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Week 3





March 19, 2017

Cricketers LOVE an unscheduled day off on tour. I mean, really love them. Not only is it a 24-hour reminder that they have done well, but they are free to do whatever they like because there are no commitments to media, sponsors, management…or anything else.

Not only was it a Sunday but the weather was glorious. Wellington is one the world’s most beautiful harbour cities and the Proteas players were spotted all over it, strolling, shopping, snacking at the international food market on the Waterfront or doing a bit of photography.

And this wasn’t just a 24-hour ‘freebie’ either, of course, because they get to do it all over again on Monday, having won in three days.

An old friend once told me, “There’s only one thing better than owning a boat, and that’s having a friend who owns one.” You get to go out on the water without having to worry about fuel, maintenance, berthing or having a skipper’s licence. Just arrive on time with supplies for the day.

Or, you can get even luckier and meet someone who owns a boat!

We anchored just off an uninhabited island, which was used as a prisoner-of-war camp for everyone holding a German or Japanese passport during the Second World War, and is now used as a quarantine centre for anything organic and non-native, which somebody wants to introduce to the country. Goodness knows what tests are performed on an immigrant tree – or how it passes.

The yacht, obviously, had a gas braai and, even more obviously, our host had lamb cutlets in the fridge as well as cold beers and a bottle or two of pinot gris. It was a tough day. It is not only cricketers who love a day off on tour.

 


March 18, 2017

Misery and dejection among New Zealand supporters was palpable all around the ground. The crowd for Saturday was even larger than the impressive numbers that turned out for the first two days, and they were convinced the home side would fight their way back into the test match.

It is fair to say none of them – not even those with a strong or even fading connection to South Africa – had contemplated the possibility that the game might be concluded today.

At first, there was mirth and the sort of dark humour that Kiwis are good at. Morne Morkel matched his highest test score of 40 and then blew away the first three wickets well before the deficit of 91 had been erased, at which point the stunned calm of the Basin was pierced with the bellow of a well-bearded man: “Hey, Morkel, you’re ruining a bloody good game of cricket!”

Keshav Maharaj took the next two wickets with the Black Caps still in arrears and the humour had all but disappeared. Just 24 hours earlier New Zealanders were justifiably dreaming of winning a test series against South Africa for the first time, at the 16th attempt.

The tourists had crashed to 94-6, still 176 runs behind New Zealand’s first innings. They believed they were just one wicket away from earning themselves a match-winning lead. The bowling disciplines exploded in their desperation to enforce the winning position and, as a result, Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma were able to resurrect a potentially fatal situation.

“Once again we showed the depth of our team,” Du Plessis said after a remarkable victory. “Time and time again different people show up when we need them to. Keshav is amazing to have as a captain because he offers such an amount of control. You know that he is going to strangle the batting team from one end. Obviously nine wickets are useful, too,” Du Plessis said, to considerable laughter.

Kane Williamson struggled to understand, yet alone explain his team’s capitulation to the South African spinners on a pitch that offered them almost nothing, except when they landed in the bowlers’ foot-marks wide outside the stumps. Maharaj and Duminy claimed 12 of the 20 wickets to fall. “It was poor on our part. I don’t know why that happened. But it’s something we will have to look at ahead of the third test in Hamilton.”

Ironically, New Zealand’s pre-tour plan was to prepare ‘flat’ pitches for seamers, which would favour spinners. That strategy is now looking slightly embarrassing, given the Basin Reserve result. Even very embarrassing.

With the four scheduled days off between tests now having become six days, the Proteas are busy exploring options. Deep-sea fishing, fly-fishing for trout, golf, wine farms, waterfalls…the list of options is long. And tempting. Many will opt to spend the extra 48 hours doing very little. Wellington has a stunning waterfront and bustling, fascinating city centre.

Staying in bed until 15 minutes before the breakfast buffet closes and then strolling around the city for a couple of hours shopping would seem a reasonable reward for winning a test in three days, especially for those who haven’t been here before.

I hope to change my flights, however, and disappear deeper into the country. For which I thank Faf and his team.


March 17, 2017

The majority of the most exciting moments in sport involve an underdog prevailing and something completely unexpected happening.

A tenth-wicket partnership of substance invariably involves both and so, as Kiwi hearts and hopes sank lower and lower, South Africans were cock-a-hoop as Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander fashioned an unbroken stand of 47 just as the Black Caps were preparing to bat again.

