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

Monday, December 22

Appalling start to the day as I sleep through two alarm calls and four cell phone calls from colleagues. It wasn’t just the celebration but the fact that friends, colleagues and family were all keen to talk about the greatest test win in SA’s history.

How pleasant to drop the “post-isolation’ and “pre-isolation” epithettes which we have used for so long.

It was simply ‘South Africa’s greatest win.’ Player skill, relevance, timing of the victory and its international significance, nothing compares. Actually, no, plenty of games compare. But none match. The only bigger win available in the next 10, 15 maybe 30 years, would be the one next week at the MCG.

Frantic chase to the airport and scramble into the terminal as the announcement is made “…Flight QF 802 to Melbourne is now closing.” Mad waving of arms does the trick but the check-in lady gets her revenge by weighing my hand-luggage and insisting that I get it down from 9.7 kilogrammes to “below seven.”

I love touring Australia but things like this always make it hard. By packing light I ensure my main bag is just 16 kgs, four below the limit. But now I am forced to ditch virtually everything but my laptop. Even the power cable has to be re-packed into my main luggage. Not even 7.6 is good enough. Out come my sunglasses and recording equipment. 7.3. A grudging acceptance. Phew.

The Australian team are on board but, unlike South Africa who fly economy class on domestic flights, they are tucked away safely up front in business class. Very nice. After baggage collection, however, they are confronted with a barrage of television cameras and reporters. The bright lights are shined in the faces of Matthew Hayden and Brett Lee.

South African players, on previous tours, have always harped on about how ‘hard’ the Aussie media can be on touring teams. If only they had taken the time to notice that Australian players also bare the full brunt when they are under pressure.

Our new hotel is within viewing distance of the MCG but is English in style, tiny room with windows which do no open. Hermetically sealed. Why, I ask the receptionist. “Victoria Government legislation,” he replies. “Why?” I ask. “Well, umm, to stop people jumping out of them,” he replies. It doesn’t matter how many times you tour, you learn something new every day. Do people really book a hotel room in order to jump out of them? Aren’t there enough bridges and high-rise office-blocks to do that from?

Going to sleep with many thoughts in mind. Three-nil series win means number one world ranking. Australia ‘always find a way.’ “It’s going to be very, very hard to win the series from here” – Ponting.

Tuesday, Dec 23

Every city in Australia offers magnificent runs and walks for those wishing to get out and exercise – most along the banks of a great river, in the case of Melbourne it is the Yarra.

In Perth it is the great Swan River. On my my last run in Perth, on “414 Sunday” morning, I thought I saw a church gathering with a preacher and microphone so went to investigate. Turns out it was a Christmas bingo raffle held by a local running club with the club captain calling out the numbers and giving the prizes away.

The banks of the Yarra are similarly filled with Christmas revellers during my evening run and I cannot rid myself of the image of one party, presumably a small family business having it’s Christmas party.

The grey haired boss in black shirt and black jeans, raises his glass for a toast, just as I approach: “Here’s to a hard but successful year,” he says, “and special mention to Lucy who has made a great start with the company but, before I raise a glass to you officially, Lucy, can I ask you a question…have you ever had sex on my billiard table?”

I am an inconsequential nobody running ten metres away but, nonetheless, I am hit as surely as the other guests by the wave of confused emotion, muffled coughs and embarrassment. I catch a glimpse of Lucy as she raises her hands to her face… then I’m gone. Who was Lucy? Where was the billiard table? These questions will trouble me during the inevitable sleepless nights which are a part of touring.

I had assumed that “Shane Warne – The Musical” must be similarly embarrassing until talking to the Sydney Morning Herald’s cricket writer, the excellent Chloe Saltau, who had seen it on opening night in the presence of the man himself, who consented to watching it after initially objecting.

Chloe said the show was excellent so the South Africa press contigent have resolved to see it, if possible, when we get to Sydney. Yesterday I heard an interview with the man who spent three years writing it and also plays the lead role; his name is Eddie Perfect and he says that it is his real name, too. He was very funny but not as funny as the song from the show which played after his interview – “What an SMS I’m in.”

