Down Under Diary – week three

November 15, 2016

There have been a few moments I never thought I’d see happen on a cricket field but the most unlikely occurred, not at the Bellerive Oval on 15 November 2016 but on 30 December 2008, when South Africa won their first ever test series on Australian soil after almost a century of trying.

It was also my greatest loss of professional decorum. Burned by 12 years of mostly relentless failure against the Aussies, home and away, I spontaneously hugged captain Graeme Smith on the outfield following the post-match presentation. Although initially surprised, he was good enough to reciprocate. I’m not sure I even bothered to interview him.

Four years later, it happened again, against almost preposterous odds. Faf du Plessis made his debut in the second test, in Adelaide, and was central to one of the most unlikely escapes in test cricket history, finishing an extraordinary final day with an unbeaten hundred.

Two in a row had seemed highly unlikely, but three? Three successive test series victories in Australia? Only the greatest team ever had managed that, the West Indies of the mid ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Now it has happened. The Proteas have done it. Again I was loitering next to the post-match presentation ceremony waiting for the formalities to finish to interview the now captain, Faf du Plessis, for ABC Grandstand. Microphone and decorum ready. Professional. This time the captain hugged me. Sod decorum. The wheel took eight years to turn but it was worth it.

We waited for a couple of minutes as Steve Smith concluded his interview a dozen metres away and out of earshot. Faf wondered what Smith was saying. “Great bowling, relentless, good areas…batted much better than us, embarrassing to be standing here like this, low point in Australian cricket…”, I paraphrased from my headphones.

“He’s a good man,” said Faf, sincerely but matter-of-factly, with the air of a veterinarian putting a favourite family pet to sleep. Job done.

Quinton de Kock ran Kyle Abbott desperately close for the man of the match award – both were worthy. Bowlers often unfairly miss out to the top scorer in the match but, in these conditions, the solitary century stands out. But nobody suggested Abbott didn’t deserve his accolade.

“The first two wickets were lucky,” he chuckled afterwards, “but I’m not going to feel embarrassed by them, we beat the bat enough times to earn some fortune. It hasn’t sunk in yet, winning a series here, but that’s good. Hopefully it takes a while to sink in so we can all enjoy it for longer. After the game I was just congratulating the whole squad and the management team, it didn’t occur to me that I’d taken nine wickets.”

The first job for the drinkers in the squad was to tackle the super-sized bottle of champagne that Shaun Pollock had bought to present to Dale Steyn on passing his national record wicket haul. Unsurprisingly, there was a collective reluctance to pop the cork. It was Dale’s, he should open it. Also, it wasn’t even midday by the time South Africa won. It was a bit early for anybody to be sipping anything stronger than coffee. Nobody had foreseen the possibility of a finish before lunch.

“All rest time is good time,” said Abbott, having earlier confessed to ‘enjoying’ long bowling spells, “but don’t tell the captain. He’ll have me bowling nine-over spells all the time.”

The recriminations, blame-calling and responsibility-avoiding among the Australian cricket community has been hard to avoid. And, counter-intuitive as it may sound, not fun. South African cricket has been through a few of these ‘ground zero’ moments before and they aren’t fun.

“As batting orders have collapsed, so has morale, and there’s no repairing a crushed meringue. Increasingly you have the feeling that Smith’s frustration will prove the indicator for the response to come. It may be time to clean things out and start again,” said writer Geoff Lemon on the ABC website.

Few days off now. But much to be done. Hugs all round.

November 16, 2016

Days off are cherished by cricketers, because they are earned. Match days are penciled off in their schedules with ‘no other commitments’ – unless they happen to be the ‘merit interview’ of the day, in which case most of them whinge and whine their way to the post-day press conference.

But when the match is over before day five, boy do they take full advantage of slobbing around and doing as little as possible, and understandably so. We all do. Unless the captain of the national team is accused of ball-tampering and the opposition’s selection chairman resigns because he is out of fresh ideas. Then the day starts to get busy, and stays busy.

It started with a wretchedly early alarm call for an ABC TV studio crossing during which I was asked about the problems facing Australian cricket. Obviously none of their own experts were available or willing. Not sure my own answers made any sense, but they were the only ones available. I did mention that I thought their long-term planning was akin to building blocks of flats on the edge of a cliff. The presenter nodded.

