Down Under Diary – week four

November 22, 2016

Much as we would all like Mintgate to disappear and stop distracting us from a seismic cricketing tour, it isn’t over yet. Having been found guilty of ball tampering by match referee Andy Pycroft, on the advice of his umpires, Faf du Plessis immediately declared his intention to appeal. So there’s more to come.

Faf’s lawyer during the hearing was one of cricket’s most intelligent and upstanding men, the former head of legal affairs at the ICC itself, David Becker. He worked 16-hour days for months to conclude the initial section of the RamSlam investigation before adding another three months of further investigation into the role played by Alviro Petersen, whose fate is to be determined.

Becker is not only a man of fact and law, he has a deep understanding and appreciation for the history and values of the game. He argued on the basis of ‘evidence’ – what was the substance in Faf’s mouth, and how could it be proven that it was transferred onto the ball?

But Pycroft wasn’t convening a criminal court with forensic expertise. He simply asked the umpires whether they would have acted, and how they might have reacted, had they seen the incident live. They both said they would have acted to the full extent of their powers had they seen it. That was enough for Pycroft, who also reminded Du Plessis of the importance of the ‘spirit of the game,’ whatever that actually means.

Russell Domingo did his best to persuade everyone that the team were focused on the cricket, now, but that was hard to believe on Tuesday. All the talk was of Faf’s hearing and whether he would play the third test. He will. And given the strength of his personality, he will not only be ready to play, but fortified to do so by what has happened.

Much of South Africa’s ‘defence’, if not all of it, has been based on the fact that other teams utilise exactly the same tactics. Have a look at Indian captain Virat Kohli during the first test against England two weeks ago in the clip below. And there are others.

November 23, 2016

Finally a return to the cricket. What a pleasure and relief. Although, unlike many other cricketing scandals, there were some very real and fascinating issues in this one.

What is ‘natural’ and what is artificial? Cricket trousers are no longer made of cotton but man-made fabric. And as Faf du Plessis said carefully and honestly during his impressive captain’s press briefing, cricketers’ mouths more often than not contain some sort of sugar while they are on the field of play, from mints, jellies or even energy drinks.

For anyone who remained unconvinced by his argument, they had only to wait 20 minutes before the excellent and undeniably impressive Steve Smith was asked about the controversy – and whether his team used ‘substances’ to shine it: “I think every team around the world shines the cricket ball. I’ve seen Faf’s comments and, from my point of view, I make it very clear that we haven’t come out and said anything about Faf or about how he was shining the ball or anything like that. So look, we along with every other team around the world, shine the ball the same way.”

It was as if he had arrived with an inflated balloon and stuck a needle into it. Bang.

When du Plessis had been asked whether he expected to be sledged by the new-look Australian team about his ball-shining habits, he had replied: “I think the Aussies won’t talk about it at all because they know it’s part of their team as well. This has not been driven by the cricketers. I even read a comment from Darren Lehmann which was backing and supporting me. But you don’t expect to walk in against Australia with a clap and a ‘welcome to the crease.’” Smith endorsed those words.

Although much of the ‘Mintgate’ narrative changed today, some things didn’t. The captain was technically guilty of the charge and, if his defence was based on mitigating circumstances and the fact that everybody else was doing it, perhaps he should have told the truth and blown the entire subject out into the open. He would certainly have had a much quieter week.

Also, the Hashim Amla press conference with the entire squad in attendance. Perhaps we’ll never know what he was thinking when he feigned ignorance of the practice of shining the ball with substance assistance, but it still remains one of the strangest moments on tour, especially when coach Russell Domingo admitted a couple of days later that Faf’s defence was based on the fact that he was simply keeping up with the crowd.

Du Plessis’ lawyer, David Becker, is a brilliant man and he based his defence on there being no evidence that his client had changed the condition of the ball. That was what he had been charged with, and there was, indeed, no evidence whatsoever to suggest he was guilty.

The ICC should have charged him with “intent” to change the condition of the ball, in which case they would have had a strong case. But they did not. Their charge was tantamount to cheating, in which case the burden of proof lay with them. And they did absolutely nothing about it. If the burden of proof had been with “intent” it would have been different.

Anyway, South Africa look like fielding the same XI on a green and heavily grassed wicket against an Australian batting order with three debutants in the top six. As readers of this diary for the last 10 years will know, the unexpected appears to happen far more often than it should.

For the first time in 20+ post-isolation years, South Africa enter a test match tomorrow as favourites for the first time, and by a long way. I can’t help feeling something strange (yet again) will happen.

November 24, 2016

Cricket’s history is sprinkled with innings of great defiance and hundreds made in adversity, with injury or in the face of injustice, perceived or real. Some Australians may not think so, but Faf du Plessis’s unbeaten 118 tonight rates highly among them. Very highly.

Well over three decades ago Kepler Wessels faced the full might of the West Indies attack at their most powerful. Like most of his top-order colleagues he had been beaten black and blue by a series of bouncers and was written off by many fans and swathes of the media.