Warne returns home after a long Ashes tour and is struggling to come to terms with domestic life. The song is set in a supermarket while Shane and long-suffering Simone do the grocery shopping. Actually, Simone does the shopping and grows increasingly agitated as Shane’s phone keeps beeping with messages from a woman who is pleasuring herself and keeping Warne up-to-date as she does so. “It’s digital, it’s not physical, so I’m not really cheating like other men,” Warne sings. Very funny.

You would never, ever believe it reading Australian newspapers and listening to radio, but there were two dreadful decisions during the first test in Perth. Matthew Hayden missed the ball he was alleged to have edged onto his pad to provide Dale Steyn with a return catch, but JP Duminy also missed the ball he was alleged to have gloved behind for a duck in the first innings.

So it was even sweeter that he should show the courage he did to be there at the end and score the winning runs in Perth. I didn’t mention this at the time but, on reflection, it seems harmless enough and I’m sure neither player would mind.

As I was about to interview JP after the game, his great mate, AB de Villiers (they have been playing either with or against each other since the age of 16) walks past and pretends to grab JP between the legs: “Jy het die balles van ‘n kudu!” he grins, and then gives him yet another hug.

December 24

An extremely short reader’s letter in The Australian catches my eye over breakfast and reminds me of a conversation I once had many years ago with the world’s most decent cricketer, Andrew Hudson. After a run of horrendous, single figure scores, Hudders knew he was facing the sack if he failed again in the next test match and promptly made a career-saving 70 or 80. Afterwards, he thanked the Lord for helping him.

I asked him, with respect, where the Lord had been during his preceding six innings which had mostly been in single figures and, if you could thank him for a good score, why couldn’t you ask him where he’d been when you needed him earlier. Hudders smiled philosophically and said it didn’t really work like that.

“Great effort by AB de Villiers on the last day of the Waca Test,” the letter started. “But I note that he attributes his success to having the Lord Jesus Christ by his side. Was LJC acting as a runner? If so, the laws of cricket require that he be named on the team sheet.” – John Gallagher, Bibra Lake, WA.

In desperate need of a haircut, I try half a dozen ‘salons’ who scoff at my lack of booking. Old tour rule – if you need something doing, fixing or you’re hungry, and it’s a strange time and in you’re in a strange city, head for China Town. ‘Marge’ (as in the Simpsons, real name Wu Bin Mei) does an excellent job after I persuade her to squeeze me in between appointments and then charges an astronomical A$35 (R250) for the privilege. She didn’t even wash it first and there was no sign of a cup of green tea, let alone a cappuccino. “You despate, me spensive,” she said with a smile. Fair point.

Graeme Smith completes 54 minutes of media obligations before the team practises. Almost an hour of almost constant talking, and thinking. He could become a commentator one day, provided he eases up on the thinking part. But then he has one, final obligation – a radio interview with me. Tired? Fed-up? Irritable? Far from it. Anything but. The single thing which has made him realise how much the Perth victory has meant to South Africans, he says, is the number of people who have contacted him whom he didn’t even know he knew!

A cornerstone of journalism for me, for over 20 years, has been the need for impartiality and subjectivity. It is a characteristic for which I’ve, hopefully, become known. This fell apart spontaneously in the immediate aftermath of “414 Sunday” when I embraced Smith, AB de Villiers, team manager Doc Moosajee and just about anybody else in a South African tracksuit. After the interview I apologise to Smith: “I should have maintained my decorum and settled for a handshake,” I explain. “Sorry for the hug.”

“In the circumstances,” the captain replies, “it was completely appropriate.” Never again, though.

My last question is: “So, South Africa’s greatest test win, there’s only one more which can beat it now…” to which the skipper looks, momentarily, confused. “Oh, yes, you mean this one…! Yes, it probably would be even bigger. But we’re not looking that far – we’re not looking beyond Christmas Day training.”

Apparently it’s Christmas Eve today. The touring media, it’s fair to say, haven’t noticed. Not because we’re stupid, but because we are ‘hard’. We are traditionally ‘hard’ at this time of the year. Much, much easier to be ‘hard’ than contemplate families 6 000 miles away and reveal any soft points, or ‘weakness.’ No. We are hard. We are working. We are working tomorrow, too.