Regular readers of this modest tome will be aware that I have been predicting a ‘ball-tampering’ story for the last fortnight. The only surprise is that it took so long to materialise, but it broke today. Television footage of Faf du Plessis applying saliva from a mint onto to the ball appears to be clear. Appears to be. One cannot be certain until confirmed by the man himself.

If it is as appears, then a contravention of the game’s laws has taken place. It will be Du Plessis’s second offence in three years following the ‘rubbing ball on zip’ thing in Dubai in 2013. The ICC have said they are “aware” of the incident and are “looking into it.”

Laws and regulations are there for a purpose and must be respected. If the ICC find enough evidence to convict Du Plessis, he will have to accept it. Just as little boys will always be punished for pulling the pony-tails of their little girl compatriots.

Most people exceed the traffic speed limit, some regularly and others occasionally. Some collect piles of fines and others none. It often appears random. Every team in world cricket tries to affect the behaviour of the ball, some do it more ‘legitimately’ than others and some take risks.

Whether this ‘misdemenour’ is ratified or not, watch how the ball is treated between deliveries a little more closely in future and judge for yourself whether it is being maintained naturally or artificially. When a player wipes sweat from his brow and applies it to the ball, can he be certain than no sun-cream has made the journey? Of course not. The umpires check the condition of the ball between every over and at the fall of every wicket, that’s why it is returned to them.

If Du Plessis is sanctioned by the ICC, whose spokesman said today that the ICC has been alerted to the footage and is currently reviewing the incident from the perspective of it being a possible breach of the ICC Code of Conduct, then so be it. Perhaps they might then be persuaded to spend a few million more dollars on independent camera crews to ensure equal monitoring of the ball maintenance habits of both teams during a series.

Hobart and Tasmania have both been memorable and special. More will be shared in the next few days. For those who may have seen the footage of the Proteas ‘singing’ their team song in the middle of the Bellerive Oval following the extraordinary victory, here are the words!

Umlilo Uhlala Utshisa x 3
To those before and those to come,
Today tomorrow we’ll play as one.
To the Team! x 3

November 17, 2016

When I was eight years old I saw a photograph in the small newsroom of the South Coast Sun where my mother worked which left me dumbstruck with awe and wonder. It was a bridge the like of which I had never imagined could exist, let alone see.

It appeared to span an entire ocean, and rose to a height at its centre the size of a tower block. Alongside the photograph of the bridge in all its glory was a second photograph showing an entire section having collapsed with a car balanced precariously with its front wheels over the edge.

I never did find out the story. My mother was in advertising rather than news and, anyway, it was time to go home. Time quickly faded the memory but then, almost 35 years later when South Africa visited Hobart to play their first ODI there in 2009, I recognised it once again. It was the Tasman bridge.

Time and other distractions meant I never did find the time to find out more about the bridge and how that section had collapsed, or what happened to the people whose car had somehow stayed up and not plunged hundreds of feet into the icy waters of the River Derwent below. It is, and always will be, an iconic photograph.

This time, however, four decades after first seeing it, there were three luxurious days before the test match (and another one on day five) to indulge my passion for bridges and find out more of what happened on that fateful day – 5 January, 1975 – when that section collapsed.

Captain Boleslaw Pelc was evidently having a bad day at the helm of the ore carrier ‘Lake Illawara’. Or a bad night, to be more accurate. He was later to receive a six-month suspension of his license for choosing the wrong line to pass under the bridge, which seems lenient given what happened next.

Fortunately, traffic was light up above where Frank and Sylvia Manley were returning home. Sylvia remarked that a car ahead of them had suddenly turned its lights off…and then another and then she screamed for Frank to hit the brakes. Their red Monaro screeched to a shuddering half just a second after the car directly in front of them also disappeared.

Twelve people died, five occupants of the four cars that had no chance and another seven crew members on the stricken vessel below, which remains on the river bed today. There is a plaque on the Hobart side of the bridge that commemorates those who lost their lives.

There is always commercial opportunity in disaster or adversity and this was no exception. Bob Clifford ran a fleet of small ferries making a day-to-day living around the bays and coves of Sydney. Within days he closed the business and sailed the entire 23-boat fleet (one sank on the way) to Hobart where he operated at full capacity of 23 000 passengers a day for almost two years. He is said to have made his first million within the first fortnight.

