New Year’s Test, Sydney, 2009

Sydney is a terrific place to be for New Year’s Eve. Not only do you get to do the countdown nine hours before your friends in more sensible time zones, but the city spends a few million dollars putting on the most magnificent display of fireworks. This fireworks business is done in cities across the country and is slightly strange given the extent to which the Australian government is concerned with animal rights and pollution. But it’s a blast!

Sydney is busier than Melbourne. It is a bigger and livelier city and the beaches must be about the best in the world. It is at least five degrees warmer and the sea is the perfect temperature; much warmer than Cape Town and a fair bit cooler than Durban. There is no shortage of South Africans to invite you round for a braai and people seem to prefer cricket and rugby to Aussie rules and rugby league. If it weren’t for the fact it can cost $40 to park your car in the city for lunch and that you would have to be nocturnal to follow English sport, it would be jolly tempting to move here.

Unlike the Melboune Cricket Ground, the Sydney Cricket Ground is in fact a cricket ground. Although Aussie Rules is played here in the off season the wicket lives out there in the middle and is not dropped in off the back of a truck. This may explain why it has the reputation of being one that offers some assistance to spin bowling.

The SCG also looks like a cricket ground. Instead of knocking down the heritage listed stands like they did in Melbourne, the SCG proudly boasts the beautiful Members Pavilion and the Ladies Stand, which both look just as they did over a hundred years ago.

When I put on my second-favourite pair of pink trousers before cycling to the ground this morning I have to admit that I didn’t actually remember that the SCG was turning pink this week to raise money for and pay tribute to the Jane McGrath Foundation. Glenn McGrath’s late wife lost her battle with breast cancer last year and even the stumps are pink at this year’s New Year’s Test. Peter Roebuck says he doesn’t own any pink but he looks very dandy in the press box wearing a complimentary pink scarf and his outback style leather cowboy hat.

Australians at the cricket usually tease me as much for wearing pink as Afrikaners do when I do the same to rugby matches. I still have nightmares about the time at Newlands rugby ground when five large boers pushed me around in my best pink jeans shouting, “You like pink hey, Westlife?”

But I am safe here now at the SCG. The members stand says it gently with soft shades of pink and the more rowdy stands scream with the shocking ultra-violet kind. The third day may be the one designated by the New South Wales cricket people as the one for all out Mardi Gras garb but today’s dress rehearsal has certainly confirmed my belief that men love wearing pink.

Other exciting news from the ground is that JP Duminy’s mum, Juanita, has arrived to watch him play. The single mother’s business class air ticket was sponsored by an anonymous Cape Town businessman who wanted to thank Duminy for the pride that the young batsman brought to South Africa’s coloured community with his astonishing knocks in Perth in Melbourne.

This morning’s toss proved a good one to lose. Whoever won it was always going to bat despite the fact that heavy skies would offer assistance to the bowling side for the entire day. South Africa had the home side reeling at 162 for five in the afternoon session but it was clear that the exuberant series victory and New Year’s Eve celebrations caught up with the visitors as they made heavy work of the evening session.

The close of play score of 267 for six was remarkably similar to Australia’s 280 for six at the MCG on Boxing Day. On that day it felt like honours even but with Australia looking as wobbly as they did today at the SCG and fielding such an inexperienced bowling attack, the tourists will fancy their chances of a 3-0 series whitewash and the number one spot in the ICC Test rankings.

This article appeared on Cricket365 during the New Year’s Test at the SCG between Australia and South Africa.

Boxing Day Test, 2008

On my last visit to Australia I was given a most unwelcome greeting by the low-life hounds that are Sydney Airport customs officials. It was my first visit down under and after a twelve-hour flight across nine hours of time zones the last thing I was in the mood for was going twelve rounds with three handle-bar moustached nasty pieces of work from immigration.

