Down Under Diary – week one

October 31, 2016

This has been mentioned several times in recent years but South Africa’s ability to use practise matches for exactly that – practise – contrasts starkly with the attitude and approach adopted by the teams of the 90s and early 2000s.

Back then Hansie Cronje believed every match, no matter who it was against, should be played at full intensity with the object of winning. It was an understandable and laudable intention but impossible to achieve. It is one of the reasons South African teams ran out of steam towards the end of overseas tours.

A two-day game, of course, is by definition ‘practice’ because it does not have first-class status. Nonetheless, micro-targets were set for each player – notably the bowlers – and they pretty much hit them.

One notable ‘failure’ may have been the bowling of Tabraiz Shamsi who was whacked for eight an over on the second day of the South Australia game in Adelaide.

But seasoned and respected Australian writer Andrew Ramsey, who watched the game closely, agreed whole-heartedly with Keshav Maharaj who said nothing could be read into the scorecard.

“It was a very flat, slow pitch on a club ground with short boundaries which was never going to offer anything to the spinners,” Ramsey said.

“South Australia’s two spinners went for more than seven an over. The batsmen could simply play Shamsi on length and the moment he missed it, they climbed into him. He soon realised he was on a hiding to nothing and lost his usual vivacity,” said Ramsy who also covered the ODI series in South Africa and saw Shamsi’s match-winning spell in the fourth match at St George’s Park.

He was also in Sri Lanka to watch the Aussies lose the test series 3-0 and believes the Proteas have made a smart move in bringing two left-arm spinners to Australia. “The Australian top order showed they can’t play left-arm spin too well, so they could yet play a big role. Maharaj looked excellent by the way.”

November 1, 2016

Vernon Philander is the understated member of the South African attack and that suits him just fine. Or maybe not, but he’s happy to talk up the pace of Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada.

His record against Australia is also not quite as impressive as against other teams, but ‘Big Vern’ was still happy to provide a few headlines.

“There are going to be times where we have to step it up and get a bit nasty. But that’s all part of the game. Hopefully we can take 20 wickets to win,” Philander said on Tuesday.

A bit nasty? The Aussie media licked their lips.

“That’s all part of the game. There’s going to be a time where a partnership is going to develop, and it’s going to require one or two bowlers to put up their hands and get a bit ugly and make things uncomfortable. It’s all part of the game at the end of the day,” Philander said.

Did he enjoy that?

“That definitely tests your character. it’s part of test cricket – testing your skills. And to get out there and basically win that moment for your team. It’s going to be fun.”

David Warner was offered up as Australia’s gift to the media but was in a strangely quiet, conciliatory mood. He didn’t even deny that South Africa might have the best bowling attack in the world.

“Yeah 100 percent, we had a first-hand opportunity to face their bowling attack recently in the one day tour. We know what we’re going to get, we know what we’re going to expect, they’re all going to be fired up and pumped and so are we as batsmen and as a team. I’m really looking forward to the challenge, and speaking to our other guys they’re pumped as well,” Warner said.

Even when thrown the bone of Dale Steyn’s promise to ‘decapitate’ the Australian team by targeting captain Steve Smith and himself, the ‘new’ Warner refused to chew on it.

“There’s 11 players in the team and if Dale wants to start playing that game I’ll let him do that. For us it’s about going out and doing our best, and if he feels that cutting the head off the snake then everyone else falls apart, I don’t see that happening at all. That’s the fast bowler talk, we’re not going to entertain those thoughts or scenarios, we’re just going to go out there, back ourselves and do what we do best. That’s play positive cricket, we know the conditions we’re going to face out here, so hopefully they do get carried away and start bowling short and fast, because at the end of the day you’ve got to bowl at the stumps to get wickets.”

Tomorrow is captains’ day. Then, finally, we get to the real thing.

November 2, 2016

Both captains impressed with the pre-match interviews, although Smith sounded confused about what he wanted his team to ‘be’ and how they should go about achieving it.