House prices in Hobart doubled overnight while towns and municipalities on the ‘other’ side of the Derwent, including Clarence and Bellerive, were forced to rapidly and drastically improve their own infrastructure so as not to be so reliant on the capital.

There is so much more to cricket tours than cricket.

Goodbye Hobart, for now. Thanks for the hospitality and the memories.

November 18, 2016

There are few things more laudable in elite sport than a team prepared to cast aside their individual egos to take a unified stand in support of a colleague, or principle, which they believe to have been demeaned or compromised.

The Proteas appearing en masse in Melbourne today appeared to be an emotional reaction rather than a considered one, and it almost certainly backfired.

If the outcry about Faf du Plessis allegedly tampering with the ball by applying the sugary saliva from a mint in his mouth to the ball was, as they said variably, “laughable” a “joke” and a “complete overreaction”, then why did they feel the need to symbolically address the media as an entire squad, with Hashim Amla as the spokesman?

Jokes and over-reactions are to be dismissed, laughed off. Not met with the potentially intimidating presence of a 30-person delegation.

Amla’s assertion that the qualities of glucose to help shine the ball were “completely new to us” was embarrassing.

Former coach Bob Woolmer introduced the ‘technique’ to the national squad in the late 1990s having witnessed his all-conquering Warwickshire team in England perfect it in the mid 1990s, over two decades ago. It required a substantial leap of imagination to believe this knowledge had been entirely lost in the intervening years.

It was equally tricky not to regard Amla’s repeated comparisons to “nuts and biltong” as comparable snacks for players to carry in their pockets as rehearsed, and not very well rehearsed.

The ‘sour grapes’ line, too, or ‘sour sweets’ as he punningly redefined it, was also awkward as neither the Australian players nor their beleaguered administrators have said a single public word about the incident. Both Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa said they would leave the matter to the ICC.

Having done so, it required a u-turn of gymnastic proportions to return to the ‘sour grapes’ line. “We’ve played some outstanding Test cricket,” Amla said, correctly, before choosing not to elaborate on why the timing of the ICC charge was “interesting.”

Questions about Du Plessis not talking in his own defence are ill-informed. Having been charged by the ICC, and with CSA intending to acquire the services of a legal expert to defend him, the Latin term “sub judice” kicked in. Indirectly translated, it means “shut the hell up.”

There were further curiosities about what Amla said. No explanation, at all, about what his captain had been doing with his finger so deep in his mouth. Scratching for a piece of biltong stuck in a rear molar? Soothing a burn from the hotel room kettle?

Parents of young children may have noted a similarity to the great Amla’s answer to that question: “We have done nothing wrong.” In the language of an eight-year-old caught red-handed playing with a box of matches, they reply to the inane adult question ‘what are you doing?’ with the answer: “Nothing.”

Observers and critics who dismiss talk of similar actions taking place amongst other international teams are delusional. Justice in civilised societies depends on the consideration of mitigating circumstances. There is recent footage of an Australian fielder clearly applying a healthy layer of lip-ice the very delivery before wiping it off and applying it to the ball followed by a vigorous shining. And footage may soon surface of Indian captain Virat Kohli ‘treating’ the ball during the first Test against England.

South Africa’s team management reacted badly three years ago when Du Plessis was seen rubbing the rough side of the ball on the zipper of his trouser pocket and again a year later when Vernon Philander was seen ‘scratching’ the ball with his thumb. They were angrily defensive and lost both the verdict and the best of public opinion. Similar may be about to happen again.

It is a worldwide phenomenon and has been for over 20 years. Even if Du Plessis is innocent, it could easily be argued that the method his team chose to support him was far more flawed than the offense itself.

November 19, 2016

A recent comedy sketch on Australian TV put things hilariously into context. Entitled “Crisis in Australian Cricket”, it featured a spoof news editor scrambling around his reporters and editors in a mad fury yelling at them to drop reports on the bombing of Aleppo and the refugee ‘crisis’ because this was the real thing – Australian cricket was in CRISIS!

The point was well made, and hilariously. It was a message to those involved in cricket, and those who follow it, to stop existing so far up their own a***s. Australian cricket is in a crisis, but from sporting crises, generally, come greener pastures and calmer waters. And it is only sport.

