South Africa Tour 2019/20
Don't Mess With Big Vern
It only seems hours since I was in New Zealand, but I was home long enough to catch the dreaded man-flu that has affected most of the country, including our Test squad.
Hacking and spluttering, I took off from Manchester Airport with Lufthansa to the Frankfurt hub. Most of the cabin must have been similarly afflicted judging by the amount of sniffling and coughing that was going on, I'm sure there must have been healthier sounding leper colonies back in the day.
Lufthansa did their best to make the flight exciting by leaving Manchester thirty minutes late, meaning a very sharp transfer needed at Frankfurt for the Johannesburg flight - and my connection was by no means the tightest on board. Apparently Lufthansa do this on a regular basis so their legendary German efficiency seems to be a thing of the past.
I did manage to catch the connection, where I enjoyed the misleadingly titled 'Premium Economy Service' during the 11 hour flight. Nothing 'premium' about it, really, a more accurate description would be 'Cattle class with a slightly bigger seat' but I suppose for marketing purposes that sounds a little clunky. The best I can say about it is, they got me here.
Customs at Johannesburg has improved out of all recognition since our first South African tour in 2004. A painless process through the airport, and onto the Gautrain for a half hour ride to Centurion. Being smart, I remembered to pack my Gautrain gold card from our last visit, which was promptly consigned to the bin on first use. It has been superseded by a newer version: which the station staff helpfully sold me as part of today's travel package despite only asking for a one-way ticket. Nevertheless, all for under a tenner.
By the time I unloaded at Centurion Gautrain station it was 11am, and the mercury had already reached 32. Fortunately the Protea Hotel is only 500 metres walk from the station and my rooms were ready on arrival. The suite I have been given is ridiculously opulent really, even Michael Atherton and/or David Lloyd would be satisfied, but when in Rome, eh? Rand fever must be setting in already!
The hotel is situated next to a fetid lake, which had given me some misgivings about booking it due to the mosquito risk, but pleasing to report some local efforts have been made to clean this up. Still more to be done however, and judging by the number of plastic bottles floating round the lake edges, Sky Ocean Rescue has not reached Centurion yet.
First job - collect match tickets for the Boxing Day Test.
For some reason I cannot recall - maybe I was pissed or hungover when I did the online booking - I had arranged to collect my set of tickets from a local Post Net outlet. It seems local geography is not my strong point, as I had selected an office three miles away from the hotel and much too far and dangerous to walk in these temperatures.
The hotel shuttle driver, Chadwick, was most helpful ferrying me to first, the wrong Post Net - he must be no good at geography either - then finally half an hour later to the correct one in the Lifestyle Centre.
The ticket collection process was typically Fred Karno's with a huge box of envelopes needing to be sorted through, in fact the whole episode was reminiscent of my first and only Barmy Army holiday in 2006/7 during the ill-fated and disorganised Ashes tour, which resulted in my being handed completely incorrect tickets and later, the Barmy Army going financially 'tits up'.
When my match tickets were finally located, these had to be signed for in triplicate, meanwhile poor Chadwick was hovering around outside in his shuttle in the crowded mall car park waiting patiently for me to exit. Thank goodness I printed my other ones off at home!
A couple of cricket surprises. First, Lancashire have signed BJ Watling as a batsman for nine county games next season, which is a mixed blessing as this gives rise to speculation about the future of Dane Vilas, last years Captain and Old Trafford superhero. Watling is a good accumulator of runs, but I doubt his signing will get many pulses racing - a bit like several years ago when Lancashire proudly announced they had 'signed McCullum' and it turned out to be Nathan.
Over here, in the warm up game at Benoni, there were first International centuries for Joe Denly, who appears to have brought his New Zealand form to Africa, and Olly 'another fine mess' Pope. Alas for Joe and Olly, this match has been downgraded from First Class due to England using thirteen players so their tons will not stand in the record books. I hope Richard's score book has a Second class compartment for this fixture as he, Edgbaston Steve and Worcester Mick have gone up to Benoni to take in the game.
So, what of Centurion? I won't gild the lily, the truth is there is not much to do here, cricket apart.
