me like that, this is my house, I own it…’ then I go to work. My younger daughter, she need a slap, too cheeky. But you can’t touch your children here, she know that? You get arrested.

She make me mad and say ‘what you gonna do now, Dad?’ then she pick up the phone and say ‘I’ll call the police’. They don’t speak Italian, the girls, but I still speak Italian after 40 years. We all flew to Italy last year, took 19 hours, we went through Dubai, stayed with family, Italians have big families, four hours in Dubai and she was cheeky to me again so I smacked her and she looked shocked and I said ‘Yes, I can smack you here, who you gonna call now?’ but she loves her Dad, it’s a bad age, you know, 15, I’m better in my taxi, to be honest with you, but cricket, that’s a long game…”

Wednesday, January 28

You have to love Australia’s ‘never-say-die’ spirit. For over a century it has carried them to sporting greatness. Even in the darkest and bleakest times, they manage to fight back. Usually, a touch of reality is necessary for the best fight-backs, but not according to David Hussey who delivered the best line of the entire tour yesterday: “We want to take the momentum of a 3:2 series loss over there, it’ll give us a bit of confidence, a little bit of momentum.” Australia are seeking ‘momentum’ and ‘confidence’ from a series loss? Bloody hell.

Hussey, apparently, was also outraged that South Africa’s players said they were ‘happy’ to have won the series on ‘Australia Day.’ “What comes around goes around,” he says broodily, “and we’ll have our chance of revenge in South Africa.” Sadly, that won’t be possible next month, or ever. Not until we institute ‘South Africa Day’, at least.

My disbelief at metrosexual Nathan Bracken’s approach to playing international cricket grows by the day. A calf twinge was all it took for him to miss the crucial, series-deciding game in Adelaide and, as predicted, he’s back and raring to go for the meaningless fifth game. Playing for money is fine and understandable, we all have to make a living. But a mercenary without pride is a fraud. Bracken, I’m told by someone very reliable, has his eye on the five-match series against the Kiwis which starts just days after South Africa leave. Pulling out of the Adelaide game was a disgrace. It’s one of many potentially painful truths Australia have to face in the coming months. I discover that my cynicism about Shaun Tait, too, is shared by the Proteas. But let’s not get started there. I thought he couldn’t field. They think there’s more of a problem with his bowling (action). Oops, sorry, I just got started…

Neil McKenzie was walking around the city centre this afternoon, by himself, without any obvious motive. Just drifting, which is the way most of us have been feeling for a while.

Was told by a South African, resident in Perth for 25 years, that Makhaya Ntini had left for home tonight.

Thursday, January 29

End-of-term-fever has overtaken departure-lounge-fever as the distraction of choice amongst players and media alike. Homesickness and a desperate desire to hear the public address announcer at Perth Airport on Saturday has, temporarily but gleefully, given way to the robust joy of playing the final game in Perth. Jacques Kallis is reveling in the prospect of playing 12th man and Mark Boucher is hobbling around with a broken toe as if everything is just fine: “The surgeon said ‘six weeks’ but it’ll be fine. He said ‘if you want to play before that then it’s up to you’ so I’ll be fine for the first Test,” said Bouch, four weeks before the Wanderers Test on Feb 26. “Ian Healy knows a man who makes steel-capped boots in Brisbane and he has put me in touch with him, so I’m not worried. But I wouldn’t want to get hit again there just yet. That would be very nasty.” Indeed.

Kallis laughs about the last time he has carried drinks in a test. “Not as long ago as you might think, actually. It was here, on this very ground, three years ago when the tennis elbow injury forced me to miss the first test of the series. And the last time I carried drinks in a one-dayer was on the same tour, when I missed the Brisbane game. Hell, I’ve got a good memory!” The last time before that, in either form of the game, was…never. So not that hard to remember, Jacques!

Mickey Arthur struggles to run through the XI during his press conference, much to his own amusement. He stumbles as early as number three “…Ka, err, no, Neil McKenzie…” and battles through the lower middle order just overcoming a seemingly fatal block at number seven – “Albie Morkel!” he spurts out to chuckles from the local media. Afterwards, I suggest that Wayne Parnell may rank amongst the better number tens in world cricket, even though he is on debut and aged just 19. He was good enough to bat in the middle order for the SA under-19 team. “Yes, I think I got that wrong,” admits the coach ruefully. He’ll probably come in at nine with Morne Morkel at ten.” Before the Adelaide game ‘Mickey’s Motto’ was ‘turn a good tour into a great tour’. What is it now? ‘Turn a great tour into a *^*”<$ing unbelievable one,’ he says.

Before training the squad sits around in a circle on the WACA outfield to discuss the match and the roles everyone is expected to play. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but a sure sign that the focus is still there. Hard to imagine the tour ending with a whimper. Tsotsobe and Parnell are bursting with excitement and enthusiasm, especially Parnell whose energy has been appreciated by everyone in the squad.