Thursday, December 25

The hotel is only 10 minutes walk from the MCG so it’s easy to get there and no need to gamble on a taxi driver with no English who is totally dependent for all destinations on his GPS. On Monday I even had to type the address in myself in order to be delivered to the studios of Fox Sports where Allan Border, Mark Waugh and Brendan Julian seek answers and explanations for Perth. Border, as usual, is bang on the money even though didn’t go to Perth and only watched from 3000 kilometres away in Brisbane. “They seem far more relaxed and less tense than previous South African squads,” he says. Quite so.

Strangely enough, they seem a bit tense on Christmas Day. Graeme Smith says it’s simply the determination to become the first South African team to win a series on Australian soil. Cricket South Africa, anxious that as many people as possible back home are able to see the team and hear from them after Perth and before Melbourne, pays for the hiring of a freelance cameraman and I interview five players after practice. Hashim Amla has a fit of the giggles as a fly entangles itself in his beard just as the camera starts rolling and then I ask him whether Christmas has been a distracting time for the team. “Not for me, personally,” he replies, still smiling.

The team retreat to the hotel at midday to prepare for their traditional Christmas day lunch. Fortunately, South Africans are less beholden to the tradition of eating turkey but it’s still pretty popular down here so the players are treated to turkey and all the trimmings while a local employee at the hotel is roped in to play Santa Clause ahead of Makhaya Ntini who, in the absence of his wife and children, was looking forward to doing the job.

For me the day follows a similar pattern to the last couple of Christmas days in Melbourne. Washing of socks and underwear in the bath is followed by 75 minutes of ironing. Four shirts and a pair of trousers. Almost 20 minutes per item. That can’t be normal, even for a man.

In the evening I hook up with Malcolm Conn (“The Australian”) and John Townsend (“The Australian”) for a sundowner in central Melbourne, except every single bar and restaurant we try is closed. There’s always something happening in the shabbily trendy district of St.Kilda, however, so we take a taxi there and are not disappointed. We opt for a ‘real’ pub with ‘real’ people with tattoos and face-metal and beer on the floor. Three pints of James Boag’s draught beer and we are already feeling far more connected to the festive season than we have all day.

Supper is a burger which smells ominously like dog food and is not the colour of meat – it is green. I have seen documentaries about meat ‘products’ like this and can’t shift the images of offel and pigs ears being minced up and mixed with low grade wheat grain and maize.

The day ends on a high, however, thanks to Skype which allows me to open the presents wrapped by my children in front of them and lets me see what they opened earlier in the day. One of my presents is a fabulous pair of swimming shorts personally chosen by the girls, aged eight and five, and paid for with a silent smile by my wife. “Proudly made in Australia” the label yells.

Fell asleep very easily despite feeling a child-like sense of excitement about the Boxing Day Test.

Friday, December 26

Enormous excitement. Our hotel is packed with ‘out-of-towners’ here for the Test. An estimated crowd of 70,000 can’t all be Melbourne locals. The breakfast room is humming and, on my morning run on the banks of the Yarra, there are already groups of fans walking towards the MCG at 7.00am, three and a half hours before the start of play. The Boxing Day Test is one of the great sporting events in the world, never mind cricket events. This time it’s different, of course, Australia will begin the match for the first time in decades facing the possibility of losing a series, certainly the first time ever against South Africa.

Everyone, even the Aussie media, have their favourite story about MCG bureaucracy. Like the millionaire who arrived to take up his seat in the Members area in the company of four beautiful ladies, all wearing sandals. He was wearing a pair of $1000 deck shoes, without socks. He was refused entry. The ladies were not. In full view of the gestapo guard, he offered to buy socks from two youngsters, one black pair and one white. He put one of each on his feet and was allowed in, looking ridiculous. “Hygiene” was the reason given, and when he asked whether men’s feet were less hygienic than women’s, he was given the classic moron’s response: “Just doing my job.”

