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Week 10





Tuesday, August 8

Russell Domingo has one more press conference as national coach – unless the CSA Board are unable to secure Ottis Gibson as his successor – but if our chat with him after the final day of the Old Trafford Test was his penultimate media commitment, he should be more than satisfied with his conduct and honesty:

Q – Has it been difficult doing your job with your future uncertain?

A - All coaches work in that sort of environment. I’ve said this a few months ago, I could be fired the very next series. That’s just the nature of the job, you’ve got to focus on what you can control. I can’t control what meetings are taking place and what decisions need to be made. I’ve tried to give the team my best energy at all times, and tried to lead them as best I possibly can - that’s been my focus. It’s not been difficult.

Has the process been a bit unfair on you?

“It’s been a long time I suppose, hopefully there’ll be some finality in the next couple of days. I’m not sure what’s happening, but by all media accounts, from what I’m led to believe there is some process taking place at the moment, so we’ll wait and see when I get back home. It’s the life of a coach, what happens happens, I’ve got to try and find employment, I suppose once I’ve had discussions - which I’m assuming, from what I’m reading that my time is done, but that’s the way it is - but I need to find employment somewhere.

Q – Perhaps SA ‘A’ or Under 19s?

A - I’d like to stay in South African cricket, I’ve always said. I’ve got a young family, my roots are in South Africa, my family’s in South Africa, I want to stay in South Africa. Whichever level I coach at, that’s my job, that’s what I love doing and as long as I can play some part in South African cricket I’ll be glad to stay.

Q – Are you happy with the team, if you leave now, and can you assess your time as coach?

A – “It’s been tricky. I took over a side that was established, then lost a lot of players, went through dip, re-established some, lost a few players again...we sort of established something again, but then we lost Dale, Vernon and AB and that sets you back a little bit more. When you come up against quality sides like England, then you lose Abbot, you lose Rossouw, those holes can be hard to fill because as you can see (England) has a quality bowling attack - they have 800 wickets between the two opening bowlers, there’s depth in their batting, they are a tough side to beat. When you trying to find your feet with the test side and there are one or two guys playing their second and third tests, a couple of debutants, it’s a tough place for them to learn.

There are definite holes in the test side that needs bit a of attention, some tinkering which must take place. There’s a lot of learning we can take from this series. Whoever the coach is I’m sure he’d have highlighted a few areas we can improve on and hopefully we can do that over the next couple of months.

Q – What player options would you be considering?

A – “It’s hard to replace the type of cricketer we have lost. A guy like Kyle Abbott, like Vernon Philander who hasn’t played much, like Dale Steyn, AB….they’re seriously good cricketers. That’s just about 400 test matches (worth of experience), there’s a big gap between that and bring in three players in your top six and a young opening bowlers who might have 20 tests (between them). It will take a bit of time for those players to get to that level.

Q – What’s been your greatest challenge?

A – “I’ve loved my time, I didn’t see anything as a particular challenge, everything’s a challenge; the media, performance, public scrutiny...there’s a whole host of challenges, but that’s why you coach, you have to front up to them, face them and try and overcome them. I think, to a large degree, we have. There’s always room for improvement - I’m not sure where we are ranked now - but we were No 1 and 2 in one-dayers a few months ago. For a team that has a lot of challenges we’ve done okay.

Q – Why is SA no longer hard to bowl out?

A – “There’s a lot of inexperience in our batting line-up. If you take Root and Cook out of that England line-up, they are losing two massive players. It’s likes us losing AB de Villiers and Vernon Philander - they are two big players to replace. Hopefully, in time, that type of quality will come through in our batting line-up. At the moment it’s not there, in time to come those players if they are stuck with and invested in can become that type of player again.

Q – Test players for the future?