Unluckily my plane was the only one to have arrived at that time of the day and my suitcase had somehow been sent to Singapore. So by the time I got to customs there was a gang of power tripping border guards waiting especially for me. My grandfather has always taught me to travel smartly dressed so as to be on the front foot in such situations. But I am afraid that in the land of thongs (that is what they call flip flops here!) and vests a well-dressed South African carrying only a battered old elephant skin briefcase is automatically assumed to be working for the mafia.

I was quizzed about every text message on my phone and about the background of the people in every person in my photographs. Did they think I was well dodgy or is it a game they play? Anyone who has watched a reality television program called Border Patrol will know about the barrage of unfriendly questions I had to answer before I was finally allowed free to the delights of snaggers (sausages) on the barbie, biased Channel 9 commentators and the bronzed Sheila’s surfing on Bondi beach.

It took me a long time to get over the rudeness of those airport border guards. I felt like I was in the most trouble I had ever been in and I hadn’t even done anything wrong. It took a while to get over and was an unfriendly and inaccurate introduction to what is actually a jolly friendly country.

On this occasion I flew in a tee-shirt and jeans, my bag arrived and I landed the day before the Boxing Day Test. Immigration wished me a cheerful “Happy Christmas” and waved me through the green zone. People everywhere have gone out of their way to be friendly. Unlike in England, one can make a new best mate on any train or plane here.

And people love to talk about cricket. Happy families ride past on bicycle tracks and cheerfully wave you hello from underneath their safety helmets. Streets are spotless. Cricket grounds (although the Melbourne Cricket Ground isn’t really one of these – it’s an Aussie Rules football stadium) employ efficient and polite people in suits to walk you to your seat. There is no litter or pollution and everything works. Trains run on time and although everything is expensive you get what you pay for. They are ahead of the game down here on the other side of the world.

Indeed Australia sounds like some kind of utopia – it is no wonder everyone wants to move here. But I must say that they are a bit keen on rules, especially if you were brought up in Africa. I don’t want to bore on with the countless examples but at the MCG Mexican waves are banned. Friends of mine who flew from South Africa to watch the Test series had their flagpole (a flimsy plastic stick that was allowed on an aeroplane) confiscated for fear of it being used as a weapon!

Today was probably my best ever as a South African cricket fan. As if there have not been enough advertisements for Test cricket over the past few weeks, today showed how a Test match can be turned on its head against all odds.

At the end of day two South Africa trailed by 196 runs and had only three wickets in hand in the first innings. Although I am of course a neutral journalist I am desperate to see the visiting side topple the Aussies in this huge series and with the Proteas staring down the barrel I last night turned to the bottle with a fellow South African correspondent.

Soon before the close of play on day three the tourists were all out for 459 runs, giving them a not inconsiderable 65-run lead on a very good pitch. JP Duminy’s maiden Test century was an enormous delight to watch – in only his second Test match he top-scored with 166 runs. Dale Steyn, previously considered a batting bunny, made a personal best of 79 runs.

I have never seen a tail wag like that and it could not have happened at a more crucial time. An Australian television presenter said to me as the shadows got longer, “I think this is the worst day in Australian cricket for a decade.”

When the crowd started chanting, “Boring…boring”, the same guy said, “I haven’t heard that chant for many, many years.”

I must say I wasn’t the slightest bit bored!

This article appeared on Cricket365 during the 2008 Boxing Day Test between Australia and South Africa.

Botha ready for reins

When Mickey Arthur chose Johan Botha to fill in for an injured Graeme Smith as one-day international skipper in Australia last year, many believed he would be just that – a stand-in captain.

APPEALING CHOICE: South African T20 captain Johan Botha in action against Pakistan this week Picture: GALLO

APPEALING CHOICE: South African T20 captain Johan Botha in action against Pakistan this week

But they couldn’t have been more wrong.

In his first ODI in front of a 70000 crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Botha could be seen waving his arms, opening his lungs and commanding his troops. Undaunted by filling the boots of a respected skipper, here was a vocal leader who expected the best from his team and wasn’t afraid to let even the most senior players know it. Botha’s Proteas won that series 4-1. Their only loss was by four runs at Hobart.