Arriving early to save on the flight cost, I have settled into a daily routine of rising early for breakfast and shopping in the nearby Centurion Mall, then getting third degree burns by the pool. With the odd medicinal glass of wine thrown in of course.
Every trip to the Mall brings a new experience. I wanted a birthday card for my mates youngest lad and in the end, finished up with an Afrikaans language one which the chap in the shop kindly translated.
No stamps for sale though. Where do I go for those? Maybe try the Post Office he suggests....an interesting concept. After wandering round the Mall for half an hour I find it on the lower level and despite it is still only 8.30am there is a large line of disgruntled customers queing for road tax.
I ask one of them if I am in the right queue, I only want a bloody stamp!
"A stamp? Well, I don't know. I haven't seen those for a while, do they still sell them!!"
Eventually, after twenty minutes, I am buzzed to a different counter position as the girl there can see I am a rather round block in a square hole, and the deal is eventually done - costing just over ten rand or 60p for overseas postage. Apart from the strangeness of South Africa it also seems that in order to work in a Post Office ANYWHERE the key attributes required are unhelpfulness and total lack of speed.
At least Premier League football is freely available here, I comforted myself, unlike New Zealand where it is uncommonly difficult to find and watch without mobile phone company defeating devices.
And so on Saturday I treated myself to Everton v Arsenal. Then, Newcastle v Crystal Palace. On Sunday, it was Watford v Manchester United.
Bloody hell, I wish I was back in New Zealand.
During Sunday afternoon I ran into Howzat Bob, who is once again acting as tour rep, here to scope out the terrain. It sounds as if the Protea Hotel is going to get quite busy on Christmas Eve, with the main bulk of Howzatters due. The sister hotel just up the lake which Howzat were also intending to use was flooded two weeks ago and is out of commission, meaning an even greater occupancy level at our place.
It will be a small miracle if the hotel staff come close to coping. I have offered to provide music from the poolside on my boombar when the Howzat coaches rock up - "We gotta get out of this place" and "I predict a riot" should go down a treat as the ill-equipped and slow reception here try to deal with loads of hot, sweaty, tired Brits, including our pal Lofty, gagging to get into their rooms en-masse. I might try to sell ringside seats!
On Monday, the first familiar arrivals. Richard and Edgbaston Steve direct from Benoni together with Worcester Mick, who was straight out onto the viewing patio with his twitching binoculars in the hope of spotting a few nice birds!
We all dined together that night at O' Galito in the Mall along with two of their Howzat colleagues.
A very pleasant meal and hardly a complaint to be heard about events in Benoni - apart from the man flu affecting our squad, the game being downgraded, the game being halted for bad light, rain, and lightning at various stages, and an indecently early finish. Apparently the teams shook hands half way though the last afternoon and walked off the field. Richard was not impressed - Yorkshiremen demand full value for money even when the admission is free! The guys did say that Jimmy Anderson looked fit and back to his best which is a great relief to everyone I'm sure.
Christmas Eve, and more familiar arrivals. Robbo, in a rather dazed condition at around 9am. Lofty slightly later. By early afternoon, the pool area was a Cricket Tour rogues gallery and it is obvious that a large continent of Barmy Army are here in addition to Howzat and the freelancers. A small group of these people, not anyone we knew, got incredibly drunk during the evening and became very tiresome and aggressive at the bar late on. A pity the Barmies do not vet their membership in the same way as the Addis Army.
As for our night, Lofty and I headed out to the Little Britain pub with Craig from Yorkshire (of 'Who the Fuck are Lancashire' tee shirt fame) and his two pals Charlie and Tom.
A pleasant evening putting the UK North/South divide to rights - Craig is a steelworker at Stocksbridge and takes few prisoners! The evening became protracted when we returned at last to the hotel, with further drinks along with Redcar, sorry, Bluecar, Dave and James, a lovely friendly chap again from Yorkshire, here on tour in a group of two families whose number include several lads signed up to the Yorkshire Cricket Academy - who were having a ball on the beer despite their very young ages!
