Keep Blowers on till he kicks the bucket!

Henry Calthorpe Blofeld is without doubt one of cricket’s most marvellous characters. That pompous, fruity, old Etonian voice of the mad-as-a-hatter Test Match Special (TMS) radio commentator has been well known and loved by cricket followers across the globe for over 30 years. But it has become obvious in recent cricket seasons that the BBC is choosing to use the old school voice of Blowers less and less.

Blofeld fitted in well alongside the old TMS legends of Brian Johnson and John Arlott but the eccentric old chatterbox will be 70 next year and it is quite clear that he is being slowly phased out of the radio box against his will.

Famous for his flowery descriptions of pigeons, buses, flags, dirigibles and dustbins, Blowers certainly paints the picture in a way that no other cricket commentator does anymore. And while not everyone is mad about the unconventional old toff, English Test match cricket just isn’t the same without him.

From Norfolk gentry stock, Blofeld did not play for England but he excelled as a school cricketer. He was the Eton captain and he scored a hundred at Lord’s for the Public Schools against the Combined Services in the day when that kind of fixture received 800 words in the Times newspaper. Sadly, Henry’s career was cut short by a dreadful incident whereby he was run over by a bus and suffered extensive head injuries.

He then tried his hand at merchant banking but he tired of that quickly and after dangerously flirting with the idea of a career in the wine industry he settled into cricket journalism. And he has been in the writing and talking game ever since.

Blofeld has his fair share of critics. Some can’t stand his ceaseless descriptions of irrelevant activity and others are tired of his propensity to talk utter nonsense. He is easily muddled and on this tour alone has called South Africa both New Zealand and India. He once called Flintoff Botham, without noticing his mistake and at the Headingley Test he said Hashish Amla instead of Hashim Amla. At Edbaston he called him Hamish!

He once remarked that Sidebottom reminded him of Friar Tuck. Vic Marks was on air with him and pointed out that Friar Tuck was bald and fat while Sidebottom is slim and hairy and so he could not see the resemblance. At Headingley he described the fast bowler as medieval looking and I think that is spot-on, so he gets the odd one right!

I have done a lot of asking around to determine Blofeld’s popularity and he definitely seems to be one of those types that people either love or don’t. Some strong words against the old boy were uttered in the press box but generally the average English cricket follower falls into the first category.

Blofeld and the TMS team are often sent cakes and even the Queen once presented them with a cake at Lord’s in recognition of their efforts. Naturally, cakes are another never-ending topic for discussion. In this series Blofeld commentated on the second and third Test matches. I am missing him at the fourth.

This article appeared on Cricket365 during South Africa’s Test tour of England in 2008.

That’s enough of that, thanks

And so ends nearly six months of cricket between England and New Zealand. As per their respective ICC world rankings, England (ranked third in Test matches and seventh in one-day internationals) won both the home and away Test series and New Zealand (ranked third in ODIs and seventh in Tests) won both the home and away ODI series.

There is a neat symmetry about all of this and four series were well contested and enjoyable. The Barmy Army’s presence resulted in record crowds in New Zealand and good weather produced some fine cricket in England. But there is no doubt that cricket fans worldwide will be delighted that it is all over. Watching two of the world’s more mediocre sides in battle for half a year is not what modern cricket spectators are after.

Lord’s was the venue for the final ODI of the Natwest series and is the home of cricket. The hallowed stadium has the best facilities of any ground in the world and everything about the place is absolutely marvellous. Spectators are allowed to bring a bottle of wine into the ground and MCC ties, pink linen trousers and panama hats give the stands an air of old school sophistication.

On one side of the ground members munched on cucumber sandwiches and quaffed claret on the lawn beneath the stuffy pavilion at the lunch break. In front of the pavilion a one hundred-strong marching band in sombre black tunics trumpeted with military precision.

But at the other end youngsters guzzled beer as they suntanned next to the rock band behind the ultra-modern blimp-like Investec Media Centre. The game of cricket is rapidly changing under the influence of public demand for faster and more exciting cricket and Lord’s faces the difficult task of carefully managing its various identities. Doing business with Allen Stanford and at the same time keeping MCC members happy is not going to be easy.