A – “I think Keshav is going to be the best spinner South Africa’s ever had. He’s fantastic, think of the roles he can fulfill - he’s got a tight hamstring, he’s got a big cut on his finger, but he keeps going, he’s a fantastic young bowler. He works really well with Claude. Temba Bavuma has shown so much promise. I honestly believe he’s got the technique to become one of South Africa’s best players, but you’ve got to persevere with him, you can’t just after 20 yests - because he’s averaging 30 get rid of him - you’ve got to invest in those types of players. You’ve got to give them time to develop. It’s easy to chop and change …. I was just listening to the commentary; Keaton Jennings got a hundred in India and Nasser Hussain, was saying ‘spectacular young player, what a talent he’ll be’ and four tests later they’re all questioning him. You’ve got to give players time to settle in and find their feet, because at the moment there’s a big step up from domestic cricket to international cricket.

Q – What are your thoughts about the impact of T20 Leagues and the GLT20

A – “It is a challenge, but it’s something South Africa needs to do. To make sure that you have some sort of control of your players, so they are not playing in the Caribbean League week in and week out or trying to play in the Big Bash. They’ll play in the IPL and they’ll play in our domestic T20 league - that’s sort of what you’re hoping for. It gives you a measure of control over your players in that particular period and a bit more reason to not go and play in the other leagues - bar the IPL, which they’ve got to play. It also provides an opportunity to develop some new players, just look what the IPL has done for India, the number of young players that have come through because they are playing with some great players. It’s a massive learning curve to play with some of those young players to play with old experienced players - there are massive benefits for them.

Q – What’s the first thing you going to do at home?

A – “I get home on Thursday, hopefully land in PE at 10:30am, have a cup of coffee with my wife and fetch my kids at school.

Q – The future of the national team?

A - “South Africa is fortunate that we will always produce good young cricketers because of our schooling system, the challenge is keeping the players within the system. Look at the number of players playing abroad, you could pick a pretty strong side from the players playing abroad. That’s the big challenge facing South African cricket...it’s about providing opportunities for all those players to feature in our system, somehow.”


Monday, August 7

Despite another brief flurry of hope, the end came in an even briefer flurry of despair.

England were so much better in the moments that mattered most and, despite Faf and Hash’s partnership of 123 for the fourth wicket, defeat rushed towards us faster than any rain-cloud even Manchester could muster. So many ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ but they are irrelevant now.

There are more and more statistics available with every season and certainly more than there ever used to be.

Morne Morkel, for example, beat the bat 91 times during the course of the series. But 11 of those were down the leg side (detailed analysis is more likely to be conducted by video experts than cricket experts) so ‘only’ 80 count as ‘proper’ play-and-miss events.

He finished with 19 wickets in the series, of which 10 were edged – and caught – in the cordon between the ‘keeper and gully. That’s a ratio of exactly 8:1. All seam and swing bowlers know how hard it is get one ball past the bat, but the thought of having to do so eight times for every time you hit the edge is more than a little eye-watering.

Morkel has been described as ‘unlucky’ for much of his career. There are a number of reasons for that, the first of which is that top order batsmen are often in self-preservation mode rather than run-scoring mode when facing him and therefore likely to make less mistakes than against other bowlers.

Another is that his natural back-of-a-length style means the seam movement is more exaggerated than from a fuller length and therefore more likely to go past the edge than hit it. Finally, Dale Steyn more often than not finished with a bagful while Morkel had scant reward.

It wasn’t an entirely empty reward for the big man to be named South Africa’s ‘man of the series’ by opposition coach Trevor Bayliss but, obviously, he would have preferred his 19 wickets to have made a more profound impact on the series.

“It’s been hard work so I’m definitely going to enjoy this tonight,” he said clutching his magnum of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

Bowlers need sufficient recovery time to be at their best and a full day with their feet up is greatly appreciated.

South Africa’s bowling attack were required to perform on 11 consecutive days during the test series after the first day of the second test at Trent Bridge.

More significantly, on all eight days of the back-to-back tests at the Oval and Old Trafford. It is a wretched indictment of the collective failure of the top six/seven.

Heino Kuhn earned and deserved his chance to open the batting for the Proteas. His courage in fielding with a damaged hamstring in both innings in order to be allowed to open the batting rather than spend time having treatment and being forced to bat at number sever is seriously commendable.