Still, it takes guts to change selection policies and strategies that have served a nation like Australia so well for over two decades, and 69-year-old convenor Rod Marsh, who has been such a dedicated servant for almost half a century, admitted that he was not the man to do the job. So he quit. Just before selection of a brand new team, heralding a new era, is announced for the Adelaide test next week.

He was occasionally witty, often astute but too often grumpy. He appeared to hold grudges and made too many mistakes, like dropping all rounder Shane Watson from the 2015 World Cup XI when he was clearly one of the three men most likely to win the tournament for his team.

Ultimately it took fellow selector, Mark Waugh, to gather enough support to reinstate him. Like many of the great players of his era, he missed out almost entirely on the period of vast wealth the game has experienced in the last 10-15 years.

The ‘wealth divide’ is a real and serious problem in Australian cricket. James Pattinson, who has played a single test match (against South Africa at the Wanderers at the age of 18) has earned more from national contracts than Allan Border, who is a national icon after playing an astonishing 156 tests, the vast majority as captain.

Mitchell Marsh, the so-far failed all rounder, is on a national contract of A$800,000 – almost three times as much as AB de Villiers receives from Cricket South Africa. Should he not perform, like so many others, he can simply choose to accept a variety of bumptious offers from Big Bash franchises, the IPL and Caribbean Premier League, and other domestic leagues if he is inclined towards a top-up.

The current South African test team is a glorious exception, but that may look like an illusion in a year’s time. There is nothing false about the extreme bond and cohesion which has resulted in the hat-trick of test series victories and forced Australians to confront the tailspin their own game has been in for several years, but with half a dozen players in the 32+ age group, the Proteas need to start rebuilding right now. Or before.

Rarely has a ‘dead’ test match assumed so much interest, even significance, for two top-tier nations. Australia will have at least three new caps and, perhaps, as many as six changes. The clean-sweep broom has not been as ruthless for decades.

South Africa’s management and squad chose to make a huge scene of something they described as “a joke” and “inconsequential” when they stood, near 30-strong, behind spokesman Hashim Amla yesterday. They supported Du Plessis, but weren’t able to offer an explanation for what he was doing with his finger and the mint.

As I said yesterday, it was a laudable sentiment. But if they confused a perceived persecution by the game’s authorities against them with proper and fair global governance of teams ‘who all do it’, then their actions will almost certainly backfire horribly. Consequences could be horrific. Stand by for a threatened boycott of the Adelaide test if Du Plessis is banned. That would cost tens of millions of dollars and result in years of broken (sporting) diplomatic relations and more revenue lost.

The Proteas, with Amla as their spokesman, said they knew nothing of ‘conditioning’ the ball. Nothing. It was all ‘new’ to them. Sadly, that was where credibility died, instantly. The real argument was: “We have done nothing wrong – because that’s what all international (and many levels below) do.” But if they had used that argument, it would have amounted to an admission of guilt. So they chose to proclaim innocence. Embarrassingly unconvincingly.

CSA have a lawyer on the way to Adelaide to represent Du Plessis. There will, no doubt, be much legal obfuscation and debate. It is probably both hopeful and naive that the ICC might consider their members’ views on the “Condition of the Ball” law soon, especially as they all appear to agree that “everyone does it”.

November 20, 2016

As preferable as it would be for the quality of South Africa’s cricket to be foremost heading into the third test at Adelaide, it isn’t.

Australia have been humiliated and the structure of their domestic system has been questioned to the point of ridicule. Today they made six changes to the squad to face the Proteas in the final test. SIX…

And the brilliance of the South African performance is being lost, or even has been. They did themselves no favours with the ‘en masse’ press conference stunt yesterday. A strong chance that they would have enjoyed the vast majority of public support was compromised. And there has still been no public acceptance that Cricket Australia, or the players, never said a word. “Sour grapes” should be withdrawn from the armoury of displeasure. There have been none.

Faf du Plessis has been the calmest man among the entire party since the sugarcoating story broke. When a security agent locked a Channel Nine reporter in a head-lock after moving towards the captain when heading towards the team bus, Du Plessis snapped into action with a firm call of: “Relax boys, relax, let’s just relax, relax…”

His place in history is confirmed, and he has nothing to worry about. He knows that, while many around him don’t. Du Plessis is a “big picture” person while many around him are not. The cause and personnel behind the mass ensemble press conference may never be revealed – perhaps they will – but you can be certain that Du Plessis was not among them.