The night ended at 1am for me, Lofty having turned in two hours earlier. From what I recall, my beer count included several Windhoek lager, half a bottle of red wine with our meal, Polish vodka back at the hotel until the 'drink me' label on the bottle fell off as it emptied and Smirnoff vodka as a replacement nightcap.
A rough start to Xmas Day then, but not much on the agenda as everywhere is closed!
I spent the bulk of the day getting redder by the pool and recovering. The Yorkshire lads produced a rugby ball and proceeded to hurl this around in the swimming pool until being shouted at and told to 'STOP SPLASHING!!' by a cricketing lady (not Posh Margaret!) who shall remain nameless.
During the day another incredible example of the small world phenomena.
James introduced me to another of the fathers in his group, Dave Weston.
As we talked it became apparent that Dave had played cricket in New Zealand years ago for none other than Nae Nae of Wellington and knew my pals there - Nick, Block, and Baz.
A message and photo were immediately sent to Nick and the two are now in touch again after some years it seems. The 'Huddersfield' connection strikes again and it is uncanny that so many people I meet on tour everywhere in the world seem to have a link with this relatively small cricket club from the Hutt!
Lofty attended the Howzat organised Xmas meal at Irene Lodge several miles away, which included a talk by ex-Somerset player Vic Marks. I gather he used the opportunity to plug his latest book, called "Out of the Hundred Closet with Welsh Fire!"
Lofty informed me that when his group returned to our hotel hoping for Happy Hour drinks, the carnage and mayhem at the understaffed bar was so bad, that in the end he, Steve, Richard and Mick gave up and went beerless. I didn't bother going down there - with hindsight this sounds like a decent call.
At last Boxing Day dawned. Supersport Park is situated 1.7km away and there are two ways to walk to it. Our hotel staff have warned that one way is potentially dangerous and the other potentially lethal, in fact they have basically discouraged any walking about outside at all apart from visits to the Mall, which is virtually next door. Personally, I think this is overcautious baloney and they are just covering their arses in the hope there will be no incidents involving their guests with all the paperwork that would result.
This paranoia does not sit comfortably with me at all, and I am feeling increasingly trapped in a (very comfortable) cage.
On the morning of the game I wondered how the Hotel courtesy bus would manage to ferry the hundreds of guests to the cricket ground, but fair play to the Protea, who have laid on a small fleet of people carriers for the job, and I actually arrived inside Supersport Park before the Howzat coach! My main reason for not walking was the heat, not fear of an incident - it has been absolutely perishing today, up to 33 degrees at times.
The ground is a well organised facility with a large grandstand, grass banking, and lots of private boxes atop the banks which were populated mainly by people on the pop rather than cricket enthusiasts. Behind the end that Broad would open the bowling, a huge sign sat on top of the sight screen reading simply, 'Momentum'. I wondered with a giggle whether this was sponsored by the UK Labour Party.
England won the toss, and inserted South Africa. God only knows why.
On a hot day like this, with no spinner in the team, I bet Messrs Broad, Anderson and co. were absolutely thrilled about that decision.
It wasn't long before the first casualty of the day.
Just as play was about to start, a pony-tailed cameraman fell over the boundary rope and went down in agony like a Premiership footballer - real agony though, in this man's case. As a stretcher was brought round by the England support staff there was some conjecture by two Saffers sat behind me as to whether the poor guy was a Pom or a local.
"Do people wear their hair like that in England?" they asked.
"No" I said. "Apart from a few professional wrestlers and Status Quo. I think he must be one of yours!"
When play eventually started late, Dean Elgar sparred at a legside delivery from Anderson and was caught behind. A wicket very first ball for Jimmy, followed by a hearty 'Jerusalem' from the Barmy Army. No Billy the trumpeter, but they are clearly here in much greater numbers than New Zealand, lured no doubt by the sunshine and ludicrously cheap beer.
Aiden Markram played a few attacking shots but inevitably the loose one came and he chipped Curran to Bairstow. 32-2.
New test player Hamza looked impressive but was snapped up by Stokes off Broad, and as further wickets fell South Africa appeared in a world of trouble after a number of poor shots at 111-5. However we are talking England here, and an aggressive partnership between De Kock and Pretorius threatened to take the game away from us. Young Sam Curran to the rescue and he had Pretorius caught in the slips just after tea.