However, it leads to comments like the one former England captain Michael Vaughan made on commentary when Joe Root questioned an lbw decision which was declined.

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I’m really surprised England reviewed that – I mean, it’s Heino Kuhn, you don’t want to be wasting a review on him.”


Sunday, August 6

Each time South Africa threaten to fight their way back into the game just before the door is slammed shut for the final time, they have either dropped a vital catch or Moeen Ali has slapped a tiring bowling attack all over the ground to rip the advantage back England’s way. Or both. Together.

Moeen came to the crease at 134-6 with the lead at 270 and optimists still believing the Proteas could chase a target of under 300.

      

On 15 he edged Keshav Maharav low to slip when Dean Elgar grassed an ankle-trimmer. A few moments later, when the rain arrived, Moeen was 67 not out from 59 balls with eight fours and three sixes, and the game was properly gone.

At this stage there are only 2-3 hours of dry weather forecast for tomorrow, none for the fifth day. Forecasts change more rapidly in this part of the world than most others but, if it doesn’t and England are denied a victory, it will be daylight robbery.

Floodlight robbery, actually. Unfortunately, the Proteas have been thoroughly outplayed and do not deserve a draw.

This game will be remembered for the performance of James Anderson who took 4-38 from the pavilion end, which was officially renamed the ‘James Anderson End’ at the start of the match.

“Ever had an end named after you?” Graeme Smith was asked on radio commentary.

“No,” he replied, “and I’m not likely to. Maybe a cow corner.”

He’s not the only one who’s been teasing his own batting style. Sitting in the same commentary box, Geoffrey Boycott said: “I mean no disrespect to Graeme because he was a great player who scored a lot of runs, but he did bat like a crab – a very big crab.”

At one point during an outstanding Sky documentary on his career and captaincy, Herschelle Gibbs was asked which was his favourite Graeme Smith shot: “The cover drive through midwicket,” he replies.

It was a long day starting with a 7:45am call-time at the Sky studios and a train straight back to Manchester after the programme.

It says a little bit about the lack of (South African) highlights on the field in recent days that the most memorable moment of the day arrived with a recorded announcement in the train lavatory moments after I locked the door: “Ladies and gentlemen, please do no flush sanitary towels, paper towels, chewing gum, unpaid bills, your excess sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down the toilet.”


Saturday, August 5

Saturday is the ‘traditional’ fancy-dress day at test matches north of Lord’s. The further north you go, the more effort and imagination seems to go into the occasion.

I’m not sure if the post boxes are a regular request at fancy dress shops, but I suspect not, so a fair amount of industry was required to get these chaps attired for the day.

“Excuse me,” I said with a straight face to one of them while holding an envelope, “you wouldn’t happen to know where I can find a post box, would you?”

“Yes, I do,” he said helpfully, “there’s one at the end of Warwick Road, up there…” at which point his fellow post boxes burst into howls of laughter and my face was no longer straight. Goddim.

Many parts of Manchester have been redeveloped with a class and style not readily associated with the industrial history of the city but an early morning run around Salford Quays, no more than a couple of kilometres from Old Trafford, confirmed the beauty of the canal and dock area that was run down and neglected to the point of being a health hazard a few decades ago.

Even at 8am there were dozens of Manchester United pilgrims hovering around the stadium taking selfies and waiting for the merchandise Megastore to open. Apparently the average spend per person is over £100.

      

A few years ago the BBC decided (controversially according to the vast majority of its London-based staff) to relocate its headquarters right here. It’s a handsome place to work but, as I discovered after play, it’s not all that convenient to pop down to the capital for a party with your friends.

Although the train only takes 2:10 from Manchester Piccadilly to Euston, it’s the getting to and from the stations at each end which makes it hard work. Anyway, I’ve been asked to say my farewells and give my views on South Africa’s tour on Sky’s Sunday morning ‘Cricket Writers on TV’ programme.