The next few days will be spent admiring the stunning new Adelaide Oval, rebuilt to become, possibly, the second best stadium in the country after the MCG. Adelaide surpassing the SCG in Sydney, who would have thought it? It would be like St,George’s Park becoming bigger and better than Newlands. But they have done it, and Perth’s new stadium is threatening to be even bigger and better than all three.

“Why do South Africa’s stadiums remain as they are? Why is there no redevelopment?” I was asked on ABC Grandstand. “Unfair,” I replied, “the entire president’s stand and the changing rooms at St.George’s Park were repainted last year.”

Seriously, Australian stadiums are all multi-purpose with the majority of their income coming from Aussie Rules matches which attract near-full houses every time. That’s between 30 and 90 thousand once a week. A lot or revenue with which to rebuild. South Africa does not have a multi-use stadia culture, let alone a second sport with which to share our turf. Dream on.

So, the first ever series win on Australian soil was marked by coach Mickey Arthur’s swim in Sydney Harbour Bay and Graeme Smith’s eye-watering attempt to save the irrelevant third test in Sydney with a broken thumb, and Dale Steyn’s 76 and 10-fer. And then, the second series, Faf’s undefeated 100 on debut in Adelaide, with so many extraordinary other contributions, from so many, to create a second win.

Now, eight years later, with a life-time legacy waiting, wrapped and packaged in silk and gold, someone in the management squad thought it would be a good idea to commemorate the hat-trick of series wins with a group photograph of surly and deadpan faces.

They were angry, correctly, that their achievement had been bypassed by controversy. But they did everything possible to ensure it would be remembered, in perpetuity, for something other than their extreme and extraordinary skill.

November 21, 2016

Zunaid Wadee had every right to be properly pissed off with the hair-gelled, fancy pants Channel Nine reporter who stood in the path of the team as they moved through Adelaide airport on their way to the bus waiting to take them to the hotel.

Two days earlier he had to deal with another miserable Channel Nine specimen who accosted Faf du Plessis with a microphone as the team outside the team bus in Melbourne. He briefly had him in a headlock until Du Plessis himself intervened with repeated calls to “relax, guys, relax!”

Then it happened again at the team hotel in Melbourne. It is undisputed that everyone knows Du Plessis cannot speak about the ball-tampering charge until his ICC hearing has taken place. Which makes Channel Nine’s perseverance all the more cynical. They are pushing, imposing and intervening simply to get a ‘reaction’. Any reaction will do, but if it could include physical contact, all the better. Television ratings and internet hits are the business.

So the reporter stood in the middle of the walkway as the Proteas headed out of the airport. Not at the side, in the middle. He made himself a physical obstacle. He imposed himself on Du Plessis and then became deliberately awkward to remove. Being shoulder-charged by Wadee was the least he deserved.

And yet the Proteas still paid a far heavier price than the tabloid TV hack will ever do. They should have carried on walking, stopped when they were blocked, asked him to move, and then carried on again. Instead, the physical barge from Wadee brought a smile of triumph from the smarmy one. ‘Job done.’ Footage secured, on the internet in three minutes, 50 000 hits in three hours. Bonus time. Promotion, even.

Although Wadee has been with the national team for almost ten years, he was employed fulltime by Cricket South Africa just over two years ago, in which time he has been fully involved in their collective and personal emotions, and that is exactly what his actions appeared to betray – frustration and anger. Instead of securing and neutralising the “unidentified object” in the hands of the reporter, he pushed him and then barged him out of the way. (Which is something we can probably all identify with.)

But what message was Faf conveying when he opened his mouth to a barrage of photographers shortly before that to reveal a mint in his mouth. Game on? It certainly wasn’t respect for the game’s administrators or the laws of the game, right or wrong as they may be. And the South African players jolling with sweets in their mouths during the Melbourne 50-over match…what was the purpose and message in that?

Much of the goodwill created and earned during the first two tests has been stretched, if not broken. Cricket has a habit of turning full-circle in extremely short periods of time, so this should not be regarded as terminal, but – despite the provocation – Faf and his management might reflect in future on a golden opportunity missed to rise above the trash and show that they were the better people, as well as cricketers.

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