On another note, security officers from Cricket Australia are in Pakistan assessing player safety in that country ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy, which is scheduled to be held there in September this year. South Africa has been named ahead of Sri Lanka as the reserve host nation and the matter will be discussed at the six-day annual ICC conference that begins on Sunday 29 June. The latest from those in the know is that the event will happen in Pakistan unless a major disaster takes place there between now and then.

The issue at the top of the ICC conference agenda is likely to be more controversial. It is the motion of what to do with Zimbabwe. The England Cricket board this week cancelled a future series with that African cricket team and even South Africa, who have until recently supported Zimbabwe cricket, took a strong stand against them. It comes as no surprise that the cash rich and power hungry BCCI (the Indian cricket board) continues to fully support Zimbabwe cricket.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in June 2008

Napier makes a name for himself

On Tuesday evening I made a last-minute decision to hop on a Chelmsford bound commuter train to catch a taste of the English domestic Twenty20 Cup. The fixture was Essex versus Sussex and as I took my seat in the most oddly shaped higgledy piggledy stadium I have ever seen, I could never have guessed at the kind of innings I was due to see.

Essex won the toss and were around 20 for 1 after 4 overs when a fellow by the name of Graham Napier began shifting gears upwards. More of a bowler than a batsman, Napier revelled in his pinch-hitting role at number three as he struck an extraordinary number of aerial boundaries in his unbeaten 152 runs off 58 balls. Napier’s assault was brutal and his 16 sixes smashed Brendon McCullum’s Twenty20 record of 13 sixes in his unbeaten 158 runs off 73 balls for the Kolkata Knight Riders in Bangalore at the inaugural IPL match earlier this year.

Napier’s knock allowed Essex to post a massive 242 for 3 in twenty overs and his record of 16 sixes in an innings may well be the most in any professional cricket match ever. The highest number of maximum hits in a Test innings is Wasim Akram’s 12 sixes in his astonishing unbeaten 257 against Zimbabwe in 1996. The record number of sixes in a first-class innings is also 16 and is held by Andrew Symonds during his innings of 254 runs when playing for Gloucestershire against Glanmorgan in Abergavenny in 2005.

While the boundaries at the already small Chelmsford ground had been brought in to enhance the Twenty20 excitement and to allow more spectators into the capacity crowd, it was nonetheless a remarkable display of big hitting and a fearless innings against quality bowling that those present shall never forget.

Until Wednesday New Zealand had never beaten a Test playing nation in an ODI at the Oval. But that all changed with a certain poetic justice as Graeme Swann’s last ball overthrow handed victory to the visitors in front of a glued-to-the-edge-of-their-seats London crowd.

Enough has been said about the controversial Grant Elliot run-out but I would like to say that no matter the extent to which Paul Collingwood made the wrong decision to not take back the appeal after running out a batsman who had been knocked over by a bowler, it was not very good to see the visiting team refusing to shake hands with their hosts. The wonderful thing about having the moral high ground is just that. And it is especially sweet when accompanied by victory.

With England one down with one to play in the Natwest ODI Series they will be a worried and downbeat camp heading to Lords for Saturday’s final match. Even more distressing for England is that the South African camp has just arrived on these shores.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in June 2008

Four-one to the Proteas

So the Proteas end their tour of Australia with a 4-1 lambasting of a series thrashing in the Commonwealth Bank ODI series. Victory in the final match came by 39 runs on Friday at the WACA in Perth, the same ground where South Africa got the Test tour off to a winning start in December. Indeed the wheel of fortune has come full circle for the visitors, now the number one ranked ICC ODI side. A colossal arrival party is expected at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg at the weekend.

Unfortunately Herschelle Gibbs will not be afforded the opportunity to break David Boon’s mile high beer drinking record.

There were doubts as to whether Johan Botha had the know-how to fill Graeme Smith’s captaincy boots but no-one can argue that he didn’t do the job with aplomb. He bowled darn well too, returning figures of over the five ODIs of: 47 overs, 188 runs, 8 wickets. To concede exactly four runs per over against Australia is miserly.

The single match South Africa lost was the second ODI at the Bellerive Oval and it was a match they well and truly should have won. After bowling Australia out for under 250 the tourists needed under 8 an over inside the last ten overs of the chase with six wickets and a powerplay in hand. It could so easily have been a 5-0 series whitewash.

