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

Monday, December 29

Mickey Arthur is all smiles before the start of play. After “414 Sunday” in Perth, his amazing team produced “Impossible Sunday” yesterday thanks to the efforts of JP Duminy and Dale Steyn. Towards the end of their ninth-wicket stand of 180, a frustrated fan close to the Proteas change room balcony manages to combine Aussie humour with his frustration and anger. “This f***ing tail-wagging has gone too far,” he thunders at Arthur, “what’d you feed them last night, f***ing dog food?!”

During commentary for South Africa, at approximately 3.00am when, hopefully, there is nobody listening from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, I re-run AB de Villiers’ wonderful comment about the batting of JP Duminy in the presence of ‘The Australian’s’ cricket writer, Malcolm Conn, who is providing our local voice and has been to South Africa six times so might have a clue. “Jy het die balles van ‘n kudu,” I repeat. Does he understand?

“I’m not sure,” he ventures, “but if it means what I think it means, then he has had them on very proud display during this test, hasn’t he?”

Later, accidentally, I repeat the same thing while doing a guest spot on the ABC. Glenn Mitchell, the anchor, is much less sure but wary enough to suggest: “I’m not absolutely certain that you can say that on the ABC…” Too late.

Steyn is magnificent, once again. The MCG crowd give Matthew Hayden a genuine round of applause after he falls into Steyn’s ‘short cover’ trap and it is interpreted as an acknowledgement that his career is over. Midway through the day the clouds roll over, the air temperature rises a couple of degrees, the ball starts to swing and Australia, finally, get to see what all the fuss has been about. Steyntjie is unplayable and sends Andrew Symonds back to the pavilion for a five ball duck. Apparently, he will now be dropped for Sydney, too.

Moments after Australia are dismissed and the target is set, the bowlers – Ntini, Steyn, Morkel and Harris – embrace in a tight clinch. They are like brothers. Kallis is a brother too but, also being one of ‘them’ means he has to briefly share the embrace before getting ready to bat.

Steyn is back on the field barely five minutes after play has finished to do his media duties. So far, the earliest an Australian player has emerged after play has been 35 minutes. Apparently, they have a ‘conditioning coach’ who takes his job very, very seriously and dislikes the idea that his men have any obligations to anybody but him after a day’s play.

His interviews are brilliant. Honesty in sport is, in itself, amusing because nobody is expecting it. We have have become anaesthetised through platitudes. “Are you confident that you can win now, chasing another 153?”

“Umm, well, you never know, Australia have some great bowlers etc etc blah blah…” No, not Steyn’s style. “Yes, of course we’re confident and I think we will win. We know we can bat 50 overs out there and when we do that we will also have the runs.”

He laughs without reservation about his batting: “The most flattering thing is that people assumed I had set my sights on scoring 50 and sent me messages of congratulations for achieving it. If only that was true – when I went out to bat I was just praying I could survive the first ball. I tried to convince the guys that it would be OK because I opened the batting at primary school, but they didn’t seem convinced by that. When I survived until lunch it was like a dream. When me and JP were still there at tea we just didn’t have anything to say to each other – it was difficult to know who was in more shock.”

So did he ever think about a century? “Yes, I’m afraid I did.” When?

“Just after I got to 76!”

Everybody seems confident South Africa will win. The mood was split before “414 Sunday” and nobody had any doubt that South Africa would lose before “Impossible Sunday.” Will tomorrow be “Historic Tuesday”? Or will we have reason to celebrate “Smith’s Tuesday”? Hard to believe a captain could bat his team to series wins, away, against England and Australia within six months.

Finally manage to persuade Stuart Hess and Luke Alfred to come out for drink, but it’s only two beers. Too much to think about for tomorrow. Could be the busiest day of our working lives. ABC radio have already asked me for two interviews and ABC TV want one, too, at around 3.00pm. The home side aren’t confident. Hope the egg stays on my face and doesn’t get transferred to theirs.