Both the fans and the players were flagging in the heat by now, and as the sun moved around, the scramble in the grandstand began to occupy any empty seats in the shade. Out on the pitch the bowlers were visibly tiring, in fact they looked absolutely fucked, and I felt extremely sorry for Anderson and Broad especially.
Joe Root seemed to be flogging our two oldest and most successful bowlers to death, having bowled just four overs of absolute filth himself as a 'spin' option.
The enigma that is Jofra Archer remained wicketless for most of the day and also gave away more runs than most of the other bowlers. He is just carrying on his ineffectual New Zealand form for me, and on days like this when energy and runs need to be conserved, Jofra is an absolute luxury - one that I do not think we can afford.
There was no variety after tea, and no plan B, although Joe Denly did come on for three economical overs that conceded 4 as opposed to Root's earlier four overs for 26. As in New Zealand, it is a complete mystery to me why Denly falls behind Root in the bowling pecking order.
De Kock continued to score quickly in the final session, ably assisted by Big Vern Philander, playing in his last Test series. At one point, some locals on the grass bank got a raucous Mexican wave going, and the Saffer behind me chirped up.
"Whaai, when your team is batting well, would you start a Mexican wave?"
"Because most of your fans in this ground are only here for the beer and know fuck all about cricket" I helpfully responded.
Although Curran had De Kock heartbreakingly caught behind for 95, the SA tail enders continued to accumulate runs and at stumps the score stood at 277-9.
Full marks to Sam Curran for his four wickets, and full marks to Jimmy and Broady for soldiering on through that heat. Jofra did finally get a wicket, Maharaj the tail ender, but I have to conclude his performance was once again very disappointing, as was Root's captaincy. The fielding, however, was spirited and skilled all day and once again in that heat the lads deserve a pat on the back.
And so to day two. My travel plans included a bet that this Test would not last five days - I travel to Simons Town on the 30th January to avoid the Cape Town New Years Eve airport chaos. What a belting gamble - I wish I was as good on the horses!
It took just eight minutes for England to clean up the last wicket and by 10.18am Rory Burns and Dom Sibley were striding out to the wicket. By 11am both were back in the pavilion for single figure scores.
After an attempt to improve the quality of my ticket via the Main Ticket Office and then the Supervisor of Administration - I was ostensibly sat on row C, in full sun all day - I was sneakily advised to seek a little corner at the top of the Grandstand next to the sight screen. Apparently, I was told, a few rows up here were members seats and not subject to ticket sale, the implication being I should be okay sat here.
So I blagged my way past the officious ticket checkers on the gangway and perched quietly in one of these excellent seats, trying to be unobtrusive, like Gollum in his cave.
The strategy worked for an hour, until a group of fat Gullivers tourists turned up with tickets to turf me out. Moving along the row didn't help much, as these fatties also had ants in their pants and kept getting up every five minutes to squeeze past me - presumably to purchase further calories in some form or other.
Spotting Nigel and Helen a few rows below, I moved down for a pleasant hour with them. In the meantime, Root and Denly were putting on a steady fifty stand with no signs of alarm.
When Root got out after lunch with the score on 70, there was still no sign of the trouble ahead. Stokes was hitting it well including two consecutive sixes off Maharaj, and Denly played well for fifty. When Denly was out on 142 the classic Keystone Kops England 'pathetic collapse' commenced.
The last seven wickets fell for just 39 runs either side of tea and I have to say watching this rubbish was as bad as almost anything I have seen over the past ten years. Speechless - or more like Shameless!
The obvious way to bat on this wicket is to get in, grind, then cash in and score your runs in the afternoon heat when the bowlers tire - like Denly. But no. Too difficult, that.
Instead, a series of absolutely crap shots.
Bairstow was out in his customary way, bowled through the gate for one.
The overrated Buttler nicked off for twelve when we needed a hundred. He might be MBE standard, but he's not Test standard, sorry.
