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

Monday, January 19

The taxi driver from the hotel to Hobart Airport was a gem. If he’d been any prouder of Tasmania he would have burst. Freshest, cleanest air in the world and best food in Australia. He says he heard the South African commentator on ABC yesterday describing how good the oysters were and what an amazing lunch they had. I would normally have introduced myself but it was a 20-minute ride to the airport and he was already talking at 100 words per minute, and it was obvious to me that I couldn’t cope with anything faster.

After the match we were presented with a bottle of local wine, as if the food wasn’t enough. Radio producer Sam Mochichilla is on his first cricket tour and is struggling with the length of time away from his children, and home. We end up talking until midnight – it takes that long for me to convince him that it doesn’t get any easier, even after 40 tours – and the wine is, eventually, all gone.

The back end of long tours is always difficult. Our perspective changes, usually for the worse, and we can lose sight of what is important and relevant. Back in early December, the thought of spending a quiet day in a hotel room writing e-mails and watching the Discovery Channel wasn’t that bad. Now, as we approach the end of January, it can feel as if real life is slipping away through our fingers. Sam and me have missed the entire school holidays and life at home has changed. The kids sound proud and happy that they are coping without us, and we should be happy with that, but it leaves us feeling empty and lonely.

Even the prospect of running ‘the run’ under Sydney Harbour Bridge and around the Opera House doesn’t carry the same appeal as it did when we arrived for the test, which feels like weeks ago. Actually, it was weeks ago. But no complaints – none at all. Two tremendous one-day games have not only maintained interest, but increased it for the rest of the ODI series. If only there was a way we could afford to have our families with us for a while, like the players do…

The ‘racial abuse’ thing at the Bellerive Oval hasn’t gone away, quite. My feeling was always that it was an ‘isolated nutter’ thing and was best ignored. Three years ago the team made a very strong stand against it, and rightly so, but weirdos must not be given a platform. Only after extensive probing and questioning was it possible to ascertain what was ‘allegedly’ said to Morne Morkel which resulted in a spectator being arrested, ejected and charged. Clearly he had no idea what he was saying having called Morne “a f****ing k***ir”. He was obviously a moron without education and a desire to make a name for himself. Knob. The less air-time and column space afforded to his efforts, the better.

The ‘early night’ never materialised tonight because SACA chief executive Tony Irish couldn’t read his air-ticket properly and was, in fact, departing on Tuesday morning, not Monday. So we met for pizza. Which gives me an opportunity to print the wonderful sms he sent me minutes after the Proteas’ test series-winning victory in Melbourne: “This team has broken the stranglehold Australia had on world cricket. Other teams may follow in our footsteps, but right now it’s like being the first man on the moon. And right now, I’m over the moon.”

Tuesday, January 20

Real, genuine day off. These never used to exist, even in the days when there were far more empty days on tour than there are now. In the old days of Kepler and Hansie the days ‘off’ used to be called ‘optional practise’ days which meant that, unless you were Allan Donald or Brian McMillan, you showed up at nets. And for reporters, it meant you had to keep an eye on training because if you didn’t, somebody would inevitably break a finger. Towards the end of a tour the players would be screaming out for a couple of days complete break from cricket, but they rarely got it. Here, Monday was a ‘travel’ day so that doesn’t really count. But Tuesday was a silver-plated day off. Several of the players were nagging management to organise them a free game of golf while others were just planning on ‘mooching’ – which means getting up late, walking around the shops, buying CDs, shoes and a Subway sandwich for lunch.

It could be construed as a gamble. What if the squad lose ‘momentum’ and go ‘cold’ before Friday’s day-nighter at the SCG? It’s a ridiculous argument. There are four days on the schedule between games – it is impossible to maintain any sort of ‘momentum’ on tour for so long, even if it was in the first week rather than the ninth. Much better to take the time off and begin again closer to the game. Besides, there was a rumour that some of the ODI squad members, for whom this is week three, not week nine, were keen to have a ‘secret’ hit at the SCG so perhaps not everybody was chilling. Not sure if this was true, however, because I went to Bondai Beach.

