Down Under Diary – week two

November 8, 2016

As always, the journey from West to East in Australia catches you by surprise. Not only those of us who do it a couple of times every four years but even for the locals. It’s a three-and-a-half hour flight but, throw in the traveling time at either end and a three-hour time difference, it’s close to a 10-hour journey.

Former opening batsman and ABC radio commentator, Simon Katich, was keen to get back to his family in Sydney as soon as possible and left Perth on the ‘red eye’ flight at 10pm after the test match. He was not expecting to be at home much before 9am. That’s an 11-hour trip. Like going from Jo’burg to London. “It’s brutal, you miss a whole night,” said Katich, “but it’s better than missing a day.”

For those of us who could afford to miss a day, we woke at 6:30am, flew at 8am – with the Australian squad – and pulled into our Hobart accommodation at 5pm. Batting coach Graeme Hick was lined up for an interview while we waited for the bags to appear on the carousel. It didn’t start well. “Graeme, can you give us an update on Shaun Marsh’s injury?” “No, no idea, you’ll have to speak to the medical staff for that.”

He was far clearer about the test match. “South Africa deserve our respect and a lot of credit, they put us under pressure when things seemed to be going against them and they turned the game on its head. We can look at our weaknesses but that’s just one side of the story,” said the great Zimbabwe-born, England batsman.

One thing about spending the day in three cities (Perth-Melbourne-Hobart) is you get to read three local newspapers and listen to three different radio stations, as well as the national news outlets. And it was emphatically obvious that Temba Bavuma is rapidly developing a cult status, while Kagiso Rabada is developing an iconic one. They were the subject of virtually every feature column and talk show of the day.

Bavuma’s “can’t explain” run out of David Warner and Rabada’s classic over to veteran Adam Voges are being repeated all over the place, including some brilliant still images in the ‘papers. On Fox Sport’s “Inside Cricket” former captain Allan Border was asked to explain Australia’s implosion. A pregnant pause was followed with: “I can’t, really… but South Africa were very good, excellent. They were brilliant.”

The Proteas traveled in two separate groups to Hobart because there weren’t enough business class seats on the ‘long haul’ from Perth to Melbourne. They were tired, but physically, not emotionally. Often there is a come-down period following a match of such intensity but that wasn’t the case this time. Clearly the celebrations went on late into the night but it was also obvious that the control they showed on the field had extended off it.

Dale Steyn was back in Cape Town by the time the last wicket was taken yesterday and was scheduled to have surgery today. Kyle Abbott appears the favourite to take his place here in Hobart with Morne Morkel still struggling to convince everyone – including himself – of full fitness. The weather forecast for the first day on Saturday, however, is horrible, with 100 percent rain predicted. Cold temperatures may be another reason for South Africa not to play a specialist spinner and use all four seamers.

Although reverse swing hasn’t reared itself as a topic of controversy yet, I suspect it will. Aussie coach Darren Lehmann has used the word “interesting” three times now when asked why the visitors have been able to get the ball to swing so much earlier and more effectively than the hosts. Interesting. Very interesting.

November 9, 2016

Politics, fortunately, have taken a back seat for most of my life but today it really felt very different. Only Americans, it seems, were able to take him seriously. The rest of the world, apart from Russia maybe, are equally aghast that he now is now the leader of the free world. Women of America, keep your cats out of hands way.

Keshav Maharaj was the subject of a different sort of handling today when a small but well formed Australian media contingent hunted for a ‘story’ from South Africa’s left arm spinner, who debuted so admirably and successfully in Perth. His first Test wicket, belonging to Australian captain Steve Smith…almost three metres down the wicket…outrageous. No?

“It looked pretty straight to me, that’s why I appealed. All bowlers do that, right?” said the mature 26-year-old. But wasn’t he cynically using the DRS system in the knowledge that umpires are often happy to give a vociferous appeal in the knowledge that technology will save them?

“Umm, to be honest that was my first game ever with DRS so it didn’t make any difference to me. But it’s a good thing, it takes away human error,” said Maharaj, looking and sounding more like a veteran than debutant with every move he makes.