His assertion that they should be more ‘aggressive’ did not mean, apparently, that they should sledge the opposition. The best he could manage was that they should puff their chests out and ‘own’ the crease. It didn’t sound convincing.

Du Plessis insisted that this South African team was on its own journey following the ‘remarkable’ record of Graeme Smith’s team which went unbeaten overseas for nine years. Having said that, Du Plessis insisted that he would not allow his ego ‘to get in the way’, and said that he had spoken to De Villiers before the first Test and would be speaking to Smith this evening.

Morne Morkel has looked like a man apart for the last couple of days, doing sprints on the outfield while the rest of the squad were netting and working on fitness rather than cricket skills. It was always part of the plan for him to form a four-man pace attack here in Perth, but the odds are shortening on him being left out and a spinner included, probably the safer option of Keshav Maharaj rather than Tabraiz Shamsi.

The evening was spent at what has become a media institution – John Townsend’s Perth barbecue. John is the Western Australian cricket correspondent and first held a barbecue for visiting and local media 19 years ago. Little did he know that he would do so every year for almost two decades, and he’s still going strong.

The emphasis is on maintaining a fellowship and camaraderie amongst scribes and broadcasters around the world, a small sanctuary of normality in what is, for the most part, a very abnormal lifestyle.

Jetlag notwithstanding, the conversation was engaging, the company convivial and the lamb succulent. Time for sleep – and definitely time for cricket!

November 3, 2016

Many times in 2008 and 2012 I wrote that South Africa had no way back. The first Test at the Waca here in Perth, eight years ago, I wrote it every day. Until the last when they polished off the run chase for 414 to win.

The next Test, in Melbourne, saw them boxed into an even deeper hole. Still short of the follow-on with just three wickets remaining, they won the game with nine wickets and four hours to spare on the final day.

Then, of course, came the famous Adelaide ‘save’ in 2012 when they resumed the fifth day on 76-4 needing to bat the final day to save the game. It’s hard to say which of the three were more improbable. I said they were all impossible.

So here we are again. Bowled out for a disappointing and considerably below par 242 and faced with a rampant David Warner leading the hosts to 105 without loss in a handful of overs, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of Australia. Once again every instinct is to say that, at best, the tourists might hope to prolong the agony to a fifth day before succumbing to defeat.

Actually, the situation after day one is nowhere near as dire as any of the other precedents. Australia are still 137 runs in arrears and might still be dismissed for around 300, leaving a largely inconsequential deficit of 70-80 runs on a pitch which will deteriorate but not dramatically. But despite history trying hard to teach us the lesson that the Proteas cannot be written off, it is hard to learn.

Warner will make 130+, Steve Smith will belt a run-a-ball 60 while Mitchell Marsh and a few others will feast on the carcass as the home side pile up in excess of 450 to make the game safe and leave themselves a withering 150+ overs to win the game and take control of the series. That’s how it looks and feels. But look again at the history books, just for the hell of it.

Can South Africa bowl this Australia team out for around 350? Yes. If they do so, the lead will be around 150. Is that decisive? Not necessarily at the Waca. Could South Africa then bat around 150 overs in their second innings? Yes. In which case the Test could be saved. Is it likely? No, not even close. But don’t write it off. But definitely don’t bet on it, either.

Not a single member of the current squad has experienced losing a series in Australia. For the 12 years previously not a single South African knew what it felt like to win.

No scars is one way of looking at it, but plenty of inexperience is another. There were plenty of mistakes made today and it is gratuitous to single out any. But Keshav Maharaj is talented enough to enjoy a lengthy international cricketer and strong enough mentally to be told that his choice of shot on day one may have sabotaged the last chance at redemption for his team.

He could have made 50 in benign conditions. If he had, Quinton de Kock would have made 150 and South Africa would have passed 350. He gave his wicket away. He will learn.

November 4, 2016

The expert summarisers on ABC Grandstand’s ball-by-ball radio coverage of the SA v Aus series are three recently retired players who are sharp, witty and still closely in touch with the game.

