Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tall tales from Table Mountain

The debacle of the Fourth Test Match at The Wanderers, when England capitulated in a shameful fashion, rather clouds what up until that event had been a good tour in South Africa. Not one player, Collingwood as ever excepted, came away from Johannesburg with any credit at all. The surprise for me was that from what I saw at Newlands England had the momentum after a second great escape to add to their fine win at Kingsmead. The South African squad, officials and supporters were on the floor after Graham Onions played out that final over to save the third Test - but to their credit the Proteas came out fighting in the final Test and thoroughly deserved to tie the series.

With the great and the good

At Newlands I saw much of the match from the comfort of the Presidents’ Suite. Now before my loyal readers think that I have gone over to the other side and joined the free-loading cricket establishment let me explain. AndrĂ© Odendaal, the CEO of Western Province, is a cricket administrator of principle – a man who as a young student in Stellenbosch in the 1970s wrote a precocious and brilliant analysis of the venal consequences of apartheid on the game of cricket in South Africa. This was essential source material for me when I was writing my biography of John Shepherd who was the first black man to play first-class cricket in the Republic in that decade. AndrĂ© read the first draft of the relevant chapter and has subsequently been very supportive of the book. My wife and I were his guest at Newlands and this allowed me to rub shoulders with the “great and the good” of English and South African cricket. These are my impressions.

The ECB leadership was at Newlands en masse including the triumvirate of Giles Clarke, David Collier and Dennis Amiss. They sat together for some of the match prompting the thought "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" as they fiddled with their Blackberries whilst England’s bowlers burned and toiled under the ferocious third day sun. By lunch on the fourth day South Africa were 397/4 and gearing up for a declaration which they undoubtedly thought would give them ample time to bowl England out and win the match. This was the moment when Giles Clarke had to thank his hosts - which he did graciously whilst adding that he confidently expected England to bat until stumps on the fifth day and draw. There was a nervous laugh in the suite from those of us who thought that this was, to say the least, highly improbable - but Clarke added to his many talents that of prescient seer when England remarkably and courageously did exactly what he said they would. At the moment of triumph, as Onions survived the final ball of the match, Clarke stood and embraced Dennis Amiss – rather unconvincingly it has to be said, I don’t think that the two of them had had many “kissy, kissy” moments before.

Our Saffers and their Saffers

The company in the suite was hospitable, cosmopolitan and very interesting. At one point when Trott and Pietersen were (briefly) batting together I turned to another English guest and said “Well Robin it’s our Saffers against their Saffers again!” This prompted an elderly and genial Afrikaner sitting behind me to ask whether I knew where the England team stays when they are in South Africa. The answer, of course, is “with their parents!” – a good joke. The South-Africanisation of English cricket at County and International level was inevitably a subject for debate in Cape Town. Four of the England side were born in the Republic and have one South African parent – Strauss, Prior, Pietersen and Trott - and all could well have played for the Proteas if they had chosen to do so. The same applies to the talented wicket-keeper Craig Kieswetter who is half Scottish and is qualifying for England. It was the Kieswetter case I was keen to discuss and I had the opportunity to do this over lunch one day with the former Proteas vice-captain Craig Matthews who is now a South African selector. He told me that a firm approach was made by Cricket South Africa last year to Kieswetter to try and persuade him to choose the country of his birth and nationality rather than England – especially as Mark Boucher is reaching the end of his career and an opening is around the corner. But the young keeper has plumped for England and there is no doubt that one of the reasons is Cricket South Africa’s affirmative action policy. As Matthews put it if a decent non-white wicket-keeper emerges on the scene he would almost certainly get the nod ahead of Kieswetter. South Africa’s rule is that there must be at least four non-whites in every Proteas team. Matthews supports this affirmative action policy and thinks it is all too easy to blame this policy for the loss of cricketers like Pietersen and Trott to England. I agree with him and whilst there is an inevitable distortion to free selection consequent on the policy it is certain that without it fine players like Amla, Duminy and Prince might have struggled to get their chances. But as there is only one wicket-keeper in any side you can see why Kieswetter would rather take his chances in England - and who would blame him?

Divine intervention?

There was a distinctly ecclesiastical feel to the Presidents box at times during the Test with not just the local Rector an ever-present but a phalanx of bishops and even the Archbishop of Cape Town as well! But sadly I missed the most distinguished man of the cloth of all – the great Desmond Tutu was only there on the first day when I was with the hoi-polloi in the stands! The rector explained to me that cricket and the church are closely interlinked because both require enormous acts of faith from the congregation/spectators. As those final excruciating moments of the Test were underway I noticed that the Bishops were unusually quiet and asked them if they were interceding with the almighty to grant South Africa a wicket. I thought it inappropriate to remind them of the foolishness of this task because as we all know God is an Englishman!

Magnificent support

Andrew Strauss rightly paid tribute to the England supporters after the match and the Barmy Army and the rest were indeed magnificent. The attendance at Newlands was an all-time record for a Test match – bolstered by the thousands of England fans who had made the trip. Who says that Test cricket is dead? The leader of the Army Vic Flowers (aka Jimmy Saville) was as colourful as ever and even agreed to be photographed with Mrs B – a proud moment for her (see picture). The Waterfront was heaving every night and the Barmies had commandeered one of the pubs for their revels which were good-humoured and must have inflated the hostelry’s takings exponentially. I have seen the Army all around the cricket world, even in Karachi a couple of times, and they are a unique and valuable asset to England cricket. They need to be treated in a more grateful way by the ticket-issuing authorities in England – not least at Lord’s which could do with being a bit less stuffy!

And now for the rest of the cricket year…

England are still work in progress. But they have a good coach and an intelligent captain and, Jo’Burg notwithstanding, they have a good team ethic. England are within an ace or two of being a side that has a decent chance of defending “The Ashes” in Australia. Swann has been a revelation but a genuine fast bowler is needed to augment the swing and precision of Anderson, Broad, Onions and Sidebottom. And they still need to find a number 3 – Trott, Bell, and Collingwood are all good but middle order batsmen and Pietersen is a natural number 4. Perhaps Cooke or Strauss should drop down to three and we should bring in another, and preferably right-handed, opener? KP needs to find his form, of course, but after the year he has had I wouldn’t blame him for his less than sparkling tour of South Africa – although I wish he would eschew the IPL – some chance! But the core of a very good team is there and it is right for us to be optimistic.

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