Even early risers in South Africa may have missed the start of the partnership, having decided to make a coffee or get ready for the work and the school run, but if you did there was a classic moment of ‘communication’ between the bowlers at the very beginning when Philander refused to run a single with Morkel, having pushed the ball into a gaping space at cover.

Morkel restrained himself with the run but not once the umpire had called ‘over’. He marched purposefully towards his partner and animatedly asked what was going on.

Let’s not forget a few facts: Morkel may be batting at number 11 here but he has opened the batting in a test match. He has first-class half centuries to his credit. He has a share in a century partnership in a test match. And his nickname is, after all, ‘Haydos’ (after Matthew Hayden).

The conversation lasted just long enough to become mildly uncomfortable, with the big man making an open-palmed gesture and then pointing his right index finger, as well as you can in a batting glove, at his partner.

Duly chastened, Philander immediately took a single off the first ball of the over he had wanted to face and allowed Morkel to bat – which he did, and extremely well.

It was brilliant, and certainly memorable. Although they were the enduring memory of the day as the Proteas hauled themselves from 95-6 to 347-9 and a lead of 81, the ‘real’ heroes of the day for the tourists were Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock.

South African teams spent much of the 1990s recovering from top order collapses. It became such a common occurrence that selection convener Peter Pollock referred to it as the "80-4 syndrome".

Dave Richardson was often at the heart of the recoveries but all of the lower order were expected to be able to contribute.

Rarely, however, has a Proteas team had two players at six and seven with such a consistent and reliable ability to score runs when they are desperately needed.

It is early days in their careers but if they continue to prosper as much as they have when the team needs them most, the future of top order collapses looks bright indeed.

De Kock averages almost 50 – Bavuma just above 30. There is no problem with the first one but Bavuma may need a new scale of measuring batting worth to be invented.

The value of his runs is far greater than the quality or quantity of them. Fellow commentator and former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney tested the pitch this morning and declared it: “Perfect for batting and becoming better,” which means this test might have a long way to run despite 19 wickets falling on the first two days.

Some old faces have graced this test match in the Basin Reserve Long Room. John Reid and Bob Blair from the famous 1953 side which toured South Africa and many members of the public, one of whom brought a tour programme from 10 years earlier.

With play starting at 11:00am each morning there is plenty of time to explore and go to the gym. How about this for a view?

 

March 16, 2017

JP Duminy has endured a mysteriously bleak tour with the bat. Form is a capricious beast but surely it had no right to desert him so ruthlessly down here after so many fine innings earlier in the season.

Nonetheless, it can often be persuaded to return with unfamiliar bait – a run out, a great catch or, in Duminy’s case, something far more substantial. A career-best bowling performance of 4-47. He was always a 95 per cent starter for the test match but was also the subject of the only, brief, selection conversation when consideration was momentarily given to including Wayne Parnell or Duanne Olivier as an extra bowling option in Duminy’s place.

With the loss of both openers shortly before the close of play, Duminy will be the next batsman in on the second day and I fancy his chances of contributing significantly. 268 all out was a hundred runs below par on a pitch drying and flattening by the hour and the second day represents a golden opportunity for Amla, Duminy, Du Plessis and Bavuma to play a series-deciding innings.

Betting men and women may like to explore the odds on night watchman Kagiso Rabada scoring his maiden half century. He takes his batting very seriously and, if he can survive the first hour, he could flourish – albeit at a gentle pace. Actually, if anyone cares to offer me 5-1 then I’ll take R100 on it happening.

It was a rare, calm day at the Basin Reserve and temperatures soared to 20 degrees, encouraging spectators to buy last-minute tickets and take advantage of the autumn sun. Wellingtonians admit that their weather can be a challenge for much of the year but, understandably, claim that “when it’s right there’s nothing in the world to beat it.” They are referring to the cleanliness of the air and deep blue of the sky.

You will see, from time to time if you are watching the television production, the William Wakefield memorial monument in the middle of the largest grass bank. It is cast iron, made in England, but in the fashion of a Greek water fountain. Wakefield is regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern New Zealand. All well and good. Scratch beneath the surface and his background is not quite that of benevolent benefactor.

Convicted of abducting a wealthy heiress along with his brother, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, at the age of 26, William was sentenced to three years in prison after which he joined the British Foreign Legion and rose to the rank of colonel. Edward, meanwhile, found himself in charge of colonising New Zealand – and appointed William as ‘first agent’.

