Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Second Test: England win by an innings and 98. Clinical. Strauss: Our best ever

CLINICAL. Ruthless. Emphatic. Words you wouldn't have associated with England's bumbling cricketers in the past. Words which spring to mind after this morning's innings and 98-run win over South Africa.
The second Test wrapped up by lunch-time. Incredible. The Barmy Army have just disappated under a sky suddenly clear. Around 1,500-strong, they sang for an hour to the England dressing room (pictured above). Not since 1964 have England beaten South Africa by an innings, when a certain Geoffrey Boycott, next to me in the commentary box, scored 73 here.
Andrew Strauss, whose blessed hand I have just shaken, said: "That has to be one of our finest Tests in my time. It's certainly the biggest away win I can remember. We always felt in control."
And Graeme Swann, Man of the Match for the second time in two Tests, was in top form after taking 5-54 and 9-164 in the match. He got five and scored a Test best 85 in Centurion, where England hung on to draw with one wicket in hand.
Now up to third in the world rankings, he said: "It's been a dream 12 months for me. I'll take two Man of the Match awards thank you and I'll go on as long as I can. I knew with four bowlers I would have to do the donkey work. It's nice to pick up a few wickets along the way!"
A few wickets? He's on fire, turning the ball a foot on a dead pitch, taking wickets with his first furious over four times in two Tests. The man who, as Ian Bell said last night, "always makes things happen".
If our footballers can perform like this here in June next year, the World Cup will be a doddle. This South African side, packed with real talent, simply couldn't live with Swannie and his Nottinghamshire team-mate Stuart Broad. England, it has been suggested, could go into the New Year Test in Cape Town next week with two bowlers. A bit like Fabio Capello picking nine strikers!
South Africa knew they had to win this four match series 2-0 to go back to the top of the Test rankings ahead of India. Now one of the world's finest sides are 1-0 down with two Tests to play. And England, a modest fifth in the rankings, are ready to add a series in South Africa to their summer Ashes win. Incredible. And Swann wasn't slow to remind us of that fact.
South Africa, 76-6 overnight, did all they could. But Broad (4-43 today and nine wickets so far in the series) got rid of the dangerous Mark Boucher while Swann accounted for Mornel Morkel, Paul Harris and Dale Steyn as South Africa were skittled for 133.
Their captain Graeme Smith, struggling manfully to mask his disappointment, mentioned the words "bounce" and "back" five times in his post-match chat. But he also admitted his team had "not been up to the standards the country expects".
I'm not sure that's fair on his team. Swann in this form is one of the finest finger spinners in the world. On wickets taken this year in Tests, he's second only to Australia's Mitchell Johnson this year - and Broad is third.
Patrick Compton, son of the England Test legend Denis, has been covering cricket for the Natal Mercury at Kingsmead for decades. He just told me this track may have to be re-defined after Swann's performance. It never takes spin... until this week, until Swann.
Strauss said of his impish companion: "It's hard to compliment Swannie when he's sitting next to me, but his impact on this team on the field and off it has been huge. As a bowler, he always attacks, always gets a wicket, even in the first innings. That's rare in Test cricket.
"In the dressing room he's the perfect man to lift things when we're down. He's helped a lot of players get back on their feet after a hard day."
And Swann, deadpan, told us why Strauss has helped turned England into a bunch of winners: "He's brought honesty, keeps it simple, works hard. He's phlegmatic. And everybody likes him. It's good to have a captain you can take the piss out of in the slips. And he comes back with some too! He gets grumpy sometimes, especially when he drops catches in practice like he did this morning... but he recovers quickly!"
As we pack up and head to Cape Town for the New Year, this is an England side at the peak of their powers. Strauss warned: "I hate to put a dampener on proceedings after that, it feels wrong. But we were beaten heavily at Headingley in the summer by the Australians and we came back to win the series.
"We expect South Africa to come back at us hard. They're a good side. But this result, after hanging on for that draw in the first Test at Centurion, has certainly filled us with confidence.
"Alastair Cook and Ian Bell have scored much-needed centuries. Cookie grafted at it and Belly when he plays his natural game is one of the finest batsmen in the world.
"If we've got the opposition scratching their heads about their selection, it just shows we're doing our job."
While England sweat on the state of Paul Collingwood's dislocated left index finger - they don't know yet if he'll be fit for Newlands starting on January 3 and have called up Hampshire's Michael Carberry as cover - the last word must go to the swaggering Swann who offers this explanation of his rise in fortunes: "Straussie dropped me out in Jamaica at the start of the year and I just thought I'd show him!"

Second Test, final day: Two down, two to go. All over by lunch. Surely?