His century at the SCG silenced the critics and made supporters realise that their South African import was imbued with a steel they had not hitherto suspected. Tonight he was commentating and declared the innings of Du Plessis “one of the best ever” in the category of ‘f*** you’ centuries.

He was booed by a crowd of 20 000 when he walked onto the field and booed again, albeit not as roundly or loudly, when he reached three figures when the figure had swelled to 30 000. How silly of them. Not because it was ill-informed or ban-mannered, but because they didn’t know it would serve as the most potent fuel for the under-siege batsman. He took the negative energy, pressed it through the filter in his mind and transformed it into a force of enormous power.

It’s easy to forget the skill required to score runs in such testing conditions but, in this instance, it really was all about the personality of the man and the quality he has spoken about so much on this tour – resilience.

Even for those who believe he should have handled the ‘Mintgate’ saga and subsequent disciplinary hearing differently, it was impossible to deny the impact of the statement he made on the same ground where he made his match-saving century on debut four years ago.

Our first taste of day-night test cricket was everything its advocates claimed it would be. Wonderful atmosphere, fast moving game, regular wickets and runs for the special ones with the most durable defence if not classic technique – Stephen Cook and the remarkable captain.

“I expected the booing when I walked out to bat,” he said afterwards, “but maybe not quite as much.” The booing which greeted his century, however, was less expected. “It was a bit disappointing, to be honest. Any batsman deserves a little bit better for reaching three figures. But I guess it’s understandable, in a way. People have their views on what’s happened in the last week.”

Faf’s awareness of the match situation was never better illustrated than when he saw David Warner talking to the umpires 50 minutes before the close of play about leaving the field for treatment to his shoulder – and whether he would be allowed to open the batting.

“I tried to get my ear a bit closer to the conversation,” he admitted after play. “So I knew he wouldn’t be able to open the batting if I declared then. It made sense,” Du Plessis said with his trademark smile.

South Africa didn’t take a wicket in the final 12 overs but the captain’s shrewdness in disrupting the opposition’s batting order was confirmed when Josh Hazlewood said after the day’s play: “Davey owes Usman (Khawaja) an apology (for having to open the batting.)

This test match will continue to move at great pace. Thrilling stuff. Fasten your seat-belts.

November 25, 2016

It’s good to have a bad day. Every team needs reminding that they are not indestructible or invincible, not that this team have appeared complacent. Not on the field at any rate.

Gratuitously sucking sweets on the field during the Melbourne warm-up game and treating the laws of the game as a “joke”, not to mention describing them as such, was an error of judgment they will all recognise sooner or later.

It wasn’t even such a bad day on the field, to be fair. It was just a very good day for Australia who lost seven consecutive days of test cricket before drawing the first here in Adelaide and then, finally, winning one on the back of a magnificent, unbeaten century from Usman Khawaja who batted through and survived not one but TWO twilight sessions against the pink ball at its trickiest.

Kyle Abbott was outstanding with figures of 23-11-36-3, but it just wasn’t Vernon Philander’s day for edges and Kagiso Rabada endured a rare couple of wayward spells before thundering back to form with the ball of the day which uprooted debutant Nic Maddinson’s middle stump for a duck.

“We weren’t at our best,” admitted Abbott at the end of the day, “and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit we bowled too many loose balls and allowed them to score a bit too freely.” Spoken like a true team man. He bowled about three loose balls out of 92.

Tabraiz Shamsi has had many better and even more worse days in his first-class career but he looked comfortable and confident in his debut test and that bodes well. He may yet provide the sting in the tail of this match when Australia bat last.

Abbott was bold enough to suggest that 200 would be a tough target to chase. There is much work to be done to get there with Australia leading by 48 with four wickets in hand and Khawaja rock solid on 138*.

Yet again the spotlight was taken off the cricket with a brief but understandable press conference by ICC chief executive Dave Richardson. The entire transcript can be found elsewhere on these pages but, basically, he said: ‘Yes, the ball-shining (with substance) law is difficult to police, and every team tries to get away with it. But the law is there for all to see and if someone flagrantly disregards it then we are duty-bound to act. The law might well need to be changed, but you can’t just ignore it and then plead innocent – or ignorant.’

Du Plessis actually told match referee Andy Pycroft at the beginning of the hearing that he “did not know it was against the laws of the game.” Pycroft asked him to reconsider that response, given his previous conviction. Du Plessis did. And changed tack to the “everyone else does it” line of defence. It did not look good.

His toughness on the field, resilience on and off it, his charm and cunning, they make for a compelling package. The refusal to comprehend the rule of law, however antiquated it may be, let alone accept it, is one area of the stand-in captain’s approach which is dividing opinion. Strongly.

The greatest changers in society have been those who proclaim the injustice of the laws they decry, not those who pretend they don’t understand them and suggest that mass flouting of them is a reason to be excused.