For the one of the most famous beaches in the world, it really is quite unremarkable. But I’m told that is only a South African perspective – we are lucky to have many beaches like Bondai, it’s just that ours often have ten people on them rather than ten thousand. Then again, we’d be lucky to find a wooden hut selling warm cool drinks – at Bondai there are a hundred bars and restaurants to choose from. It is about two kilometres long, the sand is fine and clean and the water cool and clear.

There are a couple of ‘work-out’ areas on the grass areas at the back of the beach where gay men with massive muscles and shaved chests congregate to train together. They do more pull-ups in a minute than I’ve done in the last 40 years and then lift some weights. Rarely, if ever, could you see a group of men more pleased with themselves, or their bodies, at least. I wonder if Darwin’s theory has applied in the Australian gay community. In such a macho country, one would imagine that survival of the fittest (and biggest) might apply. Not many would dare raise the heckles of these fellows.

Sydney, of course, is famous for its gay and lesbian Mardi Gras but the word in the less liberal sections of the gay community, apparently, is that they are fed up with how ‘tame’ it has become. “It was never supposed to be a day out for all the family – people are bringing the bloody kids for a picnic these days,” said one gay community leader in a local news letter.

Stuart Hess cannot believe his luck at having a day off but, in the case of Independent newspapers, it means just having to write one story in the morning rather than two or three. With no access to the players (wouldn’t want to ruin their day off with a two-minute phonce call) Stu has to write a ‘think piece’ which he does sitting in a coffee bar overlooking the beach.

Back to work tomorrow. But not before a game of golf at Geoff Lawson’s club.

Wednesday, January 21

The Wednesday competition at Bonnie Doone Golf Club starts poorly with the news that my tailored golf shorts, purchased at great expense in Cape Town, are not considered suitable attire for the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. The cleverly designed pockets for tees, pitch mark repairers and scorecards are placed on the side of the shorts. This makes them ‘cargo’ shorts according to the diagram of what is acceptable and what is not. There is absolutely no fight left in me. The rules and regulations have won.

I walk up to my host, Geoff Lawson, ready to make my apologies and get a taxi straight back to the hotel. “I think not,” says ‘Henry’, “follow me.” We walk to the carpark and Henry opens the boot (or ‘trunk’ here) of his car and offers me a selection of alternative shorts. He has been a member for over 20 years: “They did the same to me a couple of years ago. I bought a pair of shorts at the Montgomerie course in Dubai for $75 and they wouldn’t let me wear them. Good enough for the Montgomerie course but not good enough for Bonnie Doone,” he says with a curled lip.

The temperature was over 40 degrees on the course but it was worth every minute, and Henry’s shorts are great, very absorbent! I was so thirsty I didn’t swallow or even gulp the water from the bottle, I just poured. I never knew I could do that. It’s a lovely course, too, very linksy with ‘blind’ shots that make it difficult for the first time visitor.

Afterwards Henry tells us stories about his time as coach of Pakistan, many of which are not for repeating but it is abundantly obvious that, overall, he loved his time with the team and was sorry his tenure came to an end as a result of the PCB board change. He knew the writing was on the wall when he told the new chairman that, in line with every other international team, the Pakistan squad needed a full-time sports psychologist.

“This would be a bad omen,” said the man who would have been Henry’s new boss. “What would people think if they knew our players needed to see a psychiatrist?” Oh, and Shahid Afridi’s age was a constant source of amusement among all the players. Just as some cricketers pluck a handicap out of thin air when they arrive for a golf day, Afridi used to choose an age that sorted his mood at the start of a new tour. He is, apparently, 36 now, in real life.

Thursday, January 22

Mickey Arthur presides over a hard net session as the squad refocus on the job at hand after a strange ‘holiday’ mid-series. “The winner of this game will have a very good chance of winning the series so it’s crucial that we hit the ground running and make a good start,” says the coach.

I ask him whether the management still has faith and confidence in Herschelle after failures in the two Pro20 matches and the first two one-dayers: “Yes, we certainly do. After what he’s been through over the last six weeks we are all desperate to see him succeed. He has done everything we have asked him to do, he did the rehab and he’s training harder than he ever has. He deserves some success, he really does. If anything, perhaps, he’s trying too hard and is too desperate to succeed. It just takes one big score, as with any batsman, and he’ll be back. Hopefully it will be here in Sydney.”

