Idle chatter and healing time

“I thought I’d killed him,” said Allan Donald the day after South Africa’s 1996 World Cup match against the United Arab Emirates in Rawalpindi. “My heart just sank when he went down and I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

He was referring to the bouncer that felled UAE captain Sultan Zarawani after a sickening blow to the head. The hopelessly inadequate batsman was wearing just a sunhat when he took guard and Donald had been revved up by a couple of his teammates to let the bearded Zarawani know that not wearing a helmet against the fastest bowler in the world was disrespectful.

The next day there was barely a newspaper on the subcontinent, and South Africa for that matter, which didn’t run the “I thought I’d killed him” headline.

And, of course, there were more than a few Indian newspapers who put two and two together and came up with 427. “I tried to kill him” screamed one rag while another, perversely, claimed that Zarawani had “deserved to die.”

Happily, Zarawani lived happily to tell the tale and Donald even signed his sunhat on the brim which had buckled under the impact of the ball and probably saved him from far more serious damage.

The lesson, however, is that Donald had been sitting quietly in his hotel room musing on the incident feeling anything but that he was talking to the world’s media. In fact, he was chatting to just one reporter. In a press conference, Donald would probably have said something far less dramatic.

And so was Mark Boucher when he made the comments about sledging and the resultant “lack of respect” between the two teams at the end of the tour in Australia.

He was talking to a single reporter, he was physically tired and emotionally drained by the team’s form. He was also, naturally, fed up with a few of the personal comments made by certain members of Ricky Ponting’s team (models as girlfriends was a popular topic) and he was very, very fed up about the racist abuse handed out by a few members of the crowd to his great friend Makhaya Ntini.

As he lay there on his hotel bed, television flickering in the corner and a CD playing quietly, Boucher was concentrating as much on what he was going to order from room service and about the prospect of going home than he was on the interview. In short, his ‘guard’ was down. Not that he cared much. He was fed up and he didn’t mind saying so. Australia is a wonderful country for a holiday but, let me assure you, Boucher wasn’t the only one happy to be coming home after two months of hard work and smart-arse Aussie ‘banter’.

He mentioned that the South African players had lost respect for some of their Australian counterparts and that, perhaps, their hearts hadn’t really been in it when they shared a few beers at the end of the Test series. He said he hoped the South African crowds would make sure Ponting’s men weren’t given an easier ride.

When his comments were written down there was no television, no CD, no room service and no shrug of the shoulders. There is very rarely much ‘context’ in cold, hard quotes. It’s a lesson that every young sportsman must learn – and it’s a lesson that every sportsman keeps on learning throughout his career.

Fortunately, Boucher has learned it many times and so have many of the Australian players. Boucher’s comments may have raised the temperature of the contest amongst the supporters, but not amongst the players. They have all seen and heard it before.

Boucher’s best line during the interview, of course, was the one that wasn’t repeated all around the cricket playing world – but it’s the one the players will be reminding themselves of over and over again.

“Cricket is a contest between bat and ball – if you say too much it just becomes a distraction.” Let the contest begin.


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