Still, the legacy of Du Plessis and this squad may still hinge on the outcome of this test match. A first ever whitewash of Australia on home soil will be hard if not impossible to ignore in the years to come. Mints may mention a mention in paragraph 23. There is a great deal of work to be done before that becomes a possibility.

November 26, 2016

Here we go again. The umpteenth ‘impossible’ situation in Australia with only the players’ wives, the impossibly optimistic and the feeble-minded giving the Proteas a chance of victory. Or so you would think with a casual glance at the scorecard.

But things have changed, many things. So often have South Africa defied the odds in the nine Test matches played across the last three series in this country that even the hardiest one-eyed Aussie supporters are muttering darkly about the threat of ‘Quinnon’ de Kock and the fragility of the home team’s batting order.

Whereas the South Africans here, players, management, media and those (many) who have chosen to make Australia their home, believe 200 to be the minimum target required to have even a chance of victory, locals are wondering whether 150 might present too much of a challenge.

“I think we’ll settle for 350 as a target,” said batting coach Neil McKenzie to huge laughter. “Tabraiz Shamsi in the last innings, turning ball, we’ll take that. But realistically we have to hope we can get to 200 ahead, maybe a few more, that would be nice. But we’re effectively 70-6 at the moment so it could all go horribly wrong tomorrow morning. Or it could go far better than we dare hope.

“Stephen is 81 not out and we know exactly what we’ll get from him, he’ll be nuggety and determined and hopefully carry on doing his thing for the rest of the innings. Quinny is our wild card and, if he comes off, then who knows. But we are as determined as ever, never give up. We’re still in this Test match and we know we can make history if we win. There’s still a lot of hope, but we are realistic.”

Sleeping patterns are a challenging reality about day/night Test cricket. It is extremely hard for the players to sleep much before three or four hours after the game which means 1:30am is the best they can hope for.

In theory they can make up for that by sleeping in until 10:00am, but that is virtually impossible with daylight pouring into the room at 6:00am, phone calls, house-keeping and whatever else. Hashim Amla reckoned the Test would be “like playing five consecutive ODIs” if it goes the distance.

Temba Bavuma’s choice of shot was questionable at a critical stage of the game and the loss of two wickets in the final few minutes of the day’s play changed the complexion of the game entirely. “Temba has his game plans and he knows how and where he wants to score his runs,” McKenzie said. “He will evaluate what happened and decide whether the timing was right, there’s no need for me or any of the coaching staff to say anything.”

It’s all up to Quinny and Big Vern tomorrow. And maybe 30 from KG? If that happens, the bowling and catching will still have to be superb. Odds heavily on an Australian victory before the close of play on day four. I’ve been wrong so many times before in these contests that I say that without a hint of confidence. Stay tuned…!

November 27, 2016

As opening questions in a post-series interview go, this probably wasn’t in my top three to Faf du Plessis after the third Test had ended in a seven-wicket defeat to reduce the series scoreline to 2:1 – although it was entirely accidental: “Faf, bitter-sweet moment for you, but more sweet than bitter?”

His eyes narrowed in synchronisation with his mouth which spread into a grin: “Yes, it’s been that sort of match, that sort of week,” he said. “But definitely more sweet. We have won the series which means so much to us. We desperately wanted to make it 3-0 but Australia fought hard, their pride and determination was obvious. Usman played a great innings to give them a big lead and, unfortunately, we just didn’t score enough runs in both our innings,” du Plessis said.

Man of the series, Vernon Philander, paid tribute to the team’s ethos of playing for each other and confirmed that the captain’s involvement in ‘Mintgate’ had no effect on the team’s morale or performance: “It was a bit of a show for a while, quite a long while, but we weren’t distracted. It was a good media story and they weren’t going to let it go away, but we were focused on the Test match, no problem,” Philander said.

Steve Smith said it was a “huge relief” to avoid the whitewash and “get a win on the board” but admitted the Proteas had been the better team and deserved to win. “Their discipline with bat and ball was better than ours in the first two Tests and, although we had our chances, we didn’t take them and they took theirs. Hopefully we can build from this win and look forward to good times ahead.”

An hour after the final post-match rituals had been concluded there was a delightful scene of real-world normality on the outfield as Neil McKenzie, Rilee Rossouw and Morne Morkel frolicked with their youngsters and were joined by David Warner and his own toddler, keen not to miss out on the action.

Test cricket is played at the greatest intensity, players lose themselves in the heat of the battle, often losing perspective in pursuit of victory, but it rarely lasts once stumps have been drawn for the day or the match has ended. The teams shared drinks and exchanged battle tales once again today, as they and their predecessors have done so many times in the past.

“I will always remember this tour for so many reasons,” du Plessis said. “I have a love affair with the Adelaide Oval after two hundreds and making my debut here. It doesn’t matter about the booing, I love the place. We have performed so well, it’s a dream come true.”

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