I am invited with team manager, Doc Moosajee, back to the SCG in the evening for a charity dinner for the LBW Trust which funds higher education scholarships for teenagers from Zimbabwe and India. It was the brainchild of Peter Roebuck and now boasts patrons of the calibre of Malcolm Speed and Steve Waugh, both of whom are amongst the 250 guests attending the dinner in the ‘Steve Waugh function room’ in the brand new Victor Trumper stand which sits on the site of the old SCG ‘hill’.

Doc speaks with deep admiration and affection of the courage Herschelle has shown in ‘facing his demons’ and the determination with which he has returned to the national squad. It was the Doc who made the decision to expel him from the squad in Johannesburg three months ago and it was the Doc who promised him that he would not be discarded and forgotten provided he did what was required of him. So there is a lot resting on a successful relaunch of his career.

The dinner was a magnificent occasion with former test captain Bill Lawry as the guest speaker. As irritating, bigoted and rumbustious as Lawry can sound on television commentary, the opposite is true in real life. The Channel Nine commentary is a ‘production’ and does not necessarily reflect the normal personalities of the people delivering the product.

Lawry tells a story of how he was assigned the task of looking after a young Graham McKenzie on his first tour of England. As the only two non-drinkers in the squad, they would be room mates for the 21 days on the ship to Portsmouth. “I slept in a life-raft for the first 19 days,” says Lawry. “He had a different woman in there every night. I’d knock on the door in the morning and ask if I could have a shower and he’d reply ‘hang on a minute, I’ll see if she’s finished…'”

Friday, January 23

What a phenomenal win. Brilliant in strategy and in execution. Forgot to mention a classic comment from Doc Moosajee yesterday during our chat about Herschelle. “I went to Mosque the other day and had a chat with him ‘up there’,” said Moose.

“I reminded him that people who work hard, and people who have had a hard journey, deserve some success. Obviously he knows that, but I said, in case he had missed it, Herschelle has had a hard journey these last six weeks and he has worked very hard. I just wanted to remind him of that. I said ‘the rest is up to you’,” the Doc said.

I didn’t dare get excited when Hersch reached 30, or even 40. But wasn’t it special? When he charged Shaun Tait and hit a 151 kmh delivery for six over extra cover, I knew that he still had ‘the magic’. Gibbs’s 64 from 52 balls provided the stage for Albie’s phenomenal power-hitting at the end and victory by three wickets with 21 balls to spare!

The Doc was on the field after play and it took nothing more than a glance in each other’s direction to confirm how we felt about Hersch contributing and proving that he still has ‘the magic.

‘ Doc gambled by expelling him from the squad three months ago and gambled again by issuing a statement that he would be ‘welcomed back’ if he confronted his demons. It was beyond his authority to say that, not being a selector, but his faith has, for now, been repaid with a generous interest rate.

Bouch was there at the end, a happy spectator to Albie’s bludgeoning having steadfastly seen off the threat of Tait bowling vicious, reverse-swinging yorkers at his toes, one of which hit him flush on the left foot. Another blow on his right hand was just as painful. “I’m not sure which is more painful at the moment,” he said, “but I’m just hoping I don’t need to go for X-rays. Let’s see how everything feels after an ice-bath.”

Boucher was on the field after the match, with Albie, and Hersch not too far away, because the man-of-the-match decision still hadn’t been conveyed to the Proteas camp minutes before the ceremony.

I ask Albie why he can hit the ball so cleanly when others can’t and he seems perplexed: “That’s a strange question,” he replies, “because just a couple of months ago I couldn’t hit the ball off the square playing against Bangladesh!”

Few countries are as jingoistic in their national pride as Australia, and few set themselves up for a greater fall than Australia.

The fourth ODI will be played in Adelaide on ‘Australia Day’, a public holiday. For 365 days a year the nation is encouraged to be patriotic, but on January 26 it is official – the greatest nation on earth. Chuck a prawn on the barbie, grab a cold stubbie and celebrate Kylie, Sheila, Bruce and Crocodile Dundee. But whatever happens, don’t f***ing lose the one-day series to the yarpies!