Tuesday, December 30

The mobile phone is ringing as I get back from my morning run along the banks of the Yarra. It is a producer from ABC Radio News wondering if I could do an interview to discuss the “end of era, Australia’s decline and South Africa’s rise to the top.” What happens if we’re bowled for 180, lose by three runs and Australia win in Sydney, I ask. “That’s not going to happen, and you know it!” she replies. I do the interview but am careful not to commit myself using lots of “ifs” and “maybes”. The truth is, however, I don’t have a single doubt. My usual morning routine of dispassionately running through all the potential scenarios for the day comes up with a blank for Australia. And as you will know if you have been following this tour diary, I’ve been reading the game like a blind man without a stick so far. No doubt my 100% confidence means South Africa will be decimated by Nathan Hauritz. Just kidding.

Breakfast TV interviews Michael Bevan who beseeches Australians to support the team through thick and thin and blames the media for running down the team and creating negative hype. “Yes,” says the smartly suited TV man, those ‘media people’ aren’t like the rest of us, are they?” he grins. “No, absolutely right,” says Bevan. Hilarious. After Bevan, it’s the weather forecast: “Perth, dry and hot with a high of 33, Adelaide partly cloudy, no rain predicted with a high of 30, Melbourne…YES, it’s still raining and the covers are ON at the ‘G’! Ha!” yells the weatherman. Hilarious.

The Herald Sun newspaper produces the two headlines of the tour so far. The headline on the match report from the previous day is: “Steyn Remover Cleans Up.” A separate story highlights the woes of the Queensland duo, Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds. Well known for their love of the outdoors, the back page has banner photograph of a disconsolate Hayden as he disappears down the tunnel to the change room; inset is a picture of Symonds’ dismissal. Typically for a tabloid, the headline is ruthless: “IT’S TIME TO GO FISHING!” Perhaps the Herald Sun think they should be sacked.

I can’t help thinking back to the attitude towards media of the three previous South African squads to tour Australia. Timid, suspicious, resentful and defensive, a few players convinced the others that the media were “out to get them.” Wrong. But they can be very hard on under-performers and losers, from any team and with any reputation. Ask Hayden.

In the ABC Radio commentary box there is an sms screen alongside the television replay screen which displays listeners comments and questions. There are too many to mention but, from time to time, the commentator picks one and discusses it. One which slips through the net but grabs my attention while I’m doing another guest spot says: “The first popular Safrican team ever to tour Oz – they’re winners and seem bloody good blokes, too much to cope with! – Nevil” Jacques Kallis is standing close to the presentation area after the match. He doesn’t need to be there but has waited 12 years for this moment and wants to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible. I ask him whether he ever thought SA could get back into the game after day two (196 runs behind with three wickets in hand), let alone win it.

“Funny you say that. I had dinner with (girlfriend) Shamone that evening and she asked whether we had any chance. Normally I would probably have said ‘no’ but, this time I didn’t. I said ‘cricket is a strange game and I’ve seen some really weird things happen. There are still three days left, we’ll see.’ I was probably thinking about a huge batting performance from us in the second innings, not Dale and J-P getting us a lead! But just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else comes along…!”

Jacques, it seems, is making a concerted effort to help Shamone understand the game. An hour after play, he walks hand-in-hand to the middle of the now deserted MCG to show her the pitch – and spends several minutes showing her the detail, too. Crease, footmarks, cracks…no longer will she be baffled when commentators claim that bowlers are aiming at the rough outside her man’s leg stump.

Mike Procter wanders over to shake hands. We must look as though we are locked in a fierce grinning contest. “So what do you reckon of the team now?” he asks. It can only mean one thing. Vice-captain Ashwell Prince looks like being fit for Sydney, J-P is undroppable and Neil Mac has just rediscovered his form with an unbeaten 50 to win the game. But only two out of three can play. “I think you should contact Cricket Australia as soon as possible and make a special request that we both play 12-a-side in Sydney,” I say, unhelpfully. Proccie is facing one of the hardest selection decisions for a decade or more, and it’s obviously on his mind. When he left the ICC’s Match Referee panel he was probably hoping for an easier life!

Out to celebrate now…Sydney here we come.