William arrived on the first boat, The Tory, in 1839 and promptly negotiated a “much debated” acquisition of the land that is now Wellington from local Maori. That is according to the plaque alongside the monument. He remained the “de facto” leader of the new settlement until his death in 1848, at the age of 47. It appears to have been a hell of a comeback for a kidnapper.

Local sentiment suggests there is no such comeback in the offing for the Black Caps on the second day with widespread opinion that South Africa will find a way to score 400+. It is quite possible to see that happening. It is equally possible to see South Africa more or less matching New Zealand’s total, leaving us with another evenly contested match, as it was in Dunedin, heading into the final two days.

But I’d go with the Proteas at this stage. Rabada 40, Amla 40, Duminy 60, Du Plessis 80, Bavuma 50… it all adds up to 400+. Scoreboard pressure? No, not really. The Basin Reserve has a history of enormous fourth innings. Nothing will be enough.


March 15, 2017

Last night the Wellington Wanderers Cricket Club held a charity fundraising cocktail party, as they do every year before the Basin Reserve test match. It is usually very well attended and invariably involves a celebrity guest being interviewed or giving a speech.

This year, by way of a change, they combined forces with the JP21 Project and split the money raised with JP Duminy’s wonderful charity, which is so successfully reintroducing cricket to primary schools in Strandfontein and surrounding areas. In just three years they have increased the number of schools playing cricket from just four to 35.

Kepler Wessels and JP were brilliant interviewees, full of humour, knowledge and insight. The usual round of autographed bats and shirts raised several thousand dollars but the bombshell of the evening came from the directors of Wellington’s most prestigious high school, Scots College.

Touched by Duminy’s commitment to change for a brighter future, the college donated a five-year scholarship to a boy of the Project’s choosing, full tuition and full board. It’s value – NZ$200 000, or about R2 million. It represents not just an extraordinary opportunity but the generosity of this country. It is also a daunting prospect, of course, high school on the other side of the world. Goodness knows how the recipient will be chosen. And whether he will become a Kiwi or remain a South African!

 

Had a fabulous run to the top of Wellington’s Mount Vic ‘lookout’ this morning. A bit like going up Table Mountain for the first time, you get a sense of perspective on the layout of the city, which is impossible from the narrow, winding streets below. It was the first time I’d seen the airport from above. Built on reclaimed land in what is effectively a wind tunnel in a city that experiences, on average, 170 days per years of gale force winds, it’s no wonder the landing is so precarious, so often!

Finally, the sun came out and the pitch at the Basin Reserve was uncovered and allowed to breathe for the first time in six days. It is green and under-prepared. Faf likes to bat first, so much so that he was the first captain to do so after winning the toss in 22 tests last week in Dunedin.

I suspect he may let his bowlers loose on this one if the coin lands in his favour again tomorrow….


March 14, 2017

Temba Bavuma has a quiet, witty sense of humour. He spoke to the local NZ media with a calm, measured tone today but the moments of mirth were not too far away. And he handled the really obvious questions well. Like whether the weather was disappointing on the last day in Dunedin.

“We were looking forward to winning the game and felt like we’d done enough to get ourselves into a position to do that,” he said.

New Zealand conditions? “Pretty different to what I’m used to, but as expected, as I was told - low bounce.”

What about Neil Broom replacing Ross Taylor in the NZ middle order?

“Luckily I’m not a bowler so I won’t have to cope with him, but we’ll have our plans for him”

Your own form?

“I’m definitely getting my batting rhythm back – happy to get into some form because it has been a lean time for me. I can’t be happy with 50s and 60s but I’ll take the confidence I got in Dunedin and bring it to Wellington,” Bavuma said.

A career batting average in the low 30s does no justice to his contributions at critical times in his fledgling Proteas life, but he makes no excuses.

“Stats are a big part of cricket, especially as a batter, but that’s how you are judged. My mentality is to contribute to the team but there’s a fine balance between doing that and looking after your numbers. That’s been the biggest frustration of my international career so far – I can take some solace from the fact that the team has been in a good space but I need to make sure my record reflects that,” he said.

Asked again about conditions, he confirmed that he did not, routinely, look at the pitch before a game: “You need to assess it quickly when you are batting or bowling on it. We need to assess it quickly on Thursday, quicker than we did in Dunedin, so that we can throw the first punch,” Bavuma said.

But it wasn’t he pitch that worried the pocket-dynamo. It was the wind: “For a guy like me, with my weight, I might need to field with bricks in my pockets.”