When Smith stood down from the T20 captaincy in August, Cricket SA CEO Gerald Majola said Botha was the board’s unanimous choice to take up the reins. His tenure has not disappointed, delivering convincing 2-0 wins over Zimbabwe and Pakistan in the past month.

Smith has been the national skipper in all forms of the game for eight of his nine years in the side. If playing international cricket is a tiring job, then captaining a national side is an exhausting one. Smith is by far the longest serving Test captain. If SA needs an energetic leader to take over the ODI captaincy when he stands down after the World Cup next year, Botha is surely the man for the job.

“I don’t mind the off-field duties that go with captaincy and on the field I like the additional responsibility. I enjoy the extra work and can help the younger guys relax, which is what you want,” Botha said this week.

Split captaincy is a new concept for the South African team but the two captains have given each other the space to do their respective jobs and the side hasn’t lost a match since its inception a few months ago.

“I don’t mind telling Graeme to field on the boundary – he has been great about that,” added Botha. “I did worry about how he would deal with not being captain but he has been brilliant. It has been my turn to be in charge and he has stood back and let me do my own thing. And now I’ll do the same for the rest of the series – we know what a good captain he is and we all support him fully.

“I think he is enjoying some pressure off his shoulders, especially in T20 cricket where the game is so quick. An opening batsman has so much to think about upfront but, as a spinner, I know I can sit back and watch during the first six overs, then I’m involved in the action before I watch the death overs without thinking about batting, where hopefully I get to watch the action as I bat lower down.”

If Botha is to skipper SA in the shorter formats of the game he may want to improve his skill at the toss. In more than 30 occasions that he has led the ODI, T20, SA A or SA warm-up game side he doesn’t think he has won more than six tosses. But every time he has lost the toss, the side has still won. There is something special about him – calculated, efficient, fiercely competitive and likeable.

“I hope to be the ODI captain after Graeme stands down after the World Cup. For me it is about form – the captain has to be one of the first picks in team.

“But I have enjoyed it so far and the guys have responded so well. It will be largely up to the team at that stage too, so we’ll have to see if they want me. Hopefully they have enjoyed it as much as me,” he said.

Botha’s place is relatively safe in the ODI team but he is still new to Test cricket, where the incumbent Paul Harris has done a tidy job.

There is every chance, however, that the Proteas will include both spinners in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tests after the ODI series. Botha outperformed Harris in the West Indies earlier this year and he is desperate for a permanent place in the Test side.

“We may play two spinners in the Tests. We’ve never played a Test in Abu Dhabi and it looks like it may spin there from day three. A lot depends on whether Kallis plays as an allrounder or just as a batsman.”

There is little doubt that the Proteas have looked a happy camp under Botha during the two recent T20 series. The newcomers to the side, Botha’s Warriors teammates Colin Ingram and Rusty Theron, have looked right at home in green jerseys. Instead of missing the likes of Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, the side has seemed rejuvenated by youth.

“Winning helps but this side feels closer than ever. We realised we only have a limited amount of time to play for our country and must make the most of every minute – you can see that already,” said Botha.

“That’s the shift we have made. We are the Proteas, not the Springboks or anything else. Ingram is a protea farmer and he hadn’t even played a game yet but he taught us about how a protea grows – how it is the first flower to regenerate after a fire.”

This article appeared in the Sunday Times on October 30, 2010, during South Africa’s series against Pakistan in the UAE.

Ooh Aah India!

It is absolutely marvellous to be in a country where each and every one of the one thousand million people is mad about cricket. Everywhere you go, boys are whacking old dog-chewed cricket balls in streets and parks. Women understand Test matches. Heaven.

I recently followed the Indian team around England. A huge series. England hadn’t lost a Test series at home for some years and it was probably the last time the little master that is Sachin Tendulkar was to play on Island Mud. Whilst cricket is the most English of inventions, hardly anyone there gives two hoots about the best game in the world. Even the conservative Telegraph newspaper forces you to wade through 15 pages of damn football before you are treated to half a page about whether Flintoff is injured and a handful of county scorecards. Thankfully, it is the exact opposite in the splendid subcontinent.