Wednesday, December 31

Sunglasses are much in evidence as the team arrives at Melbourne airport on an overcast morning. It’s been a late night all round, it seems. It certainly was for The Star’s Stuart Hess and me. We found ourselves still reliving the victory at 1.00am in the morning and breaking one of the golden rules of touring – no cricket talk an hour after play. Architects, accountants and bankers all get to leave their work in the office at the end of the day, we try to do the same. But there are exceptions, and we’ve just had ten days in a row of exceptions.

Paul Harris wanders over to say hello. “How are you?” he asks, softly. “A bit rough, to be honest,” I reply. He solemnly nods his head in understanding. “Welcome to the club,” he says, and moves slowly towards a coffee shop.

Two hours after play the squad wives and girlfriends left the MCG in a couple of taxis and, four hours after the match has finished the players emerged onto the field once again. The captain was chasing seagulls and seemed determined to catch one. They formed a tight huddle and sang, very loudly. The place was completely deserted – almost. “How many journalists were left in the press box?” asks Smith. “It was packed,” I reply. He groans but smiles when I tell him that the team’s celebrations were applauded by the Aussie media.

The plane is delayed by an hour but it feels more like four. Our radio commentary producer, the wonderful Sam Mochichila, is still very new to cricket, especially Test cricket, but has becomt increasingly rivetted as the series progressed. He is a rugby man, really, and wants to know how close the matches really were. “Bowlers win matches, they are the flyhalf and the wings of the team,” I reply. “The batsmen are the scrum – they lay the platform for the backs to win the game. So, if it was a rugby game, we would have won 40-25 because we took 40 wickets to their 25,” I reply.

On the plane they show the Channel Nine morning news which announces the inclusion of three uncapped players in the Australian squad. Doug Bollinger, I’m told by the man next to me, has had a hair transplant, Ben Hilfenhaus isn’t quick enough and he’s never heard of the other bloke, McDonald. “We bloody deserved to lose,” he says, “it’s just the kick up the backside they need.” Many Aussies have told the SA team the same thing.

Sydney fireworks tonight – one and a half million people cram onto the streets and pavements around the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the biggest annual party in the world. A second consecutive party for the team. “Not sure how a glass of champagne would go down tonight,” admits Jacques Kallis, “it might have hooks on it.” It certainly will in my case, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

Thursday, January 1st 2009

If Melbourne was a lady she would be a power-dresser with a navy blue suit and shoulder pads, expensive designer shoes and modest, carefully applied make-up. Melbourne is careful how she looks.

Sydney is a naturally beautiful tart. She doesn’t really need to worry about what she wears because she knows how sexy she is – so she wears tarty make-up and outrageous mini-skirts, and definitely no bra.

The day after the biggest party of the year and she’s a mess. Hair all over the place, bottles in the street, discarded bits of clothing, the odd broken stilletto heel, a pile of vomit here and there…and yet, she’s still attractive on a midday run around the Opera House and down to Woolloomooloo Quay where the millionaires park their boats and eat lobster for lunch.

The city is full of young lovers, and old lovers for that matter, and it’s holiday time so everybody seems to be smiling and having a great time. Most of the players wives and girlfriends are here so they’re certainly not feeling any loneliness. Have received one or too peculiar sms messages in recent days and only just figured it out. Players and squad members were all given local simcards on arrival and the phones have been used by partners while the men have been playing. Clearly, some have stored the name ‘Neil M’ in the memory (me) but the girlfriends have assumed that to be Neil McKenzie and Kerry McGregor. Not to worry – nothing private or embarrassing!

Almost nobody in the Australian media appear to have picked up on how important a member of the team Neil Mac is. Three failures and he was being written off. Strange how a 34-year-old Australian is regarded as “still having a few good years left” while a South African is “too old.” Some players read the game of cricket like a comic and others read it like a Tolstoy novel, but Neil Mac prefers to write his own paragraphs, even a chapter, in the book. It was Neil, for example, who suggested that Graeme Smith put himself at short cover to catch Ricky Ponting on 99.

Just as Mickey Arthur is confident enough in his own ability and secure enough in his own position to hire Duncan Fletcher as a consultant, Smith is equally confident and stable in his environment to encourage and thrive on Neil Mac’s input and involvement. Hopefully, he has at least “a few good years left” because he will be sorely missed when he goes.