“Of course it was a special wicket. The bats are getting bigger and the fields smaller, it’s nice that something goes the way of the bowlers.”

Eight years ago fellow left arm spinner Paul Harris played a crucial role in South Africa’s maiden series victory and it was no surprise to hear that Maharaj had done his research.

“I had a chat to Harro and he offered a few important thoughts which I’m trying to replicate. My job is to rest the fast bowlers. Stop the game because conditions favour the fast bowlers. Let them do the striking because conditions will always be set up to favour them. If they change then fine, attack – but your job is to find line and length and you’ll pick up a few wickets along the way.”

Was he intimidated by the weight of responsibility after Dale Steyn’s breakdown? “We didn’t let it bother us, KG and Vern put their hands up. It was nice to hear the encouragement from the coach and team. I didn’t know what to expect before the game and I was very nervous. Test cricket is a proper gentleman’s game, a proper man’s game. For five days you are focused on every ball, it’s relentless. But it has been great the see and hear the messages from home and to know the whole country is behind you,” Maharaj said.

Australia’s cricket administrators, fans and correspondents, meanwhile, continue to battle with what has happened – and the verdict, at this stage, is not good.

“The problem we seem to have here is that this Australian side just isn’t that good. Do a group of elite, professional athletes who millions a year need to be told they bottled it? It’s not like it hasn’t happened repeatedly and recently,” wrote Peter Lalor in The Australian.

There was also more suggestion that the ball-tampering issue may raise its ugly head again. Subconsciously following on from three uses of “interesting” from Australia coach Darren Lehmann, Lalor wrote: “The fast bowlers need to work on their reverse swing. It’s baffling how this could be an issue and it wouldn’t be if the South Africans hadn’t been so good at it. These are your conditions, your ball. Learn how to work on it,” he said.

Word from the television cameramen is that ‘ball-watch’ will be a raised priority during the next two Tests. Quite right too. Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis have both been sanctioned for inappropriate ball behaviour, so to speak, in the last three years and should be ‘on watch’.

But if they can continue to make it swing like it did in Perth, within the laws of the game, they will not only win the series but drive the Aussies insane with envy, frustration and anger at the same time.

November 10, 2016

There are fewer days than ever on tour which afford one the luxury of getting lost, but today was one. Quite by chance I discovered the Gordon’s Hill nature reserve and immersed myself in it. Handsomely populated by parrots and bandicoots, I might have been Dr Dolittle with not a single person there apart from me. Bandicoots? Really, you don’t know?

The business part of the day confirmed that a ‘ball-tampering’ story is on the verge of blowing up. Maybe. Probably in 24 hours, just in time for the start of the second test.

As mentioned yesterday, Aus coach Darren Lehmann has used the word “interesting” three times when asked why South Africa’s bowlers have been able to get the ball to reverse swing more than his. Josh Hazlewood was asked about it today but, if there is a conspiracy theory, he seemed unaware of it.

“They got it going in both innings, which is rare in Perth, and it was frustrating for us only getting a little bit of movement here and there. The hardness of the ball is another thing – theirs seemed to stay harder for longer whereas our got that ‘soft’ feel about it,” Hazlewood said.

So is that coincidence, or technique, Josh?

“A bit of both, maybe. They’re obviously a well drilled unit when it comes to the reverse ball and they bowl great areas with it,” Hazlewood said. It is clear how you do it, though, isn’t it?

“I think so. Throw it into the turf and scuff up one side. Get the ball rough on one side and shiny on the other. We have some work to do on that.”

Dean Elgar was grilled just as hard on the science/art of ‘ball maintenance’. He played the questions with the same obdurate defiance with which he played the ball in Perth.

“It is an asset if the ball is reversing and there are ways you can get the ball to do that. Definitely it is a massive asset for us. You are allowed to bounce the ball in from the boundary and all teams are welcome to do it within the rules and regulations of the game,” he said, doing nothing to suggest, let alone reveal, that South Africa have a ‘secret’ technique.

Hazlewood consoled himself with the fact that “all of their batsmen like to play shots so they’re always going to give you a chance. Apart from Elgar who is a bit of a grinder,” Hazlewood said.