Friday, January 30

Half an hour after the match has finished, the presentation ceremony and champagne spraying is over, the interviews are done. Goolam Raja is walking, very slowly back towards the change rooms. I suddenly realise that we are the only two who have been on every tour. I put my arm around his shoulder and ask why he isn’t cheering. “I’m just reflecting for a moment,” he says. “Remember what it was like all the other times? We sat in the change room and cried. We tried so hard, but always it ended the same. It’s good to remember the bad times in order to appreciate the good,” he says. There is a sparkle in his eyes which, I realise after a couple of seconds, is caused by the floodlights reflecting in the extra moisture in his eyes. I feel my own eyes dampen very quickly. Goolam has been a Trojan, a tireless worker for the cause often expected to carry far more responsibility than was fair. He is quietly absorbing the reflected glow of the achievement. “This was our second XI, you know,” he says quietly. “But they’re pretty good, aren’t they?” He smiles richly and walks away.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell give interviews which are among the most pure, spontaneous and uplifting I have ever done. Neither is carried away by a single victory, or deluded by it’s significance, but both are sufficiently infused with adrenalin and sporting joy to speak without inhibition. They can’t stop smiling. ‘Lopsy’ gushes about the prospect of seeing his Mum, Dorothy, for the first time in two months. Lonwabo’s rugby-playing father, Toto, died when he was young and never shared the joy of either his own career, or that of sister Nomsebenzi, captain of the women’s Springbok team. “I can’t wait to see my Mum – I’ve missed her so much!” says Lopsy.

Parnell admits to missing many hours of sleep in the run-up to the game. “Family and friends don’t seem to understand the time difference thing so they were all calling me the night before the match to wish me well. The phone was ringing all the time! But it didn’t matter, I had enough energy to get through!”

Both men mention the ‘chatter’ from the crowd while fielding on the boundary but both are discreet enough not to go into detail. “After spending half the match at fine leg and getting a barrage from the crowd, it was…” Parnell paused, considering the truth, “…a great honour to win the match a couple of hours later!”

For Kallis, Boucher and Ntini, the victory counted among their most special – though none played a part. To glimpse into the future, and see such a bright light, rated among their finest moments.

“I will be thinking a lot about Makhaya on the flight home,” said Tsotsobe. “He made his debut on this ground 11 years ago and now I am following in his footsteps. If I can achieve half of what he has done for South Africa then I will be a very happy man. He has been a role model for all of us – he is a special person.”

The emotional over-load of a long tour is hard to explain. Impossible, in fact. A wonderful experience, travelling around Australia, seeing the cities and sharing in the glories of a sensational series.

But the reality is this: it’s 1:25 am. I’m happy but tired and need to pack. I never imagined that anybody, let alone so many people would look at my daily diary, and I would like to thank you for logging in. It was only something to help keep me ‘going’. There is much still to say about the team which achieved the extraordinary results on this tour. I hope to sign off with a final entry before we leave, but if I don’t it will be because I’m too buggered and slept too late. G’nite (as they say over here.)

Saturday, January 31.

Hectic final morning which included the last-minute purchase of vegemite, Australia’s national toast spread. Can’t even remember who asked me for it.

Perth was a picture as we drove out for the last time towards the airport, bright blue skies and a hot sun. And an even hotter sense of achievement.

Two months away from home and the prospect of an 11-hour flight to Jo’burg, three hours at OR Tambo, two more hours to Cape Town, arrival home around midnight and then a 7.00am start to board a plane to East London for a Standard Bank Pro20 match. Daunting, to say the least. Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell are due to be playing for the Warriors but will, apparently, be ‘assessed’ before the match to see if they are able to play. The only assessment needed to be performed on me is whether I am awake to commentate.

The team arrive at Perth airport well after we have checked our bags in. Their own luggage was checked in by the tireless Goolam Raja at 8.00am, five hours before flying. South African supporters have come from all over Perth to wave the Proteas on their way and many, many more Australians burst into spontaneous applause whenever the squad appear.

Only Dale Steyn, I suspect, could have the patience, grace and good-natured humour to walk and talk to an old lady who had a long tale to tell about how much her grandchildren had enjoyed the cricket etc. ‘Steyntjie’ was a beauty – while others looked on from afar and imagined how they would make their excuses and escape, South Africa’s spearhead appeared to lap it up.

The Morkel brothers, together as always, are photographed by a dozen or more people and everybody signs autographs for anybody who asks. Not just the cursory scribble of a sportsman in a hurry, but the full request: ‘To Riaan, good luck with your career, best wishes, Hashim.’ I joke to Hashim that, in future, South Africa will have to play 13-per-side in both forms of the game, such is the competition for places – or consider implementing a rotation system.

How will he fit in, for example, when Graeme Smith is fit again and Herschelle is still firing. He chuckles before asking, with a smile: “Do you think rotation works?”

Shortly after take-off the pilot introduced himself with a brief apology to ‘our Australian guests on board.’ “Please forgive us if we indulge ourselves, just for a moment, but we would like to say to the Proteas squad, you have made us all so proud over the last couple of months and you can now regard youselves, rightly, as the best cricket team in the world, in both forms of the game.

“Your courage, determination, never-say-die attitude and, noticeably, your humility, has embodied all the best things our country stand for. You are the greatest South African team ever to tour this continent, and we salute you!”

The team are up ahead, virtually monopolising the Business Class section. Hopefully they were able to hear the spontaneous and prolonged burst of applause which followed the captain’s eulogy.

So here I am, waiting for flight SA 377 to Cape Town. Goodness knows what time my body thinks it is – around 3.00am, I think. So just after 24 hours from the last diary entry, from Perth.

We are home.

But there is still much to tell from the tour. It’ll take another day or two to unwind. Talk to you tomorrow from East London!

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