As easy as it is to say it’s been a disaster, it’s important not to be too negative. There have been positives. I think. Haven’t there? OK, not many. Temba Bavuma has made strides and moved forward. Keshav Maharaj has caught everyone’s attention here.

The worst thing about today’s cricket that it wasn’t a day of missed opportunities. There is always consolation in creating opportunities but being unable to take them.

Today the Proteas backed off when Jonnie Bairstow started to counter-attack, conceded any chance they had of staying in contention in the test match – and then looked completely outclassed with the bat. It was a bleak, dispiriting day.

Sad to say.


Friday, August 4

It really hasn’t been Vernon Philander’s tour. It might have been had he remained fit and healthy because, when he has been on the field and bowling, he’s looked dangerous in every spell. But he hasn’t been fit or healthy.

There isn’t much he could have done about contracting a mysterious viral infection before The Oval test but sympathy was in short supply when he pulled out of the Old Trafford test at the last minute with back spasms.

There was a news fire burning in the hour before the test began when it was announced that both Philander and Chris Morris had been withdrawn from the XI with lower back problems.

Morris had not bowled for two days but was expected to recover with rest. Philander, not for the first time, was incapacitated with little warning.

Captains and coaches always have to be careful about expecting tea mates to play through the pain barrier – they all know their own bodies better than anyone else – but, rightly or wrongly, Philander has developed a reputation for having a lower pain threshold than average.

Graeme Smith once ‘persuaded’ Philander to play after he had declared himself unfit on the morning of the St George’s Park test against Australia three years ago. He bowled 26 overs in the game and claimed five wickets.

“Vern is struggling to get through a series at the moment and that makes it very difficult for the captain and the team to build the attack around him. Perhaps his body is not as fit as it could be, and he is still brilliant on his day – provided you can get him on the park and keep him there. But it puts a lot of pressure on the other bowlers having to bowl half of Vern’s overs as well as their own,” a frustrated Smith said.

It was an extraordinary day for Theunis de Bruyn who had absolutely no inclination that he might be playing in the test when he woke up in the morning – and yet found himself bowling a couple of overs before lunch.

It was an interesting day for Duanne Olivier, too, who claimed the ‘freebie’ wicket of Keaton Jennings in the morning session but then bowled a rotten over which cost 13 runs at a crucial stage of the match straight after lunch – and was promptly removed from the attack by Faf du Plessis.

Later, the captain brought him back into the attack but held onto the ball for a good minute as he gave his bowler a lengthy talk, which looked far more like a mini-bollocking than a pep talk.

Olivier responded with the wicket of Joe Root. No doubt we make too much of captaincy, but Du Plessis undoubtedly has a knack for it.

The other big news of the day were the stories that England’s Barbadian bowling coach, Ottis Gibson, has been either suggested or offered the position as Proteas coach, depending on which story you read. The England Cricket Board denied that CSA had made an official approach.

Suggestions that Gibson’s name came as a “shock” would not ring true with regular readers of these pages, of course, especially the Q&A sessions we have once a month.

In the last one, almost a month ago, I suggested that Gibson would be a good choice provided his contract situation with England could be managed. Either the important people didn’t read it, or they thought I’d been smoking something.

Tremendous day of test cricket, by the way. Busy news day doesn’t mean we can’t keep a keen eye on the game. I fancy 300 will be a very good total so, at 260 for six, I’d rather be in England’s situation than South Africa’s.


Thursday, August 3

It was after 7pm by the time I wandered over to ‘the’ Old Trafford. The skies were thunderougrey, it was cold and there was drizzle in the air. It felt like a Cape Town winter’s day. There were easily 50 tourists outside the main gate having their pictures taken and just ‘being there’. It’s the weirdest pilgrimage.

Terraced housing, a down-at-heel fish-and-chip shop, ‘The trafford’ pub which looks like it’s been shuttered and closed down. It’s hardly bon vivant curbside coffee cafes and wine bars. But that’s Manchester. I have a humble room equidistant from the soccer and cricket grounds, about 500 metres each way. A mouse greeted me in the shared bathroom shortly after arrival. It was only small. No harm done.