“That’s just my nature, to irritate the opposition,” responded Elgar.

Bandicoots are small marsupials which look and hop just like kangaroos, but miniature versions. They are timid but prepared to have as many as 20-seconds of eye-to-eye contact (from five metres) before fleeing back into the Eucalyptus trees and bush. I tried hard to capture a good photograph but failed, so here is a Tasmanian Devil I captured instead (off the cover of the Hobart Zoo brochure).

November 11, 2016

Steve Smith has always come across as a pragmatist with a refreshingly normal attitude and approach to life and the game, something which has been confirmed by his reaction to criticism that has come his way in especially trying times.

After the ODI series whitewash last month he was asked at Newlands whether his team had been beaten because they had lost most of the “big moments” during the five matches. “No,” he replied, “it’s because we lost all the big moments.”

Today he wasn’t fudging the issue either. Was he aware of the criticism of his captaincy? Aware of how strong some of it had been? “Yes, I’ve seen the criticism and, when you’re losing, it is warranted. All I can do, and us as a team, is to start winning.”

He may have left himself vulnerable and ‘there for the taking’ but Faf du Plessis was in no mood to stick any verbal knives in, let alone twist them. He was invited to align himself with Graeme Smith’s comments about the opposition struggling with their cricketing ‘culture’ at the moment but politely declined. “I believe you can’t comment on something like that unless you’re inside but, from the outside, their team culture looks the same as always, to me.”

The South African captain was far happier to talk about a different, simmering issue. The ‘conditioning’ of the ball and the ability of the bowlers on both sides to get reverse swing. It has felt like a story on the verge of explosion ever since the final day of the Perth test when coach Darren Lehmann first described the Proteas’ collective ability to, apparently, perfect the skill as ‘interesting’.

“It has been blown out of proportion,” said Du Plessis.

“We were watching the first innings and they got the ball to reverse in the 25th over. I was quite impressed. I was trying to see how they were doing it because that meant they were doing something right; 25 overs is very early for a ball to reverse. That was positive for me, knowing we would go into the first innings and the ball would reverse. We enjoy bowling with a swinging ball. To say it was only for us is not true,

“I faced a brilliant spell from Mitchell Starc bowling around the wicket and reversing the ball. It was extremely difficult. It was 50-50 the amount of reverse swing throughout the test. The Aussies did it really well. We had batsmen who were in and batted for long periods of time. When you have long partnerships it looks easier to cope with. When I came in to bat the first ball nipped and swung and I wondered what was going on.

Dean and J-P just had a partnership of nearly 300 and it should be a lot easier! If it reverses then it makes it much more difficult for the guys just coming in. They (Australia) just lost more wickets so it was harder work for them. Reverse swing is all over the world now,” Du Plessis said.

“Perth was really dry and extremely hard. The second new ball we took on the last day was three overs old and there were big chunks out of it. It will be different here. It is lush, it’s green, it’s soft…it’s wet (giggles). It will seam and swing but won’t reverse that much. (Laughter) Sorry for being that honest…”

This morning’s run took me up a couple of thousand feet to the start of the Knocklofty Nature Reserve on Mount Wellington, which squeezes the city of Hobart towards the ocean, much like Table Mountain does with Cape Town. The purity of both air and water are spoken of frequently here, which may or may not have affected my thinking, but my breathing was definitely easier than usual. And the water from the tap tastes better than most bottled water.

And the Wallaby sausages were excellent. Bit like chicken? No, more like a combination of ostrich and Springbok.

November 12, 2016

It was an extraordinary situation before the start of the test match, with neither Morne Morkel or Keeshav Maharaj sure of whether they were playing until just minutes before the toss. Morkel was even marking out his run up and prowling menacingly with a ball in his hand, but I suspect that was partly to confuse the home side, which was also confused about the inclusion of a spinner.