Dirk Nannes has a dry, worldly wit, Simon Katich is surprisingly gentle and empathetic for a man whose playing reputation was that of a ‘hard man’ while Chris Rogers, who became just the third man in the history of the game to score two hundreds in his final first-class match in September, does not mince his words. He calls it like he sees it and he said, categorically, that there was “no way back into the test match for South Africa” after the first day.

Fellow opening batsman Katich admitted that the tourists would be “really up against it” on day two while fast bowler Nannes raised an eyebrow and suggested that Rogers might be “going in a bit too hard, too early” with writing the Proteas off.

Rogers continued to call it truthfully and ‘go in hard’ on day two but saved his sternest words for himself. “I’m embarrassed, I just didn’t see how anything like this could happen. It’s been brilliant from the South Africans because they have made it happen, it has not been down to mistakes or poor batting from Australia. It’s just an incredible fight back which they can, and should be very proud of,” Rogers said.

It was a bewildering day, almost as hard to comprehend as the MCG test eight years ago and the Adelaide test four years ago which were won and drawn respectively from even worse situations than the South Africans were in at the start of play today. For an opening partnership of 158 to turn into 244 all out is, in the words of David Warner, “hard to explain”.

Dale Steyn had effectively described the Australian team as a two-headed snake before the series began and suggested that if you cut off one, or both, the body would die. The heads belonged to Steve Smith and Warner. Shortly before another fracture appeared in his right shoulder, Steyn removed Warner and the body did, indeed, wither. All 10 wickets falling for just 86 runs is the third worst collapse by any team with over 150 for the first wicket.

“It was a massive opportunity wasted for us,” admitted Warner. “We’ve had a terrible day but we have to put it behind us and do what South Africa did today – bowl at the stumps, attack, be positive and believe that we can come back, like they did. Credit to them today…”

It was a gripping and inspirational day for which the whole team should take credit but it cannot go without mention that the two men who owed most paid their debts – with interest.

Keshav Maharaj played a shot of startling naivety just when the Proteas looked like positioning themselves for a total of 300 and Vernon Philander’s no-ball allowed Warner a life on 17 before going on to make 97. They claimed seven of the 10 wickets to fall and were spectacular value for them.

“We had to believe in ourselves and be disciplined, we never gave up. We had plans for the day, for each batsman, and we managed to make them work,” a delighted Maharaj said after play. His first test wicket was the ‘other’ head, Steve Smith, who was given out lbw by umpire Aleem Dar despite being two full strides out of his crease. His subsequent review was unsuccessful when ball-tracking showed the delivery to be clipping the top of leg stump.

“It looked pretty adjacent to me, that’s why I appealed,” said Maharaj with an unrestrained grin. “The umpire thought so too, that’s why he put his finger up.”

Warner, too, was asked about the decision which has been at the centre of heated debate ever since: “I’ll leave that with the on-field umpire,” he said, smiling a different sort of smile.

The Proteas lead by 102 with eight wickets in hand. The lead will be important – 300 is the very minimum they will want – but so is time. Without Steyn in the second innings they may require a significant number of overs from JP Duminy and Dean Elgar in support of Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Maharaj. The pitch is drying and the cracks are widening. If the Proteas can bat for the majority, if not all of day three, Australia’s run chase on day four will be full of difficult questions.

November 5, 2016

There was a lot of emotion accompanying JP Duminy’s wonderful century and it was coming from his teammates and many supporters as much as from the man himself.

A couple of months ago he had come to terms with the fact the he was likely to play out his international career in the limited overs formats. Even if he was in the last-chance saloon of test cricket, it appeared the barman had packed up and left early.

AB de Villiers’s surgery opened up a place for him in the tests against New Zealand and his exquisite 86 in the second test at Centurion ensured he would make the squad for Australia, but his test future still seemed uncertain with Rilee Rossouw breathing down his neck.

Now, eight years after famously hitting the winning runs at the WACA in pursuit of 414, he re-arrived in test cricket with an innings only just less impressive and important than the 166 he scored in the next match at the MCG.