It has often been said that when the Springboks play rugby in Perth it should count as a home game as so many South Africans live here. While it isn’t quite the same at the cricket in Western Australia, the WACA has been good to the Proteas this summer.

After all Perth is not much further from South Africa than it is from the rest of Australia. The most isolated city in the world, Perth boasts a few other extraordinary stats. The locals say that it has the highest per capita rate of millionaires in the world and is also reported to have the highest worldwide rate of serial killers. And I thought Australia was boringly safe.

A sell-out crowd here tonight witnessed an exceptional recovery by Hashim Amla (97 runs off 117 balls) and AB de Villiers (60 runs off 71 balls). A good total was ensured by their 138-run partnership after the tourists’ innings looked precarious at 58/2 with the ball swinging. JP Duminy (60 runs off 42 balls) then converted that platform into a total as the South Africans posted 288 for 6.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe (4 wickets for 50 runs) took a wicket with his fifth ball in ODI cricket as he helped bowl Australia out for 249.

Mickey Arthur said at the pre-match conference that “the number one ranking is too soon for a team developing as an ODI unit”. I think he’ll get over it.

Another thing; have you ever noticed the bizarre similarity in appearance between Ricky Ponting and Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman?

This article appeared on Cricket365 in January 2009 following the conclusion of the one-day series between Australia and South Africa.

All set for cricket’s richest match

When I told the esteemed cricket writer, Peter Roebuck, that I was leaving the India versus Australia Test series to follow the Stanford Super Series, he gave me the kind of look umpire Rudi Koertzen gives Monty Panesar when the excitable spinner over appeals for an LBW decision where the ball has yet again pitched a foot outside leg stump.

“Stanford represents everything cricket shouldn’t be” said Roebuck, clearly a cricket aficionado of the old school. I used to agree with him. But if you can’t beat them, join them.

The biggest single event of the Twenty20 revolution is upon us with the winner-takes-all 20 million dollar exhibition match being played this Saturday, the 1st of November. It is the highest prize money of any sporting event ever.

Sir Allen Stanford’s enormous investment in the game in the Caribean has not yet started to show in the performance of the West Indies team but I am assured by the locals here that his cash splashing antics have breathed fresh air into the sport and are keeping the game alive across the islands.

Antigua is extraordinarily beautiful and extremely laidback. The sea is Topaz blue and the island’s population of 60 000 people (just over half the capacity of Eden Gardens or the MCG) are so relaxed they look as if they might fall over. The beautiful Stanford ground seats only 6000 spectators, mostly under palm trees. Sir Allen mingled with the crowd, hugging children and smiling for photographs. It is an unusual setting for the most mouth watering, heart racing, nail biting three-hour reality show.

The warm-up games got underway on Saturday night with the Stanford Super Stars comfortably beating Trinidad and Tobago, the winners of the most recent regional Stanford Twenty20 tournament. A very slow pitch ensured a low scoring encounter, a trait which is not usually relished in the shortest form of the game.

I couldn’t help but notice that the first five high catches turned out be dropped catches as they were all spilled in the outfield under lights. What fun it will be if something similar happens on Saturday.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in October 2008, ahead of the Stanfor Twenty20 for 20 clash in Antigua.

Time for a reality check, India

Winning is everything in the modern era of international sport. To come second, regardless of the closeness of defeat, is never anything like as good. India won the inaugural hit and giggle Twenty20 Championship in South Africa and well done to them for doing so. Looking back on that exciting game of baseball at the Wanderers, it could so easily have gone the other way.

Here in India, that victory is still being celebrated in euphoric fashion. You would think that after the six hour float parade through 30 kilometres of Mumbai streets it was time to focus exclusively on the near impossible task of winning the current seven match ODI series. Not to take anything away from that fantastic team performance, but it is not as if they whitewashed Australia in a five Test series down under.

The Australians are an extremely professional unit and are on a serious business trip without the distraction of this never-ending party. It is guaranteed hangover material for Dhoni’s men. Every time I turn on the sensational 24-hour cricket news channel here, I see pictures of Australians at fielding practice and Indians being paraded up and down red carpets. A cricket tour in India is something like a celebrity road show for its stars. The Indians, a good cricket team, were comprehensively beaten by the best cricket team in Kochi on Tuesday. The same result is likely again tomorrow. But while the Australians were practising hard at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium last night, the men in blue were making money.