Speaking of sore, Mickey announced that Smith would be leaving the tour straight after the Sydney Test to get treatment on his elbow. To anybody who has taken the trouble to observe him at close quarters over the last few months, it is obvious that he is in constant pain. When he said after the MCG Test that he had trouble cleaning his teeth in the morning, most people assumed he was joking. He wasn’t.

Goodness knows how he will get through five days at the SCG. Sometimes, he admits, he can’t even grip the bat properly with his top hand. For the sake of continuing a diary theme, the man has the pain threshold of a bull kudu.

Took the ferry to Manly in the evening to have dinner with Malcolm Conn and his lovely wife, Pru. The ferry is A$12.50 return and sails out from Circular Quay past the Harbour Bridge and Opera House every half hour. Nothing provides better value for your tourist money in the whole of Australia and yet Sydneysiders regard it as no more than a bus.

By the end of the day the tart has tidied herself up considerably and is all ready for another party.

Friday, January 2nd

Sad day as far as long cherished tour ‘rules’ are concerned. Big city hotels routinely charge more to launder clothes than the cost of new ones, so launderettes have always been the way forward for touring journalists. But launderettes are few and far between in The Rocks region of Sydney where we are staying and the Test match is looming, so my smart shirts and trousers have to be sent to the hotel’s in-house laundering service. They are returned, beautifully cleaned and pressed – at a cost of A$77 (R480). Ouch.

Haroon Lorgat and David Morgan hold a press conference to celebrate 100 years of the ICC. The entire media contingent from both countries is present because we are waiting for Graeme Smith to talk. The ‘celebrations’ never begin as both men are grilled mercilessly over a number of issues, primarily the continuing embarrassment caused by the presence of Zimbabwe at the head table of cricket despite no longer being a Test playing nation.

I ask both men why the ICC sees fit to ask for a visa exemption for ZC chief executive Peter Chingoka to attend an ICC meeting in Perth at the end of the month when the Australian government has seen fit to ban him. Morgan replies that the exemption is “…only for the meeting.” Oh. That’s alright then. As long as he isn’t going to go snorkeling on the Barrier Reef then I’m sure the Australian government will happily lift their ban.

Lorgat’s predecessor as ICC chief executive, Malcolm Speed, resigned from the position in protest at the fact that an independent audit into ZC’s finances, which uncovered “serious irregularities”, was suppressed from public scrutiny despite the ICC’s mission statement promising “honesty and transparency” When asked to comment on that, Haroon says simply: “That was before my time.”

Last week I bumped into Speed in the lobby of our Melbourne hotel. He was delivering an autographed bat for auction to raise money for underprivileged kids, many Zimbabwean. What is he doing now? “Mostly retired,” Speed replies. “I have a few consultancies but mostly it’s golf which occupies my time. I’ve got my handicap down to 14 and I’m determined to reach single figures next year.” He appears resigned to the fact that nothing will be done to alter the corruption against which he tried to campaign. Pity.

Smith is hilarious when he finally gets to sit down. Asked about the inclusion of Doug Bollinger in the Australian line-up, he refers back to a comment made by Bollinger when his inclusion in the squad was first announced: “We don’t know a lot about him, to be honest,” Smith says, “but anybody who promises to give 150,000% deserves to be respected.”

The captain hits exactly five balls in the nets, without pads. His elbow is agony. I ask him why he is playing – surely it can’t be any fun? “It has got the better of me now, to be honest, which is why I’m going home before the one-dayers. But I have to play here…it’s really sore but winning is fun, a lot of fun, and that’s why I want to play. But I wouldn’t if I didn’t think I could get through the match and benefit the team.”

Early night – big day tomorrow. Everybody spoke with passion and commitment about avoiding the mistakes of August when they flopped in the final Test against England after winning the series. I am completely convinced and find the prospect of a clean-sweep as exciting as a series win.

Saturday, January 3

Can’t recall ever feeling so excited about a Test match after a series has been decided. You learn something new every day but today I learn two things – the meaning of phycology and that kelp forests provide the earth with more oxygen than rain forests.