ENGLAND now need two more wickets on the final day of the second Test at Kingsmead. The county team-mates Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have once more tied the home side up in Notts on the final day of the second Test, taken a wicket each.
Both now have four, South Africa are 118-8 still needing 112 to make England bat again.
South Africa needed another 155 when they finished on 76/6 last night - the umpires revised the score after play.
There was a bogus overthrow. The South African journalists in the box are calling, jokingly, for a replay. One precious run has been taken from Ian Bell's 141. One of unwanted single has been taken from Makhaya Ntini's bowling analysis of 29-4-115-0.
It won't make a difference. Graeme Swann has just got Morne Morkel plumb LBW, 86-7. Then, on review, Broad got Mark Boucher, clearly caught off the glove by Prior for 29 to make it 108-8.
This will be over by lunchtime and then it can rain as much as it likes and the umpires can wave their light meters about all they like.
Begone all those who said last night: "We can't lose from here." Of course we can't! It was always a win. Sure, Dale Steyn and JP Duminy turned the Boxing Day Test against Australian in Melbourne last year from a surefire defeat into an epic victory.
But not here, not now. England are made of sterner stuff.
Boucher and Morkel walked out to resume the partnership they began when their nation was teetering on the brink at 50-6 with the captain Graeme Smith shuffling back to the pavilion last night.
They added 36. As Graeme Swann began the second over of the morning, it was overcast but bright. England had a short leg, a gully, slip and a silly point. One squeezed through the gap. Agony. But then escstasy, Morkel goes, bang in front. Swann always takes a wicket in his first over on this tour. As Ian Bell said last night: "He can always make things happen, he's proved it again and again." In fact, Swann has struck four times in his first over and we're only two Tests in.
Boucher was next, gloving to Prior off the superb Broad (pictured above, asking unpicked Adil Rashid for a drink this morning) who is consistently beating the bat.
Paul Collingwood, who dislocated his left index finger in the warm-up yesterday, is apparently going to be fit for the New Year Test but Luke Wright is on for him. I've just seen him watching, powerless to intervene, from the dressing room.
Don't worry Colly. England are heading to Cape Town 1-0 up in the series. Fact.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

My worst day: Steyn. My best day in an England shirt: Bell

SOUTH AFRICA'S Dale Steyn sat in the bowels of the Kingsmead Stadium tonight looking slightly shell-shocked and said: "Yes, that has to be the worst day of my cricketing career."
A few minutes later Ian Bell, with 141 to his name plus a sharp catch at short leg, said: "That's got to be one of my best days in an England shirt."
And that sums it up nicely after a sensational day four of the second Test in Durban when England ran up a score of 575-9 declared and then sent South Africa plunging to 76-6, still 156 runs short of making England bat again if they are to save this pulsating second Test.
Steyn did his best to put a positive spin on his nation's terrible demise. He recalled last year's Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, where South Africa were in a similar state, he and JP Duminy produced a great late rally and turned the game around.
Steyn, who got his Test-best 76 that day and a second-best 47 in the first innings here, grinned: "I'll be watching videos of Melbourne tonight. We just have to go out and try to stay there tomorrow. Morne Morkel can bat a bit and Mark Boucher is one of the best wicket-keeper-batsmen in the world.
"But to be honest, the weather is our best chance."
Fair play to the South African, it was a thankless task talking to the media today.
Bell, whose century today was described as "career-saving" by his former Warwickshire county team-mate, said: "Of course Dale's right. I knew I was under the pump. It was very satisfying. Nobody expected things to go as perfectly today as they have."
After Bell's efforts were added to Alastair Cook's century, plus fifties from Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood - who picked up a dislocated left index finger in the warm-up and didn't field - and Matt Prior, the bowlers had the perfect platform.
At 27-0, South African captain Graeme Smith and fellow opener Ashwell Prince looked comfortable enough. Then former Ashes-winner Matthew Hoggard (in his pink shirt, pictured above under Jimmy Saville's flag) joined the Barmy Army. And when England called for Swann's turn in the 10th over, Hoggy joined the Army with a rendition of their old classic: "Never trust a spinner."
Swannie's second ball resulted in a sharp bat-pad catch for Bell and the collapse began.
Half-a-dozen wickets for 23 runs in 12 overs with county team-mates Broad (3-18) and Swann (3-22) tying 'em up in Notts.
Bell said: "Swannie always seems to make things happen. He's proved that again and again on this tour. And when Broadie's bowling like that, with his height, he's very hard to play. They're brilliant together."
Usually reliable Proteas like Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB De Villiers folded under the pressure, barely offering shots. JP Duminy went first ball, getting an inside edge to Broad as the South Africans quacked up. And then captain Smith fell lbw to Swann, made a desperate request for a review, and departed, head bowed.
Only the resistance of Mark Boucher (20 not out) and Morkel (7) prevented a quick finish... and then the umpires called play off for bad light at 4.22pm local time with 16 overs left in the day. The floodlights had been on since 3.15pm. That's what it's like here, what England have to watch for tomorrow.
The forecast? Partly cloudy, showers in the evening. Bell said: "We'll be fired up for the first ball," but Steyn painted the nightmare scenario for England: "Who knows in cricket? We could get a few runs and it could be England hanging on at 50-5, 50-6 at the end of the day."
Surely not. Four wickets. That's all they need to head off to Cape Town for the New Year Test with a 1-0 lead in the four-match
series. Pray for sunshine.Or as David "Bumble" Lloyd has just twittered: "Call to prayer in Mosque opposite hotel."

England fire as South Africa are tied up in Notts... with a little help from Hoggy