The Twenty20 squad was being handsomely rewarded with plots of property at a smart hotel, Sachin Tendulkar lunched a website and then presented a car to the Indian women’s cricket captain, while Dravid promoted motor oil for the second night in a row. Then Pathan, Uthappa, Gambhir, Harbhajan, R.P Singh and Sharma modelled footwear at an apparel showroom. After all of this, the Indian team attended a dinner hosted by the son of panchayat raj minister. It is no wonder Sresanth was so hot headed in the Kochi ODI – the youngster has probably been disillusioned by this instant stardom.

The first time I visited the Australian team in their Bangalore hotel I found them a bit serious. I thought they were being spoilsports the way they treated their dinner table as a boardroom. They didn’t even want to come out for a drink! But they are in India to win and not to holiday and that is what they will continue to do.

Modern professional sports teams spend countless hours analysing video footage, meeting with team dieticians and even psychologists and planning strategic moves. How can India find time to do this if there isn’t enough time for a daily net session?

Ponting didn’t show any signs of his hamstring injury at practice yesterday and I imagine he will take the field for the toss at 8:30am tomorrow. This is ominous for India, who failed to make the winning of a big toss count in Kochi. After an impressive start on a wicket that provided adequate assistance for the bowlers, the Indian attack continued to bowl the wrong line and length and it was all too easy for the Australian middle order as Andrew Symonds taught them a few lessons. He really is about the best there is at the 50-over game.

I cannot see Australia being bowled out by this weak Indian bowling attack. As it was with their recent tour of England, India’s best chance of winning a match is to score lots of runs. In order to do this, two of the experienced campaigners, Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly need to make runs in any given innings. Unlike many of the other Indian batsmen, they have level heads and understand that 50-over games are won by keeping wickets in hand, not by playing rash shots a la Twenty20.

However, it appears that the Indian selectors plan to rest one of the three big guns in every game so as to give the youngsters a chance, another decision they will surely rue.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in October 2007, during Australia’s one-day tour of India.

England capitalise on short sightscreen

A short sightscreen at the Pavilion End here at Edgbaston nearly helped England enough to win the extraordinarily exciting third Test match. As has happened before at this ground, a number of full-length deliveries from that end arrived at the batsman entirely unsighted.

The problem, which is not a completely new one at the Birmingham ground, arises specifically for yorkers and full tosses as the ball that is delivered from above the angle covered by the sightscreen stays above the white background and in the line of the members’ dark jackets for longer as a result of their flatter trajectory.

On day one of this match the six-feet-and-five-inches Morne Morkel sent down a ball from his delivery height of nine feet which the left-handed Alastair Cook knew nothing about. When I say he knew nothing about it, I mean he didn’t even react to it. Fortunately for Cook, the ball was outside the off stump.

Jacques Kallis was not as fortunate in either of his two innings when he was dismissed by the fiery six-feet-and-four-inches Andrew Flintoff. Kallis’s second dismissal (which really was his third as a plumb LBW to a full-length Flintoff delivery was turned down on day two) was the most unusual of Flintoff’s sightscreen related scalps – a full toss which Kallis ducked as he thought it was a short ball. The ball hit him on the top of the pad, trapped LBW and swung the match in England’s favour. Kallis was furious.

Earlier when Neil Mckenzie was out LBW to a full Flintoff ball from the Pavilion End, South African coach Mickey Arthur went running to the match referee to complain. But nothing could be done as the sightscreen flaw had been the same for both sides.

It does seem strange that all of this helped Flintoff on many occasions while only one Morkel ball appeared to go unsighted. Flintoff is marginally shorter than Morkel but I think the difference can be explained by the fact that his unusual wrist-on action makes it difficult to pick the length of his deliveries. Indeed most readers will remember his success with the yorker against Australia during the incredible Ashes series for England in 2005.