There is a sign on the coastal footpath at Lady MacQuarrie’s Point, close to the Botanical Gardens, on the route of the morning run which says “Smell the Seaweed!” It explains that Australia’s oceans have more than 2000 varieties of seaweed and that we brush our teeth with it every morning. It also explains that the study of seaweed is called “phycology” from the Greek word for seaweed, ‘phykos’.

Outside the hotel, right in the centre of the city, is a small park in which several homeless men sleep under cardboard on benches. One has a sign next to him reading “Not travelling too well – Homeless – Any help grateful.” Many South Africans have many misperceptions about Australia, one is that there is no crime and no poverty. There is both. They even have Trellidor adverts on TV.

The John Townsend barbeque in Perth is second only to the Mike Coward New Year curry evening on the cricket journalist’s social calendar and the day ends in tremendous fashion. Mike is approaching his 60th year and has been covering cricket for 35 years. He was an orphan but fortunate enough to have loving and caring adoptive parents – the result is a deep love and respect for the value of a strong family. He speaks often of the ‘cricket family’ and encourages those in it to look after each other, especially given how much time we spend away from home and family.

Mike and his partner Peter learned a valuable lesson about 10 years ago when the party had grown up so much that it had come to be regarded as ‘function’ rather than a party. Don’t try and do the catering yourself! The food theme is Moroccan and the minted lamb is delicious.

Sunday, January 4

Australian cricket mirrors society in many ways and one of the best is to celebrate and cherish achievement and success, in any capacity.

Our radio commentary box is situated behind the scorers so we look through two layers of glass to see the action. On the side of the scorers box is an ‘Honours Board’ recording the names of everyone to have scored a first-class match at the SCG – and there is an asterisk to denote those to have scored an international match. It is a fine and honourable concept which gives appreciation and relevance to those who devote so much time to the game.

Honours Boards for players are common place at the regular Test venues around the world but Australia has a wonderful habit of celebrating achievement at every level, and from all sources. In every media centre and press box the names of those to have excelled in print or electronic media are recorded.

Today, at lunchtime, there was the unveiling of the Honours Board recording the Cricket Writers Player of the Year dating back to 1983.

The Australian media have always been uncompromising in their judgement of players and, consequently, the relationship can be testy. But it’s a love-hate relationship for the most part and players are all too happy to accept the acclaim a day after vitriolic anger aimed at the media on a critical day.

Mark Taylor was the guest speaker at the modest ceremony – very appropriate given his rapid journey from playing field to commentary box. He was brilliant.

“From the outset,” he began, “let me just say that no player ever sets out to win this award! There are many other ‘gongs’ to aim for. But once I’d retired and moved up here, and been a part of the media and watched as much cricket as you do, I became very proud of the fact that you voted for me.”

Taylor has a last dig at the press-men when tipped off that tomorrow night’s annual dinner will see Brad Haddin honoured as the 2008-09 Cricket Writers Player of the Year.

“When I first looked at the board I noticed that there was no wicket-keeper on it. Well, all I can say is that if Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist couldn’t win it then I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of Brad Haddin’s career! You blokes are obviously pretty special at spotting a talent!”

A frustrating day on the field ends with Australia reaching 445 after resuming at 267-6 and South Africa finishing on 125-1 with Amla on 30 and Kallis on 36. Paul Harris, who admitted last week to reading this column and enjoying how wrong my predictions have been, can’t help taking the piss during our interview.

“Who would be brave enough to speculate on how this Test match will go given how unpredictable the first two have been,” I ask, “but how do you see things panning out, if everything goes well?”

“Well, YOU certainly shouldn’t speculate,” says Harris with a wide grin, “but we’ve got everything spot on in the change room. Jacques and Hashim are well set so, hopefully, they can produce big hundreds tomorrow. Then, all we have to do is score 600, bowl them out for 150 and win by an innings.”

Right. There you are then. No more praying for rain from me. I’ll let ‘Harry’ make the predictions. Seriously, though, something special does seem possible. The pitch is beginning to play tricks but the bowling attack lacks experience. It will take a monumental performance from the next five batsmen to earn a lead, but if that happens the match will be well in to the fourth day and batting will be treacherous.

Maybe Harry will rip through the middle order. Cricketing miracles have become common-place after the last two tests. Why not another one?

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