MATTHEW HOGGARD did the trick for England today. With a little help from the Barmy Army. Yes Hoggy, the Ashes-winning former Yorkshire paceman, played his part today as Andrew Strauss's mighty men took a stranglehold on the second Test in muggy Durban.
Did I say muggy? England have mugged the mugs on day four, rattling up a mammoth 575-9 declared to take a 231 lead over the hosts, then reducing the South Africans to 76-6. Yes, that's SIX. They still need another 156 to make England bat again. Incredible scenes, amazing stuff.
Half-a-dozen wickets for 23 runs in 12 overs with county team-mates Stuart Broad (3-18) and Graeme Swann (3-22) tying 'em up in Notts
Hoggy, in his pink South African Broadcasting Corporation top, chose the perfect moment to join the Barmy Army, massed in the south corner of the East Stand. South Africa were 27-0 after nine overs and apparently cruising.
While Hoggy stood beneath Vic "Jimmy Saville" Flower's waving Union Jack (see picture above, you can just make him out, I'm no photographer!) the volume rose and rose. First "Jerusalem", then "There's Only One Matthew Hoggard". Then, as England turned to Graeme Swann, they began a chorus of "Never Trust A Spinner", with Hoggy, the subject of a thousand flashing cameras and Test Match Special, in full voice.
And lo, it came to pass on Swann's second ball of the day Ashwell Prince failed to deal with the turn, getting an inside edge on to his pad which was brilliantly picked up by Ian Bell, back in his favourite position at short leg. Bell, who scored a magnificent 141 to give England the impetus today, went potty. Some catch. Some bloke.
Suddenly South Africa, who had been cruising, were vulnerable. Hoggy had worked the magic.
And it only got better. Hashim Amla, the local hero who refuses to profit from his side's brewery sponsors because of his Muslim roots, went just before tea, bowled by the magnificent Swann for 6. Two failures on his home ground. Unthinkable for Amla, whose century turned the drawn first Test South Africa's way in Centurion.
With Jacques Kallis joining captain Graeme Smith, South Africa were firmly up against the wall. But these were their two go-to guys, the old warhorses. Stubborn, reliable. And then came the ball of the day. Stuart Broad, in from the Umgeni end, got the ball to nip back a veritable mile off the seam and Kallis's off-stump flew out of the ground. The poor bloke didn't even get to play a shot. Did it happen because the tide was in? Locals say it helps. And it was high tide at 1.40pm.
What a moment though, what a turning of the tide. The Barmy Army lapped it up. South Africa were 40-3 and sinking fast.
AB De Villiers was next, he got out twice. First he survived on review after touching Swann to Prior - the replay showed deviation though apparently not conclusively - but an over later he was gone for good after a second review, LBW to Broad.
That left South Africa 44-4. Broad had his tail up. Kaboom! The once prolific JP Duminy came, saw and was conquered in a single ball, clean bowled for a golden duck. Another one to go without playing a shot. These South Africans are quacking up!
Then, the big one. Captain Smith goes down with his ship. Swann got one through, rapped the pads plumb in front and though he waited for a desperate review, he knew... and was gone for 22 off 56 balls.
With South Africa 50-6 and the floodlights on, the stereo-typical last gasp resistance came from Mark Boucher, impressive throughout this series, and Morne Morkel, South Africa's best bowler in both Tests so far.
At 76-6 with 16 overs still to come, the umpires, those lords of darkness, decided it was too dark to continue at 22 minutes past four in the afternoon. Shocking!
But with a day to play and "partly cloudy, little chance of rain" the forecast for Durban tomorrow, surely this can only end one way - and England will go to Cape Town for the New Year Test 1-0 up in the series.

Day four: Tea: England soaring, Swanny spinning, Hoggy singing,

MATTHEW HOGGARD did the trick for England today. With a little help from the Barmy Army.
Yes Hoggy, the Ashes-winning Yorkshire paceman, played his part today as England took a stranglehold on the second Test in muggy Durban.
Did is say muggy? England have mugged the mugs on day four, rattling up a mammoth 575-9 declared to take a 231 lead over the hosts, then taking early wickets to leave the South Africans teetering on 45-5. Incredible scenes, amazing stuff.
Five wickets for 17 runs in nine overs of county team-mates Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann tying 'em up in Notts
Hoggy, in his pink South African Broadcasting Corporation top, chose the perfect moment to join the Barmy Army, massed in the south corner of the East Stand. South Africa were 27-0 after nine overs and apparently cruising.
While Hoggy stood beneath Vic "Jimmy Saville" Flower's waving Union Jack (see picture above) the volume rose and rose. First "Jerusalem", then "There's Only One Matthew Hoggard". Then, as England turned to Graeme Swann, they began a chorus of "Never Trust A Spinner", with Hoggy, the subject of a thousand flashing cameras, in full voice.
And lo, it came to pass on Swann's second ball of the day. Ashwell Prince failed to deal with the turn, getting an inside edge on to his pad which was brilliantly picked up by Ian Bell, back in his favourite position at short leg. Bell, who scored a magnificent 141 to give England the impetus today, went potty. Some catch. Some bloke.
Suddenly South Africa, who had been cruising, were vulnerable. Hoggy had worked the magic.
And it only got better. Hashim Amla, the local hero who refuses to profit from his side's brewery sponsors because of his Muslim roots, went just before tea, bowled by the magnificent Swann for 6. Two failures on his home ground. Unthinkable for Amla, whose century turned the drawn first Test South Africa's way in Centurion.
With Jacques Kallis joining captain Graeme Smith, South Africa were firmly up against the wall. But these were there two go-to guys, the old warhorses. Stubborn, reliable. And then came the ball of the day. Stuart Broad, in from the Umgeni end, got the ball to nip back a veritable mile off the seam and Kallis's off-stump flew out of the ground. The poor bloke didn't even get to play a shot.
What a moment. The Barmy Army lapped it up. South Africa were 40-3 and the calm resolution was disappearing fast.
AB De Villiers was next, he got out twice. First he survived on review after touching Swann to Prior - the replay showed deviation but apparently not conclusively - but an over later he was gone for good after a second review, LBW to Broad.
That left South Africa 44-4. Broad had his tail up. Kaboom! The once prolific JP Duminy came, saw and was conquered in a single ball, clean bowled for a golden duck. Another one to go without playing a shot. These South Africans are quacking up!

South Africa can't live with England, Living with the Lions is more comfortable!