The English Cricket Writers Club took us out for dinner tonight at a new-age Indian restaurant in central Manchester. It was stunning. The CWC have a tradition established many years ago of entertaining the visiting media and paying the bill, too. It was far too generous. Each of them picked up a tab for 96 pounds which, even for well-paid national correspondents, was a bit steep. Perhaps we should have stopped ordering wine a bit earlier.

What a shocking off-field tour for Vernon Philander. Nothing is going right. Lacking match fitness in the first test, off the field for prolonged periods in the second, mystery viral infection in the third at The Oval which cost him the first three days (to all effective purpose) and now back spasms casting doubt on his participation in the fourth.

There is a strong, worrying and undeniable feeling that South Africans have already cast their glances forward to the next chapter of the year and the beginning of the new international and domestic season. England have retained the Basil d’Oliveira Trophy so there is nothing more than honour and pride at stake. The weather forecast is bleak at this stage with heavy rain forecast for Saturday and Monday. That could change, of course. It could rain on Sunday, too.

Hopefully the adrenalin of competition will kick in and we’ll finally have a closely contested test match to enjoy – perhaps even a consolation victory and the very real satisfaction of a series shared after what has been a deeply disappointing tour. But that may be hoping for a bit much. Having finally rediscovered how to play ‘tough’ test cricket at The Oval when conditions demanded it, England are highly unlikely to let slip their grasp of the series.


Wednesday, August 2

Mancunians are sick and tired about jokes concerning the weather in their city and often quote statistics which prove that it does not, in fact, rain more (or more often) in Manchester than the rest of the country. But there must be something behind the myth and reputation. Perhaps it just rains during high-profile cricket matches.

The groundstaff at Old Trafford have been working overtime for the last week to ensure the venue is fit and ready to stage the fourth test on Friday having (surprise, surprise) experienced “unseasonally heavy rain” over the last 10 days.

Drainage has been a problem at the stadium in recent years but everything, we are assured, has been done to keep play going as smoothly as possible in between showers.

Grey skies and muggy conditions will help the seamers on both sides but Vernon Philander, have endured a miserable test at the Oval where he was barely able to take the field have contracted a viral infection, will be the keenest to make amends for the disappointment of the game and the result.

“I’m a lot better and I’m feeling a lot more re-hydrated having lost a lot of fluid from top and bottom,” Philander said today. ”A night in hospital on a drip helped a lot but then it all came up again the next day but, all in all, I’m a lot more energised now.”

Philander is adamant that there are no excuses and no ‘bluffing’ about the nature of the defeat at the Oval.

“We’ve got an honesty policy within the side and it wasn’t our best performance – as players we take ownership and responsibility for our performances. We let ourselves down with the bat in the first innings and we are brutally honest about that. But we’re looking forward to correcting those mistakes and going level in the series at Old Trafford.”

The nature of the series has caught everyone by surprise. All three tests have been one-sided thrashings, the first and third to England, the second to South Africa.

“Hopefully the trend keeps going,” Philander said. “it’s been a roller-coaster and the margins of victory and defeat have reflected that. We’ve had a few hard chats and we take ownership of that.”

The current make-up of the XI, with Philander batting at number seven, suits him perfectly:

“Seven is ideal for me, I enjoy having a bit more time to bat, hopefully it brings a few more runs for me and the team. I’m enjoying it – it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

His main job is, and always has been, bowling with the new ball. And he was all too well aware of the absence his illness created.

“There was a link missing and I’m obviously quite an important part to the line-up so, having gone out there and bowled at maybe 70%, I could feel that my intensity was missed. But there are no excuses, we’ve had the hard chats and we need to step up on Friday.

“If we’d batted first I would have had an extra day to recover and would probably have been better for the rest of the test match but, unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. It got worse as the first three days went on,” Philander said.

So what was it? A virus or food poisoning?

“Either. It’s something I picked up or ate, according to the doctors, it could have been anything but that’s behind us and, fortunately. I’m feeling a lot better now.”