The rest played iffy shots and were caught in various fashions, the most laughable being Broad, who simply ballooned the ball up into the air as if giving catching practice to a baby.
All out for just 181 off 53.2 overs. I am running out of derogatory phrases to describe the batting displays from this team. Maybe I should just quote John Warburton from BBC Sport Cricket:
"Why don't you just cut and paste the 'England Collapse' headline and reuse it for each Test?"
Big Vern Philander, who had already scored a useful 35 with the bat, appeared unplayable today. He took four wickets for just 16 runs off 14 overs. Compare that with Archer in our first bowl!
Our gallant and overworked bowlers tried their best to pull it back when South Africa batted again and took four wickets. Jofra took a couple of these but also blotted his copybook by bowling two beamers to the night watchman - for which he later had to go into the South African dressing room and apologize. However I think it will all be too little, too late. We are already in arrears by 175 runs with six South African wickets still in hand and looking down the barrel.
Joe Denly thinks England are in a good position, apparently. Maybe I should order a bong pipe and a big bag of whatever weed he smoked before issuing this pronouncement for myself.
As John McEnroe used to say, "You cannot be serious!"
Lofty did not turn up at the cricket today after our meal last night due to dodgy guts.
We are going to the same restaurant tonight, and I am going to attempt to exactly replicate his starter and main course from last night in the fervent hope that I too am bed and/or bog ridden in the morning and unable to watch any more of this garbage!
Although the above was actually written tongue in cheek, the Mozambique prawns I had eaten worked their Maputo magic during the night and morning of day three, with regular 'eye of a needle' visits to the toilet required.
Given the state of the Supersport Park public conveniences there was no way I was attempting to negotiate a day at the ground in this condition, so TV in my room it had to be. A great pity as I had a decent ticket in the shade today, for once.
Jos Buttler was awarded the MBE overnight in the New Years Honours list, which cannot be for any services to Lancashire County Cricket. Despite this, he was unable to play on Saturday, now suffering from unspecified sickness. The undecorated Jonny Bairstow resumed duties behind the stumps. Joe Root was also notable by his absence.
England were unable to take any wickets in the first hour, which had me making mental notes to order a double portion of Mozambique prawns at dinner with Lofty this evening.
A total sense of inertia seemed evident and judging by the size of the crowd quite a few people had decided to give the cricket a miss this morning.
A fifty stand between Van Der Dussen and night watchman Nortje - why can't our tail enders do this, coach? Jofra Archer bowls one of his infamous four-bye bouncers over the keepers head, followed by a cracking straight drive by Nortje. This is rapidly turning into torture. At drinks South Africa are 236 in front and I bet some of the England supporters are also in need of a strong drink watching this spectacle unfold.
Eventually a few wickets came, giving not hope but relief. Until De Kock came in that is.
Six after six - this is getting like a Hundred game. Just 125 runs for SA before lunch, then.
After lunch my system had dried out somewhat, so I decided to head down to the rugby club bar for a long postponed reunion with the 'gypo army'. PC Tintin, Tractor sisters one and two and baby Jos were all there, together with Tim their host and his lady. The adults were all wearing 'Corridor of Uncertainty' tee shirts in the midst of the Barmy Army lunchtime shift, and I understand these now retail at 300 Rand apiece - that's inflation for you!
Later we all went round to a complementary braii area that PC Tintin and Tractor had booked in order to griddle their gypo food. In the background, South Africa continued to flog the England bowlers around. Another 46 runs for Big Vern, who is having the game of his life.
When the SA innings finally ended I retired to my seat in the stand to watch England bat.
Shocks are absorbed better sat down with the knees bent, according to Christopher Lee's Lord Summerisle. There were only twenty minutes to go before tea - could we survive without losing a wicket?
Well, not just a shock but a major expectation trauma. England not only managed to bat undamaged till tea, but Sibley and Burns contrived to put on 92 for the first wicket. Sadly, Sibley then gave it away, presenting a simple return catch to Maharaj after all the hard work had been done.