ENGLAND have declared for 575-9 just after lunch on day four of the second Test in Durban and the South Africans trail by nearly 231 with Ian Bell just out for a magnificent 141.
The hosts will have to bat a day-and-a-half to save this Test, the tide's coming in, the clouds are low and anything could happen - apart from England losing. Brilliant, despite Paul Collingwood dislocating a finger during the warm-up this morning. The good news? It's not fractured. The bad news, his back's still bad too.
But this game is all about Alastair Cook and Bell - both desperate for a bit of form - joining the centurions on the honours board here at Kingsmead. Since the Apartheid isolation from1970-1992, the board shows Nasser Hussain, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss from 1999 and 2004.
To that, add the gritty Cook and ding-dong Bell. In the margins, remember the fifty-plus contributions of Strauss, Collingwood and Prior, who went for 60 this morning. The wicket-keeper batsman is back.
After missing out on a win by one wicket in the first clash at Centurion, Graeme Smith's men could yet find themselves 1-0 down when we get to Cape Town for the New Year Test at Newlands next week. We can but hope. The cloud is back and the light could shorten the day, even if they put the floodlights on, given the way the dark lords of umpiring have behaved so far at Kingsmead.
But before we get into all that, let me introduce my party of tourists from Living With The Lions. Hardy souls, able to sit through hour after hour of tedium and appreciate the subtleties over five days. And good company over an evening meal here in Durban too.
From the left, Colin from York, who still plays for his local club with his son, Fred the umpire and wife Sylvia who makes the big decisions, Mike and Mary, who know everything about Somerset, Claire, who always wants a burger even in the finest restaurants, and husband Mark, who constantly advises me to wear long trousers. What's wrong with my knees?
Then we've got big Brett Lingley, our superb tour leader from Living With The Lions who grew up around here, followed by the Burnley foursome, Andy, wife Allison and the boys, who all insist on supporting the Premier League nonentities. At the front? That's me. Pratt. Oh, Mary and Roger had gone for lunch. Sorry!

Second Test: Day Four: Bell's belter, Colly's folly and Broad's bore

IAN BELL joined Alastair Cook on the Kingsmead honours board today, the second England batsman to produce a selection-enhancing century at the second Test in Durban.
While Cook's 118 was a gritty 263-ball, nearly six-hour crusade yesterday, Bell's ton was a far more fluent affair, needed 172 balls to carve the weary South African attack apart.
He went to three figures for the ninth time in his Test career by waltzing down the track and slapping Harris back over his head for four.
But as England dominate, there is bad news too. Paul Collingwood, who added a magnificent 91 yesterday to his first Test scores of 50 and 26 not out, has just returned from a scan which revealed no fracture.
He dislocated his left index finger this morning while warming-up - the man who took a record-equalling four slip catches in the first innings of the drawn Centurion Test always puts himself through a tough pre-play session - and was taken off in some pain.
Fortunately, Bell, with help from Matt Prior (60 off 81 balls, they put on 112 together for the sixth wicket) has ensured Collingwood won't have to bat again in this Test.
Collingwood was also spotted with an ice-pack on his shoulder, suggesting the back problems that nagged him during the triumphant one-day series triumph earlier in the tour are not dealt with.
That might explain why he bowled just one over in South Africa's first innings 343, with part-timers Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen called up to help the front-line bowlers ahead of the Durham man.
Already Luke Wright is being suggested as the obvious replacement for the New Year Test in Cape Town next week - but with Collingwood averaging 83.5 in this series and the best fielder out there even with one hand and a bad back, captain Andrew Strauss will be relieved there is no fracture. We await further developments.
With lunch still half-an-hour away, England moved things on to 500-6 this morning, extending their lead to beyond 150 and with high tide due at 1.40pm (it affects the pitch and the swing apparently) the afternoon might have been interesting. But Stuart Broad (x off xx balls) put down anchor and England simply lost the initiative. Quite why the Notts man decided to bat like a barnacle (the politest verdict I can conjure) nobody's sure. Bloody ridiculous is another way of looking at it. 11 runs in eight overs before lunch at 513-6. Ludicrous.
The clouds are back for day four but the gateman told me: "It won't rain, I have a direct line to God." Who am I to argue... but it's the light which could prevent a result here. The floodlights were on all day on Monday, they could be on again soon here.

Day four: the dislocated finger: Bell belter, Colly folly

BEFORE I'd even grabbed my first can of grapetiser (it's all the rage here) in the press box this morning, the bad news arrived before the start of day four at Kingsmead.
England's experienced team media manager Andrew Walpole was on the phone. The words "dislocation" and "x-ray" were clear. And soon it was official. Paul Collingwood (pictured), England's most consistent batsman in this series, disclocated his left index finger during the warm-up this morning. He is off to hospital for x-rays. Terrible news.
Collingwood, who puts himself through perhaps the toughest slip-catching regime of all (he took a record-equalling four catches in the ring during the first Test), injured the digit and was in obviousy pain and he went off for treatment.
On top of that, he was having ice treatment on his neck, a legacy of the back problems he suffered during the triumphant one-day series earlier in the tour. That might explain why Andrew Strauss is turning to Jonathan Trott ahead of Colly when he needs a trundler here. He's even used Kevin Pietersen to give Collingwood a breathing space.
The Durham man only bowled one over in the first innings and already there are suggestions Luke Wright could be needed for the New Year Test in Cape Town next week.
Collingwood, with scores of 50 and 26 not out in Centurion, scored another monumental 91 yesterday... I leave you to work out his average so far (erm 83.5?).
Along with Alastair Cook (118) and Ian Bell (55 not out overnight), the Durham super sportsman (he's pretty good at golf and most other manly past-times) helped propel England past South Africa's first innings score of 343 on day three.
Starting this morning on 386-5, England have moved to 457-5 this morning, extending their overnight lead of 43 to 114. Bell, who looked so confident yesterday despite his failures in Centurion, is now in the nervous 90s but still looking remarkably fluent with Prior going to a much-needed 50 with a swept six. If he gets there, everyone except Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott will have added at least a half-century. That's erm... all the most English England players!
After yesterday's 10,000 crowd (we've had 17,000 on Boxing Day, 7,000 on Sunday), we're back down to a sparse sprinkling this morning and the clouds are back. Expect the floodlights to come on at any minute - they were on all day on Sunday.
But the gateman, when I asked him if it was going to rain, replied confidently: "No. I have as direct line to God."
I won't question that sort of authority. But it's the bad light that worries me. We could be off by 3.15pm the way things are with this umpires and their light meters.
More news on Colly when it arrives. He's a tough northern type. I bet he'd bat with one hand and a bad back.