Is it bad sportsmanship to exploit such an apparent advantage? Should Vaughan have bowled Flintoff from the other end? Is it dangerous to do so for an accidental beamer could cause injury? Test match cricket is a highly competitive beast. It is ruthless and unforgiving and it can only be expected that a team will use any advantage within the rules to the maximum, especially if they are one Test down in the series with only two results outstanding.

I do however believe that when Flintoff bowled a bodyline full toss, which fractionally missed AB de Villiers’s back and his leg stump as he narrowly evaded the hard red leather, he should have apologised to the batsman.

I can see only two ways in which the Warwickshire County Cricket Club can solve this problem. One would be to do away the club’s best members seats. The other would be to instruct the ten or so members behind the bowler’s arm to don cream Richie Benaud style jackets.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in July 2008 during the third Test between England and South Africa.

IPL would be a coup for SA

Beware Potchefstroom, Kimberley and Paarl. Rumours have been doing the rounds that the big-time Bollywood Banjoree that is the IPL could be coming to town. Unlikely venues the Afrikaans South African backwaters would be to host the glitz and glamour of one of world sport’s richest tournaments, but maybe it would be a good idea.

Yesterday Cricket South Africa chief Gerald Majola said: “There have been no talks. It is definitely a rumour.” And when a mate of mine from SkySports got through to IPL boss Lalit Modi, he gave one of those answers that doesn’t actually answer anything at all. Today Majola put out the following statement: “There has been no official approach by either the BCCI or the IPL and we don’t know where these rumours are emanating from.”

But South African Cricketers’ Association chief Tony Irish told Cape Town’s Weekend Argus newspaper, “I understand that discussions have been taking place and these appear favourable”

“Reading between the lines, I think it will happen.”

Wanderers, Centurion and Potchefstroom would be the likely venues if South Africa takes over the tournament, the newspaper said.

In the marvellous press box at Newlands as we watch South Africa annihilate debutant Bryce McGain against the backdrop of the enticing SAB brewery and the magnificent Table Mountain, the media are talking about little else. Except for Stuart Hess from Independent Newspapers – he is singing “Everybody have fun tonight!”

The Indian government has so far rejected all scheduling proposals by the IPL. Time is running out for the tournament that is due to start in three weeks and continues to be threatened by security fears. The Indian government’s chief concern is that the tournament is due to coincide with general elections, already a major security headache in a country of a billion people and in a sub-continent where terrorism is out of control.

The Mumbai blasts in November 2008 led to the cancelling of the BCCI-back Champions League and only a few weeks ago the Sri Lankan cricket team bus was directly attacked in Pakistan. It was long believed that cricket would never be targeted by terrorists but that has certainly changed.

Cricket is undoubtedly India’s favourite thing and the IPL is a plaything for India’s super-elite, the very people who were targeted in last year’s Mumbai blasts. Indo-Pak tensions are as strained as ever and Pakistani players will not be playing in the IPL, should it go ahead. It would be naïve to believe that the IPL would run without incident, should it go ahead in India next month.

It may seem ironic that South Africa be deemed a safe haven for such an event but temporarily moving the tournament to these shores could be an efficient solution to a problem that just isn’t going to be solved.

South Africa’s cricket grounds are good for Twenty20 matches in that they have nice bouncy pitches and are spectator friendly. The month of May is a bit late for cricket but the weather is generally still okay. Accommodation, transport, practice, media and broadcasting logistics will all be easier in South Africa than in India. There may be a little rain but April / May is the hottest season of the year in India and it is a gruelling time of year to play such a hectic tournament there.

It would seem a bit trivial if the Indian Premier League were played in South Africa. Imagine the Bangalore Royal Challengers playing a home game at Buffalo Park in East London. But moving the tournament could offer a quick fix for the IPL. Expensive contracts would not be broken, players’ lives would not be put at risk and the show would go on. And what a coup it would be for South African tourism and cricket.

Of course the downside to shifting the tournament would be that many matches would be very poorly attended. While the IPL would be able to retain the large revenues from broadcasting rights, it would no doubt lose some of the appeal that makes it such a successful television product. You just can’t compare an Eden Gardens crowd of 100 000 people to a handful of South African wrapped in blankets on a grassy bank for entertainment value.

Either way, I hope there is some truth in the rumour mongering. Though the Caribbean would also be nice!

This article appeared on Cricket365 in March 2009.