Cricket is by and large an elitist sport in England, something which is not encouraged by the ECB’s signing sole broadcast rights with Sky. So that’s it, you can’t watch cricket if you don’t have satellite broadcast. Most pubs don’t have Sky because it costs them around 20 000 pounds a year and most of the ones that do would rather show a re-run of Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic. My grandpa was bored in hospital and would have so enjoyed watching a Test series on his bedside tv, but Skysports was not one of the 30 odd channels he paid four pounds a day to access. This is probably because the channel is too expensive for even the NHS. Hats off to BBC Radio for keeping up its excellent cricket coverage – it must do so much for the quality of life of so many.

The upshot of all this is that youngsters no longer play tip and run in the car park. Only in the Asian dominated cities of Leicester and Birmingham did I see tennis balls half strapped in reverse swing-inducing masking tape being whacked through angry neighbours’ windows for six and out!

Cricket is so alive in India that it takes up at least a third of the pages of any newspaper or current affairs magazine, and four of the channels in my budget Bangalore hotel showed countless replays of memorable games and interviews with heroes of the game. I can report that Brett Lee’s Bollywood music video is big in Bombay.

The fans here enjoyed the Twenty20 Championships but I have mixed feelings about the fact that it is the future of cricket. The capacity crowd at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on Saturday seemed bored by Australia’s impressive 300 plus 50-over score. But as soon as Tendulkar and Ghambir came out to bat, the place literally erupted. I have never seen a Mexican wave like that. Spectators want to see their team make runs, and the boundary-filled baseball format provides them with that.

The economic potential of lots of T20 cricket is endless. Consider how many games were played over the two week tournament in South Africa. The annual earnings in the spin-off industries of television rights, advertising, hospitality, merchandising, gambling, food and bar retailers etc. could increase many times over. The three hour game is physically easy on the players, which should result in longer careers and fewer injuries. Most importantly, spectators are mad about it and girls wear bikinis to games without complaining to their boyfriends that they are bored.

This is all very well but it’s just not cricket. One over can change the game entirely and it is such a leveller that the gallant young Zimbabweans beat Australia. A Zimbabwean mate of mine said that it was because they were just hungrier than the Aussies but that’s not true. It was because it was just a silly game of baseball.

Test cricket, which is the real deal, is sadly losing its appeal in the 21st Century where instant gratification is the order of the day. That syntillating Ashes series in England proved however that modern consumers can have a healthy appetite for a series war of five day battles. But this can’t happen again now that the game can only be watched in the homes of Sky subscribers and a handful of pubs. WG Grace and Donald Bradman must be rolling in their graves.

I do not know of anything better in the world than a gripping Test match, complete with unpredictable twists and turns. This ultimate test of skill, character, concentration and patience must surely be the pinnacle of sport. There is always something to play for in a Test match, indeed salvaging a respectable draw can be as rewarding as a good win if a series depends on the result. A one-sided ODI or Twenty20 is dull because the game can be won or lost in the first twenty minutes of play.

I am devastated by the prospect of potential extinction of real cricket. This surely won’t happen in our lifetimes, but things are changing very quickly in the world of cricket. A remarkably friendly Rajasthani journalist yesterday said to me, “Wherever is going the cricket you goes”, and I am afraid that the same will be true for professional cricket players and lucrative Twenty20 contracts. The ICC must go with the flow or be left behind – that is how economics works.

The Twenty20 World Championships, the rich Texan’s Caribbean parties and the ICL are only the beginning of it all. I was so glad to hear that Mohammad Yousuf, probably the best Test batsman in the world, has been cleared by Pakistan to play in this series, but it won’t be long until the salaries of Twenty20 specialists are many times more than players of the Yousuf and Kallis mould, whose abilities are inaccurately deemed superfluous to the twenty over slogfest. I wonder whether South Africa would have collapsed to the Indian attack as they did in what was effectively a quarter-final if Kallis the rock had been there to add some glue to our middle order.