Monday, 28 December 2009

England's unsung heroes... and why Durban should host a future Olympics

TODAY was the day for England's unsung heroes. The men who quietly serve while Kevin Pietersen. our only truly world-class batsman, preens.
Take a bow Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell. Thanks to you England are 386-5, 43 ahead with half their wickets in hand going into day four of the Second Test in a balmy, Barmy Army-dominated Kingsmead.
Cook (118) and Bell (55 not out) needed the runs. Collingwood (91) just keeps coming up with the goods.
While an impressive-looking Pietersen came and went much too quickly on his old home ground, England's Three Musketeers dominated the third day in sunny Durban, leaving South Africa frustrated and flustered.
The world's best bowler, Dale Steyn, normally takes a wicket every six or seven overs. Not today. Not with Cook, Collingwood and Bell in this mood. He's bowled 26 sweaty overs without success. One for all and all for none might be dangerous Dale's creed.
After the initial departure of the world's most annoying batsman Jonathan Trott - no tears there as he scratches and delays at the crease - KP was out to the very ordinary spinner Paul Harris trying to sweep a straight one on 31. So straight, England didn't even bother to ask for a review. Like Trott and Bell in the drawn first Test in Centurion, perhaps he was expecting Harris to turn one. He rarely does.
The Cook recipe never includes such extravagances as sweeps and paddles. His ingredients amount to the basics. Grit, resolve, determination, with just the odd boundary thrown in.
It wasn't pretty to watch but after 218 balls, the roar finally went up. With an equally gritty Collingwood at the other end, these two pushed England gradually - too gradually for some - from 155 to 297 for the fourth wicket with a review or two their only threat.
And if South Africa's last pair, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini, hadn't added 58 runs to push their total on to 343, England would been just about past them at tea with seven wickets to spare and a result on the cards.
As it is, knowing the light and tropical storms around these parts, this one's headed for a draw unless the pitch turns suddenly demonic.
There were fallow periods. At the end of day two, Cook had scored 8 out of 58 when captain Andrew Strauss raced past 50 and fell to the excellent Morne Morkel.
This morning, he scored just one run off his first 37 balls. But this is Test cricket. And England are starting to look the better side at the longest form of the game, having already won the One-Day series here. Not bad on foreign soil, in vastly changeable conditions.
And what of Collingwood, who, like Cook, averages around 43 in Test cricket? After his two superb knocks in Centurion, he was eventually out for 91 off 215 balls. The man is a mountain, impossible to shift, averaging over 80 in the series so far.
And then there's Bell. So nervous at Centurion, but looking great today, justifying the selectors' decision not to drop him for Ryan Sidebottom or Luke Wright. He got on with it, tearing into the weary South Africans after Cook went and crashing Harris for a masterful six. Neat and stylish, he ended the day on 55 not out off a more brisk 84 balls with Matt Prior, who could also do with some runs, on 11 not out at the other end. Great stuff.
But Cook will be the story in the morning papers. He was 25 on Christmas Day and became the youngest ever England player to pass 50 caps this week. Ten tons in 50 outings ain't bad. Once more, he looks the man born to captain, the lead when the going gets tough.
Truth is, I missed most of Cook's determined innings, went off to see the new Moses Madhiba World Cup stadium (above) about a mile away from Kingsmead, next to the impressive old King's Park rugby stadium.
There were long queues for the cable car which sails over the arch - why didn't Wembley think of that? - and plenty of people taking the stadium tour. Pity England aren't playing here... though they could face a World Cup quarter-final in Durban if they don't win Group C.
Durban would make a perfect Olympic Venue. Kingsmead (25,000), King's Park (55,000) and the Moses Madhiba (60,000) are all within a mile of eachother, centred around the fairly new railway station. There is also a small athletics stadium, a old velodrome and indoor and outdoor swimming stadiums, plus two fabulous golf courses, one inside the magnificent Greyville racecourse. All within spitting distance of eachother.
The regatta could take place just over the road, with the beach volleyball on North Beach, where they are building a walkway to the football stadium 400m away.
Incredible. And in winter - June/July - the climate here is perfect. Warm enough to swim in the sea but not so hot you need sunscreen.
Worth considering, especially with the new Airport at La Mercy opening early in March. Then they'll have two international airports, one each end of this tropical city, where monkeys still leap from the roadside trees.
Miles of beaches and huge hotels, game parks and waterfalls all around. The local Zulus always have a smile and provide superb service, the huge local Asian population help make the commerce zing. The new Ushaka development has transformed the rough end of Durban around the docks at Point Road. I could go on...
Olympic paradise. Trust me.