Sad day in England, carnival time in Kandy

While the News of the World were breaking an extraordinary story about spot-fixing, I was in a press conference listening to MS Dhoni explain to the Indian media why his team had been so shoddy so recently. Hearing the esteemed captain’s views on “pitches that are no good for one-day cricket because teams are 80 all out” and how “Gambhir and Tendulkar could have made the difference” are one thing, but smashing a multi-million pound betting racket is far more interesting.

It always seems a great pity that a rotten tabloid like the News of the World breaks such a magnificent story. Of course it is because they have no shame in stooping to the same level as the criminals they are after exposing. Setting traps and laying cash notes out for Fergie or illegal bookmakers is all part of the job at such a place. But what a story! And well done to them for finally getting something tangible on the Pakistan side. We have all suspected that the Pakistani team is often up to something. “They are just so unpredictable,” commentators always say. Well, they are unpredictable if you are none the wiser in your arm chair but it seems that for those in the know they are very predictable indeed.

I can’t imagine the ramifications of this bust on a side that has been playing some stonking good cricket recently. Doing their country proud while a million or so are trapped in floods at home has added a special element to the summer’s action. Pakistan did themselves proud in the MCC “Spirit of Cricket” series against Australia and Asif and Amir, two men implicated in the fixing rig, have shown that they are as good as any other quick bowlers in the world. Probably better.

The ICC has just issued a press release that the fourth day at Lord’s will go ahead as usual. Millions will tune in to watch Pakistan be humiliated in a match where they had England on the ropes and then somehow let the game slip away from their grasp. It is maddening that this Test will be remembered for a reporter who put a lot of cash on a table to organise a few no-balls (what is it with no-ball scandals recently?) rather than the fairytale 332-run eighth-wicket partnership between Broad and Trott that represented one of the biggest match turnarounds in Test cricket history. Pakistani players appear to have tainted the beautiful game of cricket. Again.

It is nowhere near as interesting but I started writing this blog before the scandal broke so please allow me to finish it.

After travelling around Sri Lanka on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets, it was a great relief when my mum arrived on the island to spend a week with me. First stop, the Wallawwa hotel. Goodbye squalor, hello luxury. If you are considering coming to Sri Lanka in February for the World Cup or indeed at any other time at all then do not pass go, do not collect 200 quid, go directly to the W. It is no wonder that this oasis of a boutique hotel gets higher ratings on independent travel websites than any other hotel one can look up. It is about the nicest hotel I have visited, let alone slept in.

The secluded hideaway is a relaxing place to begin or end any journey to Sri Lanka, given its close proximity to the airport and the main roads to Colombo, Kandy or Galle. It is civilised and feels contemporary, despite being the oldest manor house in the Western Province of Sri Lanka – croquet lawn, secret swimming pool, top-drawer chef and staff, beautiful cocktails… you get the point. It was wasted on me but I’m not complaining. Go there.

It was also goodbye scooter, hello car and driver. Home was never like this! For the price of hiring a car in most countries, we scored a car and a charming driver who has been showing tourists around for 30 years. Hemadasa, a Sinhalese gentleman and proud grandfather has driven us everywhere for six days and takes pride in opening doors, fighting our corner at the bargaining table and stopping to buy us samples of the most wonderful exotic fruit. Did you know that red bananas contain far more vitamin C and beta-carotene than yellow ones and that there are over 500 types of bananas out there? Or that I am going to make my fortune by selling mangosteens in Europe? They taste so good that they make you tingle from head to toe.

Kandy is such a fine place that the whole city is a UNESCO world heritage site. The botanical gardens are regarded the best in Asia and boast over 4000 labelled species of tropical flora in 150 acres of paradise. A ticket to the Peradiniya Botanical Gardens costs twenty times more for foreigners than it does for locals. But I’d have paid twenty times that inflated rate for a stroll around. It is glorious.

Our trip to Kandy coincided with Poya, a national no-booze-allowed religious holiday and the climax of the Esala Perehera, a festival of the sacred tooth relic that was brought from India many moons ago and is housed in a large Buddhist temple. Basically, many thousands of dancers and a couple of hundred elephants dress up to the nines and slowly parade their way down the main drag. It was quite a spectacle and after watching men walk barefoot across hot coals we enjoyed a fine dinner in the wonderfully colonial and broken down but still resplendent Queen’s Hotel, sipped some scotch from my hip-flask and then got stuck into the action along with tens of thousands of other spectators.