For hours before the Adelaide game there will be processions celebrating all things Australia. Waltzing Matilda will be heard everywhere and the atmosphere will be tumultuous. Never mind raining on the parade, South Africa would be farting in a cathedral if they won on Monday.

Saturday, January 24

Couldn’t get to sleep after the match last night so ended up with about three hours sleep by the time the alarm went off. Tired and grumpy on arrival at the airport and hoping for a smooth transition to Adelaide. We are all suffering from ‘departure lounge’ syndrome and need to start traveling west to know that we are finally heading back. But that’s what made the Sydney victory so special. First, nobody chases over 250 at the SCG – it just doesn’t happen. But 270? It was one thing getting ‘over the line’ as they say here, but quite another when eight of the XI have been here for two months.

Attempted check-in fails. We have come to the wrong terminal. It seems we have been booked on an international flight to Singapore which has a brief stop-over in Adelaide. We are in the domestic terminal and need to be in the international terminal. Having battled our way there, we are told to fill in customs forms. “Country of disembarkation?” asks the form. “Australia,” we write.

“I know Adelaide is a bit different,” smiles the customs lady, “but it is still the same country – you didn’t need to fill this in.” “Nobody told us that,” I reply wearily. “Well if you listen, I’m telling you now!” Perhaps she’s just having a bad day. I know I am.

Jacques Kallis speaks to the media shortly after our eventual arrival in Adelaide. At least, he speaks to the SA media which now comprises me, Stuart Hess and Christo Buchner. He had been told about the 10 000-run landmark a couple of days before the SCG match but had forgotten about it and was taken aback when the crowd gave him a standing ovation on reaching 16. He looked at the scoreboard to his career statistics on display. The eighth man to reach that number in ODIs but only the third from outside the subcontinent after Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting. Wickets do tend to be a little more favourable for batting in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – not that Dravid, Tendulkar, Inzimam, Jayasuriya and Ganguly aren’t great players.

The customs woman was perfectly correct. Adelaide really is quite different, certainly the people in the centre of the city on a Friday night. It has a touch of Hobart about it – tattoos and unusual facial hair are de rigeur among the men (and some women) while the majority of girls are dressed in very short, strapless dresses which they are continually pulling up in order to avoid embarrassment. At least, that’s what Stuart and I thought until one woman fell comprehensively out of her dress while standing in a queue for a dancing club and appeared completely unfazed as she systematically squeezed her assets back into place and rearranged herself.

Earlier in the evening the tapes of Andrew Symonds’s appalling radio interview were played on every news network on television. Slurring his words and jibbering incomprehensible nonsense, he called Brendan McCullum a “pile of shit” before apologising and correcting that to a “pile of cow dirt.” That’s fair enough – a few players from around the world might agree. But he then makes everyone cringe by stating that his old mate, Matthew Hayden (whose application for Sainthood, incidentally, is still going very well here) is a great cook but that Symonds’s appreciation of his meals while visiting the Hayden household has been helped by the occasional sideways glance at his wife.

The first time we are staying in the same hotel as the team, which is a treat. The Hyatt has a great gym which is visited soon after arrival by Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Wayne Parnell and Vaughn van Jaarsveld, the young guns. If South Africa win here they will all play in Perth creating, possibly, the youngest ODI team South Africa have ever sent onto the field. Bouch has gone to hospital for an X-ray on his foot which was ‘Taited’ last night. He batted for at least 45 minutes after being hit which means it’s either badly bruised or he played through horrible pain.

Sunday, January 25

The streets of central Adelaide are rearranged just hours after sunrise with road closures and kilometres of pedestrian barriers helping to prepare for the final stage of the ‘Tour Down Under’, featuring Lance Amstrong.

I make the rash assumption that I will still be able to walk from the hotel to the Adelaide Oval but discover that, somehow, the race route appears to cut the two venues off as surely as a river.

There are loudspeakers all over the place providing (really poor) commentary before the race and there is a countdown to the start of the race which stands at three minutes by the time I’m standing opposite the Oval, ten minutes before Mickey Arthur’s press conference. I explain to a steward that I need to cross the road.