Another man coated his feet in black paint and convinced the morons that his ‘socks’ were religious. They let him in. I wear all my smartest clothes, determined to avoid an ‘incident’. My accreditation bar code is rejected: “Step aside, there is a problem,” I am told in terse tones. While I wait, my colleague, Aslam Khota, walks tentatively towards the brute: “I’m very sorry,” he says, “but there doesn’t appear to be a barcode on my accreditation.”

“No problem, go right ahead,” replies the moron. I got in eventually, once senior moron had been summoned. Five minutes later.

It doesn’t matter. The MCG is glorious, intimidating and exhilirating, as always. The commentary boxes are separated only by glass panels which means we can all say we’ve commentated with Richie Benaud, sort of.

Our ‘coup’ is to get Rodney Hogg working exclusively for South Africa. All day he refers to “us” when referring to Australia, and then asks “is it OK if I say us?” We say it’s fine. Then, at the end of the day, we discuss whether 280-6 is a good total for the home side.

Hogg replies: “Yes, it’s a good total, but they need at least 350, preferably 400. Then they need to bowl South Africa out, so let’s talk about how they might do that. They need 20 wickets – let’s give Mitchell Johnson 10, seeing as he got them in Perth. Brett Lee is good for four and, if Nathan Hauritz bowls really well, he’ll take one. Peter Siddle bowls straight and is consistent so, he’ll take two. That leaves us needing three run-outs. Doesn’t look good, does it, and that’s with Johnson taking another ten!”

Harry bowled beautifully, once again. What a character. Not since Gary Kirsten has a South African made such an impact with, seemingly, limited talent. But that is, and always will be, a misperception because talent is what you make it, and talent is what makes you.

Gut feel after day one? Good. Makhaya said the batsmen think it’s a 400 wicket so 280-6 is OK. Very, very evenly poised. Another Johnson ‘special’ and South Africa is stuffed, but a McKenzie hundred (how fitting after dropping Ponting on 24) would leave SA very well placed.

The odds are ridiculous – Australia are even money favourites after the first day and South Africa 5-1…5-1!! That can’t be right.

Saturday, December 27

Soon after lunch a note is passed to us in the commentary box that Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is visiting the media centre and will be popping in to talk to South Africa after trying to win friends and influence people on Channel 9 television and ABC Radio. Naturally, we assume that this is a wind-up, so we don’t fall for it. I’m commentating with former tearaway fast bowler, Rodney Hogg, when the message arrives. “Don’t call him ‘Kevin’, whatever you do,” advises Hogg. “The only time a Prime Minister visited us was back in the late 70s, I’d just taken five wickets and was feeling pretty flushed, so I said ‘Hello Malcolm’ and he looked like thunder and turned his back on me. I think you’re supposed to call him Mr Prime Minister’,” Hogg says.

Twenty minutes later his ‘staff’ come to the box to tell us the Prime Minister is just ‘a few minutes away’. We’d held a commentators meeting to discuss who should handle the interview but I reject the notion that, as senior man, I should do the job. We agree, reluctantly in the case of Mluleki Ntsabo who is on his first ever cricket tour, that we’ll keep the roster as it is and, sure enough, Mr Rudd arrives barely a minute after Mluleki takes over the lead microphone.

“Hello,” he says with arm outstretched as he walks into the box, “I’m Kevin.”

“You obviously enjoy your cricket, Sir,” says Mluleki after a suitably ingratiating introduction.

“I am a great fan but was a terrible player,” says the PM.

Having bowled a gentle loosener, Mluleki opts for something a little more challenging for his second delivery. “Well, Sir, what are your thoughts on the global economic crisis?” Fortunately, the PM’s earphones prevent him from hearing the muffled giggles from the back of the box.

A dreadful batting performance leaves everyone feeling very flat at the end of the day, despite Steyn’s five-wicket haul. We decide to drown our sorrows at Bridie O’Reilly’s Irish pub in Little Collins Street, a favourite venue for South African tourists over the years. A Cricket Australia employee working in the Media Rights department asks why South Africa has sent their own television and radio commentary teams this year. She looks aghast at my suggestion that we are seeking a little more impartiality. No point in elaborating. Bed time. Dreams of a Paul Harris 50…? We can all dream.