It is highly likely that Morkel would have played had we lost substantial time before the toss but Maharaj was preferred because it was mostly dry when play started on time and you can’t make too many plans for the future based on a weather forecast that may not transpire. It was supposed to rain heavily today, but did not. Maharaj may well prove to be an inspired preference on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Many people doubted that Vernon Philander would ever fully regain the magic that saw him become the third fastest bowler to 100 test wickets but, having shown promise that his painful eight months of healing and rehab might finally be over against New Zealand in August, he looked close to his best in Perth before exploding back to a peak as high as any today.

“You look down first but then up at the start of a match,” said a smiling Vern after claiming his 10th five-wicket haul, “and if the pitch looks helpful and the skies are grey then you know you’re going to bowl first and, hopefully, enjoy it.”

Australia’s 85 was their third lowest total against South Africa after Philander’s major hand in demolishing them for just 47 at Newlands five years ago. It was also their sixth-lowest total against anyone in the last half a century. What can’t be measured is the depth of despondency among past and present Australian players, coaches, supporters and experts.

“It’s understandably very flat in our changing room at the moment,” said Australian coach Darren Lehmann. “They bowled very well, bowled some very good balls, so credit to them, but we didn’t do ourselves justice and it’s very, very hard to win a test match when you’re bowled out for 85. And it is a match we needed to win.”

The day started with the unusual sight of a signer interpreting the national anthems for the benefit of deaf television viewers and doing what appeared to be a spectacular job in all four South African languages. Then I spotted her translation notes. Nonetheless, great effort.

Not only were Australia 43-6 at lunch but…we got oysters for lunch! Not just a token dozen to share among the 30+ media, but a platter with a hundred. Then there were the king prawns, at least a couple of hundred of them, and the Angus beef, salads, fruit… So they let us come here, beat their team up, and then feed us like VIPs. Apparently so.

The night ended on a low with news that Alviro Petersen has been charged with involvement in the RamSlam match-fixing scandal. He has been a subject of the investigation for six months. He has 14 days to appeal but shows no signs of accepting any responsibility.

The profound success of the Proteas on tour so far has been built on the back of adversity, controversy and compromise. It is humbling and something to make us all very proud. It is only a small number of cricketers who are making it happen, in an environment created by themselves rather than their administrators, but it is their wish that it is an example which can be followed by future generations and spread downwards to the domestic first-class game and below.

November 13, 2016

Most laws and pieces of legislation created in Australia have their roots in common sense – the trouble is, they are then allowed to grow into wild and uncontrollable weeds. It was genuinely distressing to see an elderly lady be given the choice between handing over the small, fold-up umbrella contained in her handbag or being refused entry to the ground on day one.

She was dazed and bewildered before recomposing herself just enough to become a little cross: “A security risk?” she repeated. “Do you think I’m a danger?” she asked. The older man with the long, greying goatee beard pretended to be busy with someone else, leaving the much younger man with acne to handle the situation. “I am sorry,” he replied with sincerity, “but we’ve been told it’s a strict condition of entry.”

And so it was. Only a couple of hundred turned up at the start of today’s washout but everyone with an umbrella was either turned away or had to give it up. There were a couple of golf umbrellas with three-inch metal points, which could have done some damage in a fight (the ‘root’ of the problem) but the little old lady walked away tucking her tiny shelter, no longer than a ruler, back into her bag and shaking her head.

Sometimes these rain days can be far busier news days in the media centre than the match days. Interviews were flying around right up until 2pm when the day was abandoned and sometimes it was the interviewer who was making as much news as the interviewee.

Cricket Australia’s (quite correctly under siege) high performance manager, Pat Howard, was grilled at a press conference about the under-performing national team and suggested on several occasions that former opening batsman Chris Rogers, now a commentator on ABC radio, might be a good man to help the current batsmen out of their slump. It was the first Rogers had heard of it. Communication. Not. Good.

Former Australian captain Kim Hughes resigned from the position after losing his fifth successive test match, the only man to do so before Michael Clarke lost five in a row to India (3) and then England (2). Steve Smith has now lost four to Sri Lanka (3) and South Africa (1). But with dry weather forecast for the next three days, he and his beleaguered team will do extremely well to avoid another loss and make it five.