South Africa is playing against Pakistan right now. It is the first day of what promises to be a terrific Test series. An attack consisting of Umar Gul, Mohammed Asif and Danish Kaneria is a seriously deadly one, especially in those conditions. Hopefully Paul Harris will impress as we will find it very difficult to win any of these Tests without a spinner. Kallis will make lots of runs – he is out to prove he’s as good as Ponting, Pietersen and Yousuf. What a series it will be. Sadly though, there are only a handful of spectators in the National Stadium in Karachi.

It was a great pity that the first Future Series ODI between India and Australia was a washout and there’s about a 50 percent chance tomorrow’s game will also be a damp squib as the monsoon season is extended by two months as a result of global warming. The outfield is muddy and it has rained here everyday for weeks. It is very humid and the early start won’t allow for the sun to dry any overnight rain.

Everybody in India praises the young captain Manhindra Singh Dhoni. The hotel barman last night told me that the motorcycle-crazed, mullet-sporting warrior eats two kilogrammes of mutton and drinks six litres of full cream milk everyday. He’s a big strong lad and a cool customer. He’ll need to be with the amount of pressure on the youngster. He’s bigger than Beckham here and he has the most difficult job in the country. If India loses this series, which they could do even if they play well as they are up against the most professional team in the world, will they call for his head and try burn down his house?

Indians are extreme about cricket and while they handsomely rewarded the Twenty20 squad with cash bonuses, especially for six-in-a-row Yuvraj, they do not have a history of supporting their national heroes through tough times. I hope that captain Dhoni is allowed to fail at times – the youngsters in that team look up to him so much. And while Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid were all good captains, they would not take up the job if offered it again.  

With the exception of Powar, I have never seen the Indian team field as well as they did on Saturday. It was because the team is buoyed by Twenty20 success and was playing to their home crowd. There is so much pressure on these sportsmen that they have no choice but to perform well here. I cannot for the life of me understand why Powar is played ahead of the turbanator, Harbhajan Singh. The only plausible explanation can be that a personal issue exists between the selectors and himself. He had another excellent county season this year and is one of the most economical spinners in ODI’s.

I have a problem with the no-ball free hit rule in limited overs cricket. There is no reason why a bowler and his team should be so harshly punished for the innocent error of overstepping. There is nothing malicious or negative about overstepping. The new rule punishes the bowling team by an average of three or four runs. It is an artificial excitement manufacturing rule and I don’t care for it. The ridiculous thing is I could maybe understand a free hit being awarded if a bowler bowled a nasty and dangerous beamer or negatively bowled a second short ball in a given over, but free hits are only due after overstepping. It is ridiculous. In the Pro40 county league, bowlers are punished two runs and a free hit, which is even more ridiculous. Next we’ll have two gimmies, three mulligans and first ball grace.

An interesting new rule is that during the two five over periods, fielding sides may now have three fielders outside the circle. The added protection will usually be found on the leg side boundary and will reduce 50 over scores by around twenty runs. Does that mean South Africa’s 438 will remain intact? Well, it probably depends on how many overstepping no balls are bowled.

We learned again at the Twenty20 World Championships that the shot sometimes referred to as the Bangladesh Bunt, or the Pakistani Paddle is jolly effective. I remember how it infuriated Makhaya Ntini when Shahid Afidi (wowee he bowled cleverly in the twenty over competition!) twice got down on one leg and paddled accurate good length deliveries for six over the vacant very fine leg boundary.

On the bowling front we saw a clever trick well executed by many bowlers. The virtually guaranteed dot ball comes by way of a very short and wideish slow ball. Batsmen move back expecting the ball to bounce up nice and high and the spongy tennis ball slow bouncer becomes almost unplayable from that position. We’ll see much more of it in the future.

I really hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow. There were about three hundred members of ground staff working hard on the outfield this morning. Their methods are unorthodox but jolly effective. I wonder if they work through the night. If it rains they should give all of the policemen a sponge – there are about three thousand at any international game here.

This article appeared on on 1 October 2007, during the first of many trips to India.