Sunday, December 28

It seemed like a good idea before the tour to write a daily diary but, judging by the amount of egg on my face at the end of every day, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea now. After all these years watching cricket and reading the game, fancy not seeing that South Africa would chase 414 in Perth. And how could I possibly not have seen that J-P Duminy would add 180 with Dale Steyn for the ninth wicket today? Either I am completely out of touch or some very, very special things are happening. At least I got one thing right. On day one I wrote ‘this tour will be different.’

Poor old Shane Warne. Everytime the man opens his mouth, in public or private, he’ll be quoted. And here I am doing it to him again. Midway through the afternoon he gets into a lift with me. “G’day Neil, how’re you going? Jeez your boys are putting up a fight, aren’t they? Bloody amazing – how good’s Duminy?!” Warnie then rolls his arm over and flicks that famous wrist. “Got to get some of this going, haven’t we? Why hasn’t Katich had a bowl?” I have no idea why Katich hasn’t bowled but am too bewildered that the man remembers who I am to answer. “Duminy is very good,” I offer, “…has been for ages.”

Having barely had time to reflect properly on “414 Sunday” in Perth, which I describe as South Africa’s greatest Test victory, I am confronted by the question: ‘Has South Africa ever enjoyed a greater fight-back day in their history?’ The answer, unscientifically, is an emphatic ‘no’. Not since India fought back from a follow-on against Australia seven years ago to win in Perth has any team fought back in such extraordinary fashion and, in the 130-year history of the game, only three or four times has the course of a Test match changed so profoundly as it did in one day, today.

After the day’s play I wait to interview J-P on the outfield and Graeme Smith has ventured out, too. “One of the greatest days of my entire cricket career, watching that man bat and do what he did today,” says the captain. “And I didn’t even get onto the field, until now!” Smith has played several of the great innings in SA history, and has said ‘I’m speechless’ on a couple of occasions, but this is the first time he genuinely seems so. Like the rest of us, he just shakes his head in awe – as we did after his series-winning 154* against England at Edgbaston in August.

J-P is interviewed first by a Channel Nine duo of Mark Taylor and Warne. He looks, understandably, nervous for the first time in the day. Smith smiles: “That’ll be the most intimidating part of the day for him!”

He relaxes, significantly, when his next assignment is me. “No, we never thought this was possible,” he chuckles. “Our objective was to bat for 30 overs, if we could, and get to within 100 or 120 runs. Then we thought we might be able to drag ourselves back into the Test, like we did in Perth. But this…this is unbelievable.”

While the whole squad, and country for that matter, undoubtedly feels proud of Duminy, there is a very special poignancy to his use of the word: “It’s a special day for me, but I’m so proud of the way Steyntjie stuck in there and gritted it out. They came hard at him, bowled lots of short balls and hit him on the fingers and the body, but he never flinched.” Pride is a big emotion amongst this squad.

After “414 Sunday” in Perth it was time to celebrate and, as Mickey Arthur said a couple of days later, “it was celebrated properly!” With two days to go in Melbourne, nobody is in the mood. Not even Stuart Hess of The Star who doesn’t normally mind a beer or two after the day’s play. Just one? “No, bru, I’m gonna be in shape to do justice to this. I reckon this is front page, back page, page three, news on page seven and editorial comment somewhere in between. Let’s leave the beer ’till Tuesday!”

Weather forecasts aren’t good. Scattered showers on Monday (day 4) with the threat of serious thunderstorms on Tuesday. AB de Villiers asked for no rain when we were begging for it in Perth, now we’re all praying for no rain – having been willing to give a limb – or just a finger, perhaps – for rain on day two.

Warne’s question about Katich’s bowling is put to vice-captain Michael Clarke after play: “I am not consulted about bowling changes and have no say in the matter,” he says.

“But you are vice-captain,” continues his questioner.

“Yes, but you’ll have to ask the captain about the bowling changes.”

Bloody hell. Discord in the ranks? In Australia? As several Proteas have mentioned, this is the quietest and least bonded Aussie team ever to face South Africa.

And if the egg continues to hit my face, they should win quite comfortably at the MCG

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