I was too much of a cheapskate to fork out 100 pounds for the privilege of two seats on the side of the road so mum and I pushed our way through the crowds, waited and waited for the procession to begin and, once we felt we had seen enough of it, decided to make a bee-line for Hemadasa’s fine maroon Nissan sedan. But there was a catch. We were stuck on the wrong side of the road and the numerous police on duty wouldn’t let us cross it. Three hours later at 11pm we hadn’t moved an inch, our feet ached and there was no end in sight to the string of elephants and dancers coming from the darkness beyond the temple. We risked all and made a break for it, bravely dodging our way through fire dancers, men spinning plates atop poles on their heads, large splodges of animal droppings and even a terrifying five-legged elephant. For many onlookers, seeing us running the gauntlet it must have been the highlight of their parade. The police were not impressed but we hopped into our getaway car and were soundly asleep before the festival was over.

The white sand and blue water of the North-East coast beaches allowed us a taste of the good life and a cosy Italian-owned and run guest house on the beach kept our bodies rested and our stomachs full. A new highway has been built that way and it was most enjoyable watching a jittery Hemadasa refuse to drive faster than 40 miles an hour – clearly these fellows are used to non-stop traffic as he had no notion of putting pedal to metal.

The final of this limp tri-series was over-subscribed. If Sri Lanka hadn’t made it to the final, no-one would have come. But they seemed to have the gods (and umpires?) on their side and the 16,800 capacity stadium easily fitted in about 30,000 fans, half of them stinking of arrack and falling on my dear mum in the stands. She had Hemadasa on standby but stuck it through to the end, despite my advice to get away ahead of the crowds. God knows I’d have left when India were 100 for 5 chasing 300 if I had had the option! But fortunately for me, I was able to watch South Africa beat Australia at Loftus Versveld in a nine-try, 75-point thriller. David Scot, a Lankan-based Kiwi, had it going on his laptop next to me in the press box as the inevitable was delayed out in the middle. Don’t ever employ anyone who likes sport if it is as easy as that to watch it live from your computer anywhere in the world!

So that’s a wrap from Sri Lanka. It was a pleasure to see Sehwag score a hundred in the penultimate match against New Zealand. Justice was done after he was denied one by a dirty trick a few matches ago against Sri Lanka. Dambulla is not a venue conducive to close ODI cricket – all six matches were horribly one-sided and there was little by way of entertainment for the masses. Dilshan’s century in the final boosted the home side to 299 in 50 overs and India weren’t going to chase that under lights. The Indian team is tired and I don’t fancy their stars to take the CLT20 by storm on bouncy pitches in South Africa.

Let’s hope the cricket administrators work out what to do with the 50-over game. And I hope it isn’t this new-fangled split-innings nonsense they are about to trial in Australia.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in August 2010, during the tri-series between Sri lanka, India and New Zealand.

The consummate series review

Three-Test series between top sides are a nonsense but India have given South Africa a great tussle and the fairest result prevailed as little could separate the two sides. But what would you have given to see a fourth Test at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth and a fifth at the Wanderers in Johannesburg? This series was super but it really had the makings of a classic.

It seemed unfair that Mahendra Dhoni lost yet another toss in Centurion and, after a week of record rainfall, the Indians were sent in to bat and dismissed for 136 in just over a session. It was an unfriendly welcome to a cloudy South Africa and the Proteas won the first of three Tests by an innings and then some.

In Durban, Graeme Smith again won a tasty bowl-first toss. India struggled to a meagre 205 all out but wicked spells from Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh saw the hosts fold for 131 all out in just over a session on the second day. India were back in the series and went on to win that Boxing Day Test by 87 runs, albeit with some thanks to a handful of controversial umpiring decisions.

The honours were even when the sides arrived in the fairest Cape and the Newlands faithful couldn’t have wished for a more closely fought battle. Dhoni asked the hosts to bat first, bowled them out for 362 and then managed 364 themselves. Of course, Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar made first-innings centuries, both saving their sides from mediocre tallies.