“It’s fair to say there is some satisfaction after today,” Duminy said with delicious understatement after contributing 141 to a partnership of 250 with Dean Elgar. “It’s also fair to say none of us could have imagined a position like this after day one. We have come a long way.”

Not that he is taking anything for granted – quite the opposite. “We’re in a very strong position but we know we are going to have to fight for every wicket, we’ll get nothing easy in the fourth innings. It’s going to be hot and hard work, especially without Dale, and both me and Dean know that we’re going to have to contribute a few overs with the ball as well.

“We get on so well off the field that the partnership was just an extension of that, so we’ll try to look after each other when it comes to the bowling, too. At the start of the day our aim was just to bat for the whole day, never mind the runs, and actually we would bat until tea on day four if we could because there’s so much time left in the game. The cracks on the pitch are opening up, which will make batting difficult,” Duminy said.

Quinton de Kock and Vernon Philander, with Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada’s help, could even extend the overnight lead of 388 to near 500 before Australia bat again. The test world record run chase is 418. Make your own mind up about the odds of it happening.

For the last eight years in Australia I have predicted more gloom than triumph and have been proved delightfully wrong. Perhaps it is better I do not declare my forecast, or that I fancy a conclusion on day four.

Duminy revealed that contingency bowling plans extended beyond him and Elgar. Temba Bavuma and Stephen Cook are also in the emergency line, if required. “They are options, seriously,” he chuckled. “You never know. A couple of overs here and there could be interesting, especially if the bounce continues to become unreliable. Medium pace can be useful…”

Bavuma has four first-class wickets from 33 overs while Cook looks positively all-rounderish by comparison with 10 wickets from more than 120 overs.

It is yet more evidence of the deep camaraderie which exists in the squad that net bowlers are receiving so much encouragement that they actually believe they can help win the test match. And why not?

The reverberating theme in the camp is “let’s win it for Dale.”

November 6, 2016

Victory is tantalisingly close after four days, but the Proteas do not have a monopoly on gritty fightbacks and the Australians still have six wickets left with which to do battle on day five.

The tourists know that, and there wasn’t the remotest suggestion of celebration amongst the squad at the close of play. There was, however, deep appreciation and satisfaction at certain events and performances witnessed so far.

Fast bowling coach Charl Langeveldt admitted that day two on which South Africa claimed all ten Australian wickets for just 86 runs was one of the highlights of his coaching career to date. And the three wickets for Kagiso Rabada today put a smile on his face he had no interest in hiding.

He has kept as low a profile as he is permitted to since he took the job but his work has shone too brightly in this Test to slip under the radar.

There have been several differences between the teams over the first four days but the most important, perhaps, has been the old ball bowling.

South Africa’s has been devastating when compared to the hosts. As one fellow commentator on ABC radio, Dirk Nannes said tellingly, “You bowl 15 overs with the new ball and 65 with the old one. Where do you think you should be concentrating as a coach?”

Another, Chris Rogers, had “the great pleasure” of captaining Langeveldt when they played together in county cricket: “Charl was one of the most skilled reverse-swing bowlers I’ve ever seen, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his students now are so good at it.” It is exactly the sort of nugget of information many South African supporters never hear.

Langeveldt spoke at length about “preparing a ball” during net sessions and then “maintaining its condition” for a couple of hours. “You got to keep the sweaty guys off the ball,” Langeveldt said, smiling. He spoke about wrist position and various other technical aspects without ever quite giving everything away. But it was very obvious that he knew more than the opposition, and that his players did, too.

It is rare that a single run-out can be described as the turning point of any match, especially a Test match, and it may be stretching a point to suggest that Temba Bavuma’s spectacular, eye-popping effort to get rid of David Warner turned this contest here. But equally, it might not.

Australia might have been 220-2 with Warner on 130 overnight had Bavuma not produced what Rogers, veteran of almost 20 years of first-class and Test cricket, described as “one of the best pieces of fielding I have ever seen.”