Was his experience of New Zealand different to his time in Australia?

“Yes, it is. In Australia people are quite aggressive and in your face, whereas here it’s more of a battle of skill out in the middle.”

Meanwhile, Basin Reserve head groundsman Hegan Faith is battling to pretend that he has retained any faith about the pitch for the test, which starts on Thursday:

“We’re just praying for this misty rain to disappear so we can lift the covers and see where we’re at. We haven’t seen the wicket since Friday afternoon so it’s a bit of a guessing game at this stage,” Faith said. “We’ve been forecast southerly winds and that means very minimal drying. We’re just trying to produce the best pitch we can, it’s been pretty hard going and the weather keeps playing tricks with us.”

Faith has only recently been placed in charge after eight years on the Basin Reserve staff and his third test pitch as head curator looks like being as problematic for the home side as his first two. Against Australia last season it offered plenty of seam movement for the first two sessions – in which New Zealand were bowled out for 183 – and then flattened out for the tourists to amass 563.

Against Bangladesh earlier this summer it started flat – and became flatter as the tourists posted 595 and yet still managed to lose.

“In first-class cricket a lot of matches have gone down to the final session on the final day but we haven’t had a lot of heat so there will be some green. If you look at recent results, it has been a bowl-first wicket but the team batting first has come up with the chocolates as well sometimes. It doesn’t necessarily come down to who wins the toss.”


March 13, 2017

Both teams were on the 10:25am flight from Dunedin to Wellington and several were happy to crossover at the departure terminal coffee shop. Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj having coffee with Neil Wagner and Trent Boult. What’s not to love about that? Give it everything on the field, have a word or two, but don’t add unnecessary baggage to the necessary sort.

Flights into Wellington are famously hazardous. The wind pumps and the runway seems unusually short, not to mention the water surrounding it. Nobody with more than half a dozen arrivals has not experienced an aborted approach. It can be pretty hairy. Today, fortunately, it is just grey and drizzly. Although, even on a ‘calm’ day in this city, the aircraft feels and sounds like it’s sides are being hammered on the way in.

 

The Proteas are whisked away on arrival, as usual, while the Black Caps joined the throng to wait for, collect and wheel their bags away to the bus where they loaded it themselves. Make of that what you will. Probably nothing.

Morne Morkel was good enough to spend half an hour with us soon after arrival at the hotel and was magnificent value. If his engagement and humour could have been measured in bowling figures, he would have taken 6-21. Which is, in fact, what he did take last time he played a test in Wellington.

But the first question had to be about his decision to ‘scull’ a bottle of water to the rapturous chants of the Dunedin students while fielding at long leg.

“There were a couple of guys sculling their beers and I was in my fifth over and desperate for a drink, so I knew they would be on my case when I grabbed a bottle of water. I also knew that it was the best way to get them on my side, so I did it. I thought it was my last over but then Faf asked me for another one but I was too bloated – I said ‘Faffy, can you give me half an hour, please?’ Fortunately, Keshav took a wicket straight away so it worked out well for us,” he said.

Morkel became an instant legend among the Dunedin student community and will remain so for more years than he cares to imagine.

As for the game itself, he said, “I was a little bit nervous because I’ve only played two 50-over games in the last year, so 100 overs in the field was intimidating, but I’ve done so much conditioning work. I knew it would be cold and the muscles might be a problem, but I knew I couldn’t just try and cruise. It was a pity the wicket was on the slower side, but it was just nice to get the ball in hand.”

The apparently bizarre no-ball let-off, which saw Morkel claim the wicket of Jimmy Neesham when his front foot appeared to land over the line – to everyone but third umpire Rod Tucker – was laughed off. A bit. Had he bought Tucker a beer after the game?

“I have… no, I haven’t! When my toe landed there was a part of my heel behind the line… it was tight, much too tight, but it was a legal delivery and I’ll take it. Hundred-metre sprinters win titles by a photo frame so why should it be different for us. But I’m not happy with that margin and will try to sort it out,” Morkel said.

Finally, much has been made of the schoolboy rivalry/friendship between Dean Elgar and Neil Wagner. But what about Morkel?

“We were room-mates in his first game for the Titans against the Eagles, we have a great relationship. I’m so happy for him, so much respect. I saw a stat the other day that he already has nearly 120 test wickets, that’s amazing. We all saw how he bowls 11-12 spells… there is no sledging, nothing in Afrikaans between us. Just that he is Vaggner, not Wagner.”



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