The terrific sold-out crowds watched the sunshine on the glorious Table Mountain and every 10 minutes a train choofed its way between the Railway Stand and the brewery. It was as wonderful as it always is.

As it always does, the cricket played with our hearts – nearly even tore them out. South Africa were winning when India were 28 for two and then India were when it was 106 for two. But the Gods had decided that no side should win this match and although India were reeling at 280 for eight, they somehow managed a lead.

All the while the good people who love this beautiful cricket stage got drunk in the pavilion, sunburnt on the grass embankment and fought for shade in the President’s Pavilion. They danced in neon pink leotards, proudly wore fake Hashim Amla beards in 40-degree Celsius temperatures and hurled verbal abuse at the verbally abusive Shantha Sreesanth.

When South Africa collapsed to 130 for six as they went about setting a second-innings target the heartbreak was palpable. It was India’s game to lose and Jacques Kallis partnered his good mate Mark Boucher to try and inch the Proteas up to 200-odd. But Boucher had been in a slump of form and Kallis had sustained a rib injury that was so painful he could hardly walk.

No doubt full of painkillers and anaesthetics, Kallis struggled on. Grimacing with each upper-body movement, playing dead on the floor when he couldn’t stand, he seemed an unlikely hero to deliver his side from crisis. When he got up after five minutes motionless on his back receiving treatment, I was the first to shout as loud as I could: “Come on, Jacques!” Another voice followed mine and then another and then a thousand others as we all felt a part of his brave endeavour. Country before rationality: never mind your health, Jacques – stay in, score runs, we need you.

Cometh the hour and in the fashion of Smith at Sydney or Edgbaston, the Samson-like batsman delivered the most Herculean of efforts and somehow amassed an unbeaten and chanceless century as South Africa batted for far longer than they should have done had they had any realistic aspiration of winning this match. They were all out with the last ball of the day, posting an unattainable target off 340 runs in the last day.

Boucher, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel had been hopeless with the bat of late but between them they gave their side 115 runs and delivered the series away from the Indians’ grasp and to complete safety. That Smith didn’t have 10 overs at an exhausted and demoralised India on the fourth evening seemed criminal but that is the nature of Test cricket these days – ensure you 100 percent can’t lose before you try to win.

Ten overs with the new ball on day four would have meant 20 overs with a new one at the end of day five and things may have turned out very differently. Instead the Indians batted out a tame draw and again South Africa let their opposition off the hook. It may have appeared an injustice to such a good series but nobody likes to lose and nobody deserved to win.

For so many of us it just doesn’t get better than the Newlands Test. The excitement we feel between the end of the Durban Test and the end of this one can possibly be compared to that of an Indian bride in the week leading up to and then the five days of her arranged wedding: she waits in anticipation of who the winner will be and is then overwhelmed by the enormous party where she can’t remember the names of all the familiar people that gather.

Some guests are excited, others sad, but they all attend as a matter of duty and pride. The hardest to describe is the feeling she experiences at its ending as she walks away exhausted and confused – vaguely aware of everything that happened but unable to fully remember it all.

And what will happen next? Well, nothing for nine months and then South Africa play their next Test series against Australia and everyone who gives a damn will have something else exciting to look forward to.

Unlike a limited-overs game that ends and we go home and put it somewhere in the back of our minds – a Test match is a beast that does not sleep until hands shake. It doesn’t end until it ends. When we wake up at three in the morning and see Sehwag smashing boundaries, when we park our cars or leave the ground, when we go to the loo and hear an eruption that is audible four kilometres away, it is still on. They talk about an absorbing day of a Test match but what they mean is an absorbing day in a series of five absorbing days that don’t end until the last player leaves the field.

But it is all over now. The party is over and the guests can go home. They will be back next year though – just about all of them anyway. From the ice cream salesman who shouts, “A lolly to make you jolly” and can tell you who won every schoolboy fixture this season, to the old couples who are so proud of their season tickets, to the enthusiastic fan under the Oaks whose tee-shirt exclaimed, “Sex, Drugs and Boerewors Roll”. They will all be back and so will I.

This article appeared on Cricket365 following the 2010/11 Test series between South Africa and India, which was drawn 1-1.