Tuesday, August 1

Travel day. And what a difference there is between all of us. Proteas and staff on a coach from London to Manchester, replete with tables, toilets and TVs. Card games, cups of coffee and even the occasional lie-down for the fast bowlers with dodgy backs.

The doughty traveller, Stuart Hess of the Independent Group, was on a train and the rest of the media gang were choosing between that option and another coach, albeit one considerably less comfortable than the Proteas’ version, and shared by lots of strangers.

For me it was goodbye for the final time to the deer of Richmond Park and a penultimate, meandering, slightly made-up journey on the backroads in the fourth-hand car I purchased for 400 pounds over two months ago.

I was sceptical at first, but she has done well over 4 000 miles without a murmur of complaint and is purring as smoothly as ever. We’re half-way there, girl. Manchester beckons. We can do it.

The Cotswolds appeared on the itinerary, somehow, and the land of composer Edward Elgar. The pub named in his honour seemed an appropriate place to grab some lunch in the aftermath of namesake Dean’s courageous, fighting century at The Oval.

      

England’s cricket-lovers, meanwhile, were once again agog at the brilliance of their team and especially Moeen Ali who is as popular as he is talented.

So popular and talented that he could share the front page of The Times with Donald Trump. The sublime and the ridiculous rarely so clearly and obviously defined.

English cricket is defined by the Ashes every two years, just as emphatically as South African cricket is defined by World Cups and other ICC events.

Englishmen are fascinated and anxious about the outcome of the fourth test, but more so because it may define the make-up of their team for the first test in Brisbane in November than for the outcome of the series here.

      


Monday, July 31

One of the great lies about test cricket is that you never select a player if there is any doubt about his fitness. Captains and coaches still talk about it now. “You can’t risk it for five days, you can’t let the whole team down if you break down and you’re out of the game for a couple of days.” That sort of thing.

If that was the case, Jacques Kallis might not have reached 100 tests, never mind 160 and AB de Villiers certainly wouldn’t have played 98 in a row. But when you’re as good as they are, of course you’re prepared to gamble.

Faf du Plessis exploded the myth after The Oval test by admitting that Vernon Philander’s mysterious viral infection had struck him down well before the test match started but that “you’re prepared to take him at 50 percent because he really is that good.”

“The plan was to win the toss and bat for the first day to give him a chance of recovering, but things didn’t work out that way,” the captain admitted, before, with typical honesty, explaining that the gamble continued to backfire.

“We really missed his overs on the first day in helpful bowling conditions. It was a great credit to the England top order that they only lost four wickets. I thought that their total of 350 was about 100 too many.”

So, picking an unwell Philander was a gamble and having him able to contribute so little on the first day contributed massively towards defeat. Where does that leave the “assumption” made by team management that whatever his illness was, it would clear up within 24 hours and he would get better? Just for the record, he ended up spending a night in hospital. Next time a vital player is experiencing a bit of vomiting and diarrhoea 24 hours before a test match, it might be worth not assuming that it’ll pass in 24 hours.

Actually, not wishing to question or contradict the captain, wasn’t the problem just as much as the inability of Rabada and Morris to capitalise on such helpful conditions? There is far too much talk of Morris and his ‘X factor.’ It is true that he bowled two of the best balls of the series to dismiss Root and Cook in the second innings at Trent Bridge, but he also went for over six an over at The Oval.

The words of assistant coach Adi Birrell yesterday have been rattling around my head. “We just have to accept that is the way Chris is.” Really? Surely an international test match bowler needs to be able to bowl line and length more consistently. Just as batsmen need to consolidate and put away their attacking shots when conditions become difficult, bowlers need to be able to bowl six overs for 15 and slow the game down. If they can’t then they are a gamble, and there are only so many gambles you can take in a team of XI players.

The other gamble was taking a week's holiday after the last test. Faf said the team “didn’t have the option” of playing a warm up game. It is CSA which approves the itinerary before the tour and, rest assured, in this country, there is ALWAYS a team ready and willing to provide the opposition and facilities for a game.


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