It was an irritation to hear people describing it as “a natural gift” or him as a “natural athlete” because it detracts from the blood, sweat and tears shed by Bavuma in order to be able to produce such a stunning, magical and memorable moment of genius.

The grass-burns, dislocated fingers, bruised shoulders and blows to the head over the years may seem irrelevant when the forces of nature, physics and aesthetic beauty combine to create a moment of sporting purity to compare with anything in any other code or contest. It was the sporting equivalent of writing a classic novel or painting a masterpiece.

Faf du Plessis was called into the headmasters study on day two and given a public bollocking by the umpires because his fielders were bouncing the ball into the old, abrasive wicket ends at the WACA in order to scuff one side of the ball and start the reverse-swing process.

He stood stoically and accepted the lecture. His calm reaction may even have been part of Langeveldt’s instruction during his master classes. It seems well worth the sacrifice now. Provided South Africa win, and what a victory it might be.

November 7, 2016

The cycle of sport is what makes us keep coming back because somewhere, consciously or sub-consciously, we know that even the worst defeats and longest winless streaks can’t last forever.

That was no consolation to the South African teams which toured Australia three times between 1997 and 2005 because they never sniffed a series win and, as they admit now, never really believed they would such was the strength and ruthlessness of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting’s teams.

To break the 98-year duck in 2008 required such monumental team and individual performances at the Waca and the MCG that, along with the scars from the previous decade, it not only felt like a one-off triumph, it also felt fine that it was.

Then four years later it happened again and, now, four further years down the line South Africa has inflicted defeat on Australia in their first home test of the summer for the first time since 1988. It is hard to believe it possible a transfer of ‘aura’ appears to have taken place.

Comments and phrases which were used often to describe Australian teams are now being used by Australians to describe the Proteas. “Tough bastards” recurs often and “they give you nothing”. Something else which has been mentioned frequently is the very obvious camaraderie between the South African players – something which wasn’t always a factor among Australian XIs containing some enormous egos.

Kagiso Rabada was customarily modest after his man of the match award, preferring to point out his teammates’ performances rather than his own: “Everyone has their job to do, it wasn’t just me. Everyone contributed in the second innings from JP to Keshav and even Temba, they all took a wicket when me and Vern were having a rest. We will miss Dale terribly but I know he will stay in touch and help out if he can.

“I feel OK, a little bit sore but… certainly not OK to bowl another 10 overs but OK to celebrate a little this evening,” Rabada said.

An insight into his thinking was provided when asked why, and how the South African bowlers were able to utilise reverse swing so much more efficiently than the hosts.

“Both teams got the ball to reverse so, did we use it better than them, or did we bat better against it? You could argue either way because the ball was reversing when JP and Dean were putting on 250.”

Temba Bavuma’s innings of 51 from a position of 32-4 appears to have been entirely lost following the extraordinary run out which will feature forever in fielding highlights packages, but that didn’t seem to bother him.

“I have dreamed about doing a run out like that for a long time. When I saw a replay I thought ‘I don’t know how I did that’. You practise a long time, of course, but when something like that happens in a test match it makes it all worthwhile.”

Having bowled just over 30 overs in his entire first-class career – but taken four wickets in the process – he was happy to talk about that, too.

“The bowling spell is something I have been wanting to do for a while. I’m always ready to have a bowl and I think I have something to offer. It was a real bummer not to get the lbw (against Usman Khawaja) first ball because I’m one of the guys who always shouts at the bowlers when they overstep,” Bavuma said.

While the Proteas rightly look at themselves and their own performances, the Australians are turning inwards as discord sets in. Shaun Marsh’s fractured finger, incurred on the second day, has meant a call-up for Callum Ferguson for the second test in Hobart. Coach Darren Lehmann gloated after the match that he and his team had kept it a secret from the Australian media for three days.

“What a joke,” fumed one of the country’s most senior and respected writers. “While we’re getting a pump and towelling in full view on the field the coach thinks that’s a success. We deserve everything we get and the rest that’s coming.”

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