“You CAN’T!!” he screams with a mixture of jubilation and shock that I should even ask. “But the race hasn’t started yet, and I need to do my job, over there,” I explain, calmly. “NO! YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED!” he yells again.

The time has come to see whether Australian ‘officials’ are, in fact, capable of independent thought, to see whether the ‘uniform effect’ can be overcome. I show him my media accreditation and tell him I need to cross the road: “You have been told to stop me,” I say. “Presumably, it is more important to stop me when the race has actually started. So I’m giving you ten seconds to think about it, then I’m going to cross the road. You can either allow me, which will be the sensible thing to do, or you can attempt to stop me, which could get awkward.”

My count to ten appears to have a hypnotic effect on the young man who stands very still, unblinking, with his mouth slightly open. “Right, I’m walking across now,” I say. He remains standing still. By the time I’m inside the cricket ground, the race still hasn’t started.

During the press conference I ask Arthur whether the squad, half of whom name Armstrong’s biography, which is named after his saddle, I think, as their favourite book, have been distracted by his presence in the city. “A little bit,” he concedes, “we actually tried to arrange a meeting because he’s an inspiration to many of them, but we couldn’t quite afford his appearance fee,” Arthur admitted. How much? “Err, $90 000,” replied the coach, “…per hour. That’s US, not Aussie dollars.”

After the press conference I asked whether they had suggested a shorter appearance. Ten minutes, perhaps? No, at current exchange rates, that would be around R150 000. Maybe one minute at R15 000? “Hello, my name is Lance, I successfully fought cancer and now I ride bikes…which one of you is Graeme?”

To be fair, ‘Armstrong Inc’ clearly misunderstood the Proteas’ request and lumped it together with the hundreds of others they receive every month.

“Once they realised it wasn’t quite the same, they said he would have been happy to meet the team…but he was flying out of the city straight after the race tonight, so there wouldn’t be time,” Arthur said.

It is confirmed that Mark Boucher’s left big toe was broken by the Shaun Tait yorker that crashed into his foot soon after his innings began on Friday night. The fact that he batted on for 45 minutes to help win the match sums up the determination within the squad to win the series. AB will take the gloves tomorrow with Morne Morkel likely to find a place in the XI. Albie will move up to number seven and the skipper, Johan Botha, to number eight.

I suggest to Mickey that winning a one-day series in Australia would be a worthy enough achievement in itself, but coming after two months on the road, when wills are tested and emotional fortitude at its weakest, it would be extraordinary: “Most people don’t know what it’s like to be away from home for two months. Apart from the emotional side, there is the physical aspect.

“Our change room looked like a casualty ward on Friday night. Bouch’s toe was pointing sideways when we took his boot off, Jacques has strained an intercostal muscle and half a dozen other guys have significant aches and pains. But if we can just find one more big performance, one more match-winning effort, then we can go to Perth for the final game and celebrate.”

The team ‘motto’ before the Sydney test was “no regrets”. The motto among the squad before the Adelaide one-dayer is “turn a good tour into a great tour.” It’s a fine concept, and a fine thought. I get the feeling that that everyone has subliminally accepted that Adelaide has to be won. There may not be enough powder in the keg to light a fuse for the final match in Perth, on Friday.

Ricky Ponting was interesting at his press conference, an hour before Arthur’s. He claimed he “hadn’t heard the tape” of Andrew Symonds drunken attack on Brendan McCullum, more than 48 hours later, and therefore couldn’t comment. It’s very hard to believe that any Australian had been able to avoid hearing it. It was everywhere, including YouTube. Certainly you couldn’t find a member of the South African squad who hadn’t heard it.

Besides, as captain, shouldn’t it be Ponting’s job to make sure he heard what his troubled allrounder had slurred? Cricket Australia has a communications department containing 15 or more people, shouldn’t one of them have provided him with a copy? More likely Ponting didn’t know what to say so pretended he hadn’t heard it, or was ‘advised’ to go for ignorance by CA’s PR people. Either way, it showed a staggering lack of leadership

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