At that juncture of the east and south stands at Kingsmead, the Barmy Army are dominating the sparse South African platoons... Jimmy Saville - real name Vic Flower - apparently fully recovered from the Boxing Day assault mentioned here yesterday. The Natal Mercury, the local morning paper I worked for from 1980 to 1983 - were on the phone three times yesterday about the story and ran it on their front page today.

Who needs newspapers when you've got my blog! That said, I'm off to the pool. It's hot!

Trott strolls off, few tears shed... and the Natal Mercury picks up my blog

JONATHAN TROTT, fast gaining a reputation as the slowest batsman in Test cricket, added just a single before he shuffled off cricket's mortal coil on the third morning of the second Test in Durban today.
Even the Barmy Army will shed few tears for the controversial Cape Town-born England batsman (right), who fell in the excellent Morne Morkel's first over after England had added just one run to their overnight 103-1, chasing South Africa's 343.
With the sun out in Durban after yesterday's gloom - the entire day was played under floodlights - Trott was caught behind for 18 off 31 balls by Mark Boucher and he departs with this second Test on a knife-edge.
And who better for England to call on than Pietermaritzburg-born "local" Kevin Pietersen, who immediately dispatched the half-fit Jacques Kallis for four at his old provincial ground. Alastair Cook, taking an age to find his form on this tour, remains stubbornly at the other end.

Trott, who took guard three of four times this morning and scratched a hole in the crease deep enough to replace some of the inland gold mines, had been the subject of some debate overnight.

South African batsman AB De Villiers said his team have had just about enough of the time-consuming fidgeting at the crease. And the crowd were growing angry about it too.

Team-mate Graeme Swann grinned: "It's not something he's been working on. I can understand South Africa's frustrations. I've called him all sorts of names for Nottinghamshire over the years. He's done it every year against me when I've played against him. It's nice to see somebody else getting angry about it!

"It's just Trotty; it's how he bats, how he goes about things. He's got a very organised and very clear gameplan. It's part of cricket. Not everyone bats at the same tempo. The crowd have noticed it but I think it may be something to do with where he was born as well."

De Villiers said: "Our captain Graeme Smith is dealing with it, and the umpires are aware of that. All our bowlers have got little rhythms in their run-ups and it's frustrating to them.

"Graeme is talking to the umpires and to Trotty as well. He's listening, but I think it's a tactic. We'll try and use it to our advantage tomorrow.

"It's a tactic that might get him into trouble soon if he carries on doing it."

With Pietersen batting at a reasonable rate... and finding the boundary, few tears will be shed for Trott's demise this morning.

And at that juncture of the east and south stands here, the Barmy Army are settling in with Jimmy Saville - real name Vic Flower - apparently fully recovered from the Boxing Day assault mentioned here yesterday. The Natal Mercury, the local morning paper I worked for from 1980 to 1983 - were on the phone three times yesterday about the story and ran it on their front page today.

Who needs newspapers when you've got my blog! That said, I'm off to the beach. It's hot!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Barmy Army fury as 'Jimmy Saville' takes a hit... England remove stubborn Steyn and get off to a good start

BELOW is a picture of Jimmy Saville's right arm. Bruised and swollen from yesterday's unprovoked attack at the hands of a drunken South African "cricket fan" during yesterday's Boxing Day action at Kingsmead during the second Test.
Barmy Army general Jimmy, real name Vic Flowers, insists: "Today I will show you bouncebackability. I don't want to make too much of yesterday's incident. But I was pretty shocked when the lad attacked me. I don't really know what happened. All I know is one minute I was singing, the next I was on the floor. Then another one of them was hitting me with a flag or something.
"The old arm's a bit bruised (see picture) today but I'll be okay. I got straight back up and sang a song when it happened just after tea. And then we took three quick wickets!
"I'll be up and singing again today when the wickets start to fall."
While Jimmy (pictured above, with me, there's nothing of him, he estimates his age at 59) was fairly sanguine about the incident, which is the talk of the Durban hotels this morning, the platoons of Barmy Army fans around their cheerleader-in-chief are far from happy.
A blonde female supporter behind us said: "They were two very drunk fans. The one who knocked Jimmy over was about 25, not that big. The second one, who was hitting him with the flag, was a big lad, about thirty.
"Security should have reacted more quickly. At first they did nothing. Then the other South African fans got hold of them and persuaded security to throw them out. It was a nasty incident. It started a huge argument between drunk South African fans and sober ones."
Another fan behind us pointed out: "If this had been at The Oval, 12 very large men would have dealt with it and those idiots would have spent the night in a police cell.
"I hate to think what will happen if South Africans behave like this when our football fans are over for the World Cup next year. But these weren't cricket fans, they were just here for the beer. And it's not very good beer."
Security admit they apprehended a man and ejected him but are unsure whether he has entered the ground again today.
Thoroughly subdued by the incident, the 300-strong Barmy Army - and a sparse sprinkling of around 3,000 local fans - hardly reacted to the wicket of Mark Boucher in the middle.
England's first victim of the controversial umpire review system fell lbw to Graeme Swann for 39, leaving South Africa 238-6 after a partnership of 69 with AB De Villiers.
They began to recover their voices when De Villiers, having just reached his 50, got an edge to Stuart Broad and Matt Prior took the catch. Spinner Paul Harris didn't trouble the scorers for long, he went for two, also lbw off Swann.
South Africa went to lunch at 284-8 off 95 largely hum-drum overs. They appear to be using their desperately pedestrian run-rate as a way of avoiding crowd trouble. Who'd turn up to watch this and be knocked about by drunken louts?
Swann took his tally to four wickets in the innings when he caught Morne Morkel in front for 23 but then Dale Steyn, the world's No1 Test bowler, showed his batsmen how to take the attack to England. With Makhaya Ntini (6 off 30 balls) holding up he other end, Steyn took the score from 285-9 to 343 all out with a remarkable knock of 47 off 58 balls featuring three sixes before he was caught behind by Prior off Anderson.
Andrew Strauss then took the battle to the South Africans, scoring a quickfire 50 off 49 balls to guide England to 59-0 at tea while Alastair Cook had scored just eight. Strauss survived being given out lbw by umpire Aleem Dar when he opted for a review, but with England on 71 after a short shower at tea, he got an inside edge to a straight one and was bowled for 54 off 67 balls by Morne Morkel.
That brought Jonathan Trott to the crease. And after his usual protracted preparation, with the crowd shake out of their lethargy, he survived his first ball. England had moved to 103-1 by the time the umpires took the players off for bad light at around 4.34pm local time. The floodlights, on since the early hours this morning, were apparently not good enough. With Trott on 17 off 26 and Cook a cautious 31 off 66, there was nearly time to get back to watch the second half of the Arsenal game.
Looking at the Australians in Melbourne on Boxing Day (Pakistan are 109-4 in reply to their 454-5 declared), this is a damp squib... though not as bad as India versus Sri Lanka in Kotla, which was called off after 23.3 overs because of a "dangerous pitch"!