However, a score of 121-1 at the close was better than anyone expected and gives us a peppercorn of optimism for tomorrow. It's noticeable that the pitch appears to be playing easier now, and the ball has 41 overs on it, so here's hoping. The record chase on this ground is in the region of 240 as I gather, so if England do manage to get 376 runs it will be classified as a minor miracle and our batsmen will become eligible for Sainthood, never mind the fucking New Years Honours List.
So, in hope but not expectation day four dawned. I couldn't believe the number of people I talked to that morning who SERIOUSLY thought England were going to win - regular readers probably know what I expected!!
A crap seat on row A today which I had no intention of sitting in. Instead, I went round to the grass bank creche area to find PC Tintin, the Tractor girls and baby Jos. All I found was a deserted, empty pram - with no sign of little Jos. Uncannily like 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'.
Assuming it must be nappy changing time for one or other of the gypo army, I went on a wander. First, I met big Jos Buttler MBE emerging from the nets, asked how he was, and he said he was feeling much better. Both Buttler and throwdown chief Collingwood kindly allowed me to take pictures.
Then, I met a young fella I see a bit at Old Trafford. Aaron plays cricket for Denton West (Home of the Stars) and has made the tour here on his own at just age 20 - his very first overseas trip.
Freddie, I'm sure you will agree that qualifies Aaron for Addis Army membership despite certain other people's flawed definitions!
Together we returned to the grass bank creche where the gypo party were now back in situ. PC Tintin kindly agreed to lend us his Ethiopian Airways towel to sit on - well, actually, we stole it while he was buying us both coffee.
The morning was relatively serene, until Burns got out for 84.
Even so, with only three wickets down, still a manageable position, everyone thought.
At lunch, PC Tintin, the Tractor girls and little Jos went up to the gypo griddle to cook their food. That caravan of theirs must be well stocked. Poaching, no doubt.
Aaron and I walked round the ground and bumped into Corridor of Uncertainly Clarkie, looking cool and of course with his usual supply of shirts and fanzines. After having bought both, together with a shirt for Lofty, we meandered towards the grandstand to assume our seats and then.....the absolute highlight of any lad's cricket tour!
Aaron nudges me. "See who that is, Al?"
He must have good eyes, our Aaron, because all I see is a large bloke about 7 feet tall in shades and a floppy hat.
"Don't you recognise him? It's Ed Miliband!"
Like a complete grockle, I ran after Ed and got a photo, taken by one of his young sons.
What a nice, friendly, nearly-Prime Minister. I never mentioned bacon butties, Momentum, the recent election or Jeremy Corbyn once....which is just as well, because he would probably have given me a well deserved slap from a dizzying height!
After promising Ed my vote if he outlaws the Hundred competition and impeaches the ECB, we found some seats in the grandstand and settled in for a thrilling finale.
The plan was to meet the gypo army group after tea back in the creche, but unfortunately England's batsmen scuppered that.
Another slideshow of disaster featuring entirely unwarranted T20 shots saw seven, count 'em seven, wickets fall for 64 runs, bringing the game to an entirely predictable and premature conclusion.
South Africa win by 107 runs.
Clearly , yet more questions need to be asked about this defeat.
I wonder if anyone has any remedy to our batting malaise?
Is the England team doctor administering the correct potions?
The whole team looked like refugees from an A and E Ward, and the decision to put South Africa in on the first day suggests mental disintegration bordering upon the need for certification.
The England doctor cannot be administering to South African cameramen, as the pony-tailed chap who was injured on the first morning was seen racing around on crutches during the post-match presentation. Maybe his name is Lazarus.
Selection needs a closer look. Archer is not performing - period.
Bairstow did not expect to play here to be fair, but he has done absolutely nothing to justify continued selection.
Otherwise, what more can I say that's not been said before.
Anyone know of a good night club for masochists in Saddleworth? I will get withdrawal symptoms from all this when I get back!
I fly to Cape Town in the morning so at least that has panned out correctly.
The next diary might be a challenge as I have no match tickets, the game is a sell-out, and in addition to this slight problem, I gather the train line from Simon's Town (where I am staying) to Newlands is even less efficient than Northern Rail, but a lot more dangerous!
I will see what I can do, but please don't blame me if I go to the beach instead.