Mad as a lizard

In our hotel in Jaipur we are served, morning and night, by an ambitious young man called Sham (pronounced ‘Sharm’.) He works a double shift beginning at 6.00 am and finishing at 11.00 pm – unless there are still people in the ninth floor bar in which case Sham has to stay awake until they go to bed.

Each morning his cheery smile greets his clients in the breakfast room and there he is at the end of the day, still smiling as he brings you the last bottle of Kingfisher lager, the one you really didn’t need.

Sham has five hours sleep between shifts. His ambition is to save enough money to come to South Africa in search of a better life. He now has my business card as fuel for his dream ‘though he cherishes it far less than my colleague Patrick Compton’s. Patrick lives in Durban.

As befits a man working 16-hours a day, Sham happens to be completely mad. He has suitably wide eyes to accompany his voracious giggle and his hair is plastered to the side of his head with what looks like engine oil.

Nothing is too much trouble for Sham, especially if it is something you have not asked for or do not want. Ever since I tried to explain in the breakfast room on the first morning that pineapple juice gave me ulcers, Sham has made a fussy point of bringing me glass after glass of it, carefully taking away each full one in turn. Mad.

The thing about Sham, however, is that it’s impossible to tell what is an act, what is down to his chicken English and what is genuinely bonkers. A genuine inquiry about the breakfast buffet (“Is the vegetable curry hot?”) produced wild laughter and an assurance that it would give me a big heart, or put hairs on my chest, I’m not sure which. Whereas my answer of “no” to an offer of tea elicited a grumpy frown and, a few minutes later, a large pot of it with an assurance that “India tea very good.”

I’m going to miss Sham very much when we go to Kanpur for the first Test.

Ray Jennings reminds me of Sham.

When you sit down with a tape recorder after a press conference or an interview with the South African coach and transcribe the contents, there can be little doubt that he would be better off looking for his lost marbles than talking to the media.

Jennings, too, has wider than normal eyes and he speaks with unbridled enthusiasm about anything that happens to be on the agenda at the time. One subject on the agenda a lot at the moment is spinners – or the lack of them in South Africa’s case.

“I’m tired of hearing about our lack of a front-line spinner,” Jennings told a large gathering of journalists and television cameras in Jaipur. “We have four or five front-line spinners and any one of them can put their hand up and become a hero,” Jennings said. “Just because other teams rely on a big name spinner, like Harbhajan or Warne, doesn’t mean we have to.”

Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith, Martin van Jaarsveld, Justin Ontong and Robin Peterson appear to be believing their coach, too.

It sounded mad to me so I wondered what else he could have said: “In 120 years of Test cricket there have been no more than six instances of part-time spinners winning a Test match so I reckon we’re dead and buried and have no chance whatsoever. But it’s nice to come along for the ride.”

Now that would be REALLY mad.

Or how about: “No team has ever toured India with as little experience as ours without getting a damn good hiding, so we’re expecting the worst.” Completely crackers.

Then, when the audience had dispersed and ‘Jet’ was musing quietly to me, his eyes returned to a normal size and acquired an air of seriousness.

“The thing about part-time spinners of course,” he said, “is that they might pick up a couple of wickets in the first innings because the batsmen might try to get after them, but they can’t win you the game on the last day when you’ve got 90 overs to bowl and the batsmen are trying to save the game.

That’s where we’ll miss a top spinner. But that’s where the other bowlers will have to do the job.”

It’s important to understand that, when ‘Jet’ is addressing a press conference there is more than an element of ‘performance’ in his answers. He speaks in parables and his excesses are often far more planned than they appear.

On the face of it South Africa have as much chance of winning this series as Sham has of pitching up in Durban and opening his own hotel, but if madness helps either of them to achieve their goals, then long live madness.

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