Barmy Army on the warpath... and England on top in cloudy Durban

AND today's big question is... who knocked over the Barmy Army general Jimmy Saville at Kingsmead yesterday?
The fall of England's talismanic cheerleader (right) is the talk of the hotels in Durban this morning. Disgraceful behaviour! There were plenty of drunken South Africans around after a long, hot day yesterday... but to dethrone King Jimmy - real name Vic Flowers - just isn't on.
Apparently the incident happened at the junction of the East and South Stands, where the England fans were in fine voice yesterday. The offending weapon? A drunken lunge or rugby tackle according to witnesses.
The Barmy site reports: "It was stupidity of the highest order and while the perpetrator was ushered from the ground, someone else decided that while he did sing his song it was acceptable behaviour to whip him with the plastic end of a flag. Idiots are alive and well and living in South Africa. How they'll get on with England's football fans remains to be seen."
Whether than incident caused the huge punch-up at Castle Corner after play was called off, I'm not sure. But the Barmy faithful are seething. Jimmy took quite a while to recover.
Woke up this morning, looked out of the window at 8am... and the floodlights were already on at Kingsmead. Unlike day one, day two will start under overcast with England dominant at 175-5.
Graeme Smith, who won the toss and elected to bat, is none too happy with that after his men came off for bad light - also under the floodlights - far too early as the umpires fiddled with their light meters.
Smith and Jacques Kallis - who both scored solid 75s - saw South Africa from a wobbly 10-2 to 160-2turned a shaky 10/2 into a far more comfortable 160/3 but then, as the clouds rolled in, England snatched three wickets for 15 before the light meters ended the day.
Kallis said: “It was frustrating to lose those quick wickets after we had batted ourselves into a strong position. We will have to see what we can do now to get close to 350.”
They'll be lucky. This looks like a perfect day for English swing bowlers at the moment - though the locals and the old England bowler JK Lever, who I chatted to at breakfast in the Hilton Hotel this morning, believe the tides here also have an impact.
On top of the Smith is struggling with a swollen finger while Kallis admits he can only bowl at “about 80 percent” as he continued to return from a rib injury.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Boxing Day Test: Day One: England's day as South Africa scuttle off for the light