“Steve is a young captain and a good captain, he needs and deserves our support,” Hughes said. “The problem is that this team is under-prepared, most of them haven’t played a first-class game and if they did they (Mitch Starc) were pulled out halfway through. That demeans the Sheffield Shield, our premier competition,” Hughes said.

Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, was also on air justifying, again, his decision to schedule a T20 International against Sri Lanka in Australia at the end of the season less than 24 hours before a test match against India: “It will be a good opportunity for some of the best players from the Big Bash to experience playing international cricket,” he said, “while the test team will be in India.”

Trouble is, you can’t have TWO Australian teams. The public won’t buy it. There can only be one Australian team with different players in it for different formats. Having two playing almost simultaneously will devalue and dilute the product to the point of irrelevance and, fatally, indifference. But Sutherland will not see that until it is too late.

More worryingly, he has forgotten his and his country’s leadership role for the rest of the cricket-playing world. Once he has done it other administrations around the world, eager to squeeze as much money out of the game as possible, will follow suit on the basis that the precedent has been set. Greed doesn’t have a good long-term record in most facets of life.

And finally, the deranged, presumably terminally prejudiced nutter who climbed over the perimetre fence and painted a derogatory message on an advertising hoarding targeting Hashim Amla. He has been charged by Tasmanian Police and issued with a three-year ban from all official cricket matches throughout Australia. SA team manager, Mohammad Moosajee, said it was “disappointing” but thanked the local authorities and Cricket Australia for acting decisively.

Can’t help wondering what was wrong with a life ban but at least

November 14, 2016

Everybody working a cricket tour tries to research as much as possible in order to produce written copy or commentary with ‘added value’.

OK, not everybody, that’s not true. Obviously there are (some) former players who are convinced that their playing expertise and presence alone will suffice. But the print media exist in a dwindling and competitive market and every extra nugget of information they can glean makes a difference.

One such hard working colleague asked me before the Perth Test how good Quinton de Kock was. And how good he might become. When I suggested he might be our answer to Adam Gilchrist, I was not surprised to be met with raised eyebrows. “He could flop here,” I explained, “because he did flop at the World Cup. But he was still injured then and was being rushed back because the team was desperate for him to play. But now he is good enough and fit enough to win a Test match, maybe even shape the course of the series,” I said.

My colleague wrote something very similar in his preview, with trepidation, and came to thank me after today’s play. Thank me. Australia had been dismantled for the second successive Test with de Kock having provided the life-vest to his team in Perth and the harpoon here in Hobart. In this business it is far better to be right than patriotic.

There have been precious few calls for calm or ‘voices of reason’ here as the home side continues to struggle. Calls for wholesale change, on and off the field, continue to lead back pages and bulletins. Nobody has escaped scrutiny, from debutants to senior players, captain to selectors and chief executive.

Australians can just about cope with defeat overseas, but not at home. A first defeat of the home summer for 30 years followed by a possible series defeat with a game to spare, it’s hard to stomach. Very few team and series records remain in Test cricket. One of the last and most sacrosanct is Australia’s whitewash-free history in nearly 140 years. If they cannot fight their way free here in Hobart, the day-night Test in Adelaide at the end of the month will begin to resemble a nightmare waiting to happen.

“Despite all the bluff and bluster of the Cricket Australia media machine and its 60 employees, the game is battling for popularity and relevance, especially when the national team is being beaten,” my colleague said. “The launch and subsequent success of the Big Bash League has given them the false perception that cricket is alive and well, but all it means is that they have very successfully marketed and promoted an alternative form of cricket entertainment. Neither can survive mutually exclusive, they need each other.”

Only the great West Indies team of the 1980s won three successive series on these shores – the Proteas look a very good bet to become the second.

Meanwhile, the caterers at the Bellerive Oval remain as impartial as the writers. Small racks of lamb provided a splendid antidote to the seafood of the first two days, although there was more salmon for those feeling inclined. The sweeping view from the press and commentary boxes over the vast Derwent River estuary is deeply satisfying.

Australia could still fight back. A second innings total of 400 would leave the Proteas with a menacing target of 160 to win. It is possible. But it’s hard to see.

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