The Fat Man, the Surgeon and the Swimmer

The most popular and often accurate way to judge the ‘mood’ of a nation is by what the taxi drivers are saying. In New York and many European cities, not to mention Australia’s hubs, entire television and radio programmes have been set in the back of a cab. Taxi drivers have become minor celebrities, often celebrated for the caustic truths they tell.

It’s not just the ‘developed’ world, though. Thousands of Indian, Pakistan and Sri Lankan cab and tuk-tuk drivers have been quoted by cricket writers over the years, several hundred of them just by me. Their occupation dictates that they have their finger on the pulse of popular opinion.

Not being in the habit of taking taxis at home, my yardstick for measuring the sentiment of the populace is provided by the men in the gym change room and sauna. They are, by and large, elderly and wealthy by the time I’ve finished the school run. (And mostly white, but not nearly as white as they used to be.)

The majority are sceptical if not cynical about the future. Many accept change only on ‘Nimby’ terms – ‘Not in my back yard’. Apart from hip replacements and their children’s divorces, the conversation often revolves around politics, Nkandla and other forms of corruption. They talk, too, of the week’s sporting events. They often make silly, ill-informed judgements, but that is their right. I don’t open my mouth.

This Monday morning they were unrecognisable, apart from the scars and wrinkles. They were, to a man, 50 years younger than last week. They were excitable, giggling teenagers, reliving the greatest innings of all time. A Coloured man with tattoos and a huge boep, stark-bollock naked, was down on one knee playing a lap-sweep over fine leg. Everybody laughed, even those who had never spoken a word to each other since the gym opened ten years ago.

Another man, a surgeon (I know because the poor man is pestered often for advice on dodgy knees etc) had thrown off his usually reserved demeanour and was explaining how close he had been to missing the “greatest show on a cricket field” because of a grandchild’s new puppy. “I told my daughter that her son would have many puppies, but I might never get to see this again. He was about 70 off 20 balls – and I wasn’t going anywhere!”

Just then another wrinkly entered the change room from the swimming pool, goggles and cap in hand. “Me too,” he laughed. “I was supposed to take my wife to lunch but I said ‘Babe, come and have a look at this.’ She doesn’t normally follow the cricket too much, but after three minutes she said: ‘We have some leftovers in the fridge. We’re not going anywhere…” Everybody laughed again.

Then he recognised me…sort of. “You’re Nigel, the writer / commentator guy, aren’t you?” Somebody else confirmed that I was me before I could reply.

“Jeez, you were there, what was it, I mean, it must have been, you know…” He was babbling. He was excited. “Tell us something, you were THERE…,” he said, hanging on more tightly to his goggles than his pride. “What’s he like, you know, as a person,” he said, letting go of his dignity altogether.

“He doesn’t practise those shots, you know,” I said towards the Coloured man. “He just imagines them and then makes them happen. Honestly. And he greets people by name, even if he has only met them once or twice. He says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. He’s the sort of guy who will braai the chops, give you first choice, and insist you have the last one.”

I’m not sure it was what they were expecting to hear, but I wasn’t given much notice to prepare notes. “What a guy…what a guy,” said the Coloured man. “Indeed,” replied the surgeon.

The power of sport.

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