AS the clouds closed in and the floodlights went on at 3.10pm local time, the Boxing Day Test in Durban veered England's way at Kingsmead today.
At 175-5 this was a triumph for the visitors after the mind-numbing boredom of South Africa's earlier domination with the bat.
The magnificent sight of the home side scuttling for cover before the rain came down was entirely unexpected. As was the state of most of the 17,364 fans, very few of whom were wearing bikinis (my wife doesn't like the thought of women in swimsuits at cricket games).
England, dominant in the first ten overs when they Jimmy Anderson got rid of Ashwell Prince and Stuart Broad trapped Hashim Amla - both for two - struggled in the burning heat and humidity in an apparently endless spell from an hour before lunch to just after tea.
But then the clouds rolled in and weary England began to respond. Jacques Kallis, the world's No10 batsman but a supremely boring proponent of the art, was snaffled by Graeme Swann. His edge to Paul Collingwood's welcoming hands ended his resistance at 75 off 132 balls.
Together, he and Smith put on exactly 15o for the third wicket and put most of the crowd into a drink induced coma, with beer queues stretching around the ground as innocent cricket fans sought solace.
Together, Kallis and Smith, top of the pile in the under-appreciated Boring Test Rankings sponsored by Slumberland, appeared to have put their nation on top, though the locals showed little appreciation, apart from the odd snarl when Kevin Pietersen was put on to bowl his off-spinners in a moment of madness from captain Andrew Strauss. We also wheeled out Jonathan Trott, testament to the paucity of our bowling attack having stuck with struggling Ian Bell when we could have enlisted another seamer in Sidebottom.
But then the wickets began to tumble. Next up? Smith. He derided Kevin Pietersen for his ridiculous run-out on 81 in Centurion, but what was this? AB De Villiers, looking good, ran down the wicket when his captain dropped one into the off-side. Smith started to accelerate, then turned around like one of those tankers off the Indian Ocean coast here.
For Englishmen, particularly the ever-hopeful Barmy Army who numbered about 3,000 at Kingsmead today, the sight of Cook running in to beat the dive was something to celebrate.
Gone for 75 off a very boring 186 balls. But better than Centurion, where Smith failed in both innings.
South Africa were suddenly 166-4 and the two big barriers were down.
England sensed that, the tails went up, and there was time for Graham Onions, who bowled well all day, to trap the once-dangerous JP Duminy leg before for four.
South Africa were 170-5, they'd lost three wickets for ten. And they ran for cover. Brilliant! With the floodlights on, a home side with guts might have tried to carry on. But Smith and coach Mickey Arthur encouraged the puny Proteas to scurry for the dressing room. England captain Andrew Strauss complained and put on his spinners but they were offered the light... and took it. How weak and pathetic is that with rain forecast for tomorrow!
There was a brief shower, a couple of very drunk pitch invaders hoping to slide on the covers were severely manhandled by the stewards. But predictably, though the light was reasonable under the floodlights at 4.35pm local time, the umpires were unable to encourage the groundsman to remove the covers. Day one is over. Play will start at 9.30am tomorrow morning.
And with the South Africans cowering, this is surely England's day, though Smith and Kallis made them suffer in the sun. The home side, knowing how dark it gets in Durban, how much rain they are having this summer, should have shown a bit of stiff-upper lip.
But they just haven't got it these lads. Head for the dressing room! Swannie's bowling another bomb! Pathetic! The only South Africans with any fight are punching eachother, drunk, in Kingsmead's notorious Castle Corner, perhaps frustrated with their side's lack of spirit.
My Living With The Lions party, pictured above, will be looking forward to skittling this mardy lot tomorrow. As long as it doesn't rain. Right now, at 5pm local time, the light is as good as it's been all day. And the South Africans are headed back to the Hilton Hotel with me. How very, very cowardly.

Boxing Day Test. Tea, day one. Kallis and Smith, No1 and 2 in the little-known Most Boring Test Batsmen rankings, sponsored by Slumberland

THE beer queues now stretch all the way across the back of the South Stand at Kingsmead. And most of the way around the ground. It's Boxing Day and amid the festive hats, there are fat men dressed as fairies, fatter men with women's panties on.
Personally I'd like to see England captain Andrew Strauss out there in the pinkest of pink briefs... and coach Andy Flower in the finest fairy wings. Their reward for refusing to pick Ryan Sidebottom in place of batsman Ian Bell, thus adding a fifth bowler to their sweltering attack on day one of the second Test.
It might have felt great when England had South Africa 10-2 this morning. First Jimmy Anderson got opener Ashwell Prince for two, caught at second slip by Graeme Swann. Then Stuart Broad rapped Hashim Amla on the pads dead in front for the same score.
But once the stubborn Jacques Kallis came out to join captain Graeme Smith, who won the toss and opted to bat, the fun stopped. Abruptly. These are, respectively, the world's 10th and 11th best Test batsmen. They are also No1 and 2 in the rankings of the little appreciated Most Boring Men In Test Cricket category, sponsored by Slumberland.
Chances have been few and far between as the world's two least exciting, but technically proficient, batsmen grind out a stand now worth 140 for the third wicket. At tea, South Africa are gradually going away from us, as I predicted this morning, with the score moving on from 67-2 at lunch to 151-2 after 56 excruciating overs.
Michael Owen-Smith, the fabulously deadpan Cricket South Africa spokesman, has just told a hushed press box Smith is bravely batting on despite "a contusion on his index finger".
And, distressingly, England resorted to giving Jonathan Trott a bowl before lunch. A part-time bowler who once took seven wickets in an innings against Kent, Trott is by no means a rip-em-up paceman. A dibbly-dobbler at best, though Matt Prior, by no means a wicket-keeper-batsman, chose to stand back to his plodding pace, allowing Smith and Kallis the space to make hay while the sun shines, though the clouds are closing in.
Then, before tea, we had Kevin Pietersen on. He was a bit of a bowler here in his early days as a Pietermaritzburg-born local lad. Took four big wickets for the Dolphins against Nasser Hussain's England in 1999. He obviously believes he's still a bowler. He opened with himself when he captaineed an IPL franchise last year, with some success. Sadly, even the magical talents of KP failed to eke a wicket out of the increasingly lifeless Kingsmead track, though his arrival did awaken the crowd from their drunken, sun-induced slumber for a second.
Apparently, when he came on to bowl, Matt Prior, another South African-born Englishman, shouted: "Come on People's Champion!"
Swann finally ended the partnership on 160, getting Kallis, on 75, to edge one to Collingwood. In came AB De Villiers and immediately dispatched Swann to the boundary, skipping up the pitch on his first ball. Now that's entertainment - if you're a South African!
Still, there are reasons to be cheerful, apart from the bikini-clad beauties, mostly female, striding around the ground as their sunburnt men get too drunk to stand.
Up in the second tier of the South Stand, the Dashing Dozen from Living With The Lions are standing firm (see picture above). I'll try to get these names right... Mark and Mary, the big Somerset fans, Colin from York who spent Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day in an airport after a cancelled flight, Fred the umpire and Sylvia, also from the west, Mark and Claire, who wears a hotel shower cap in the pool (which is not good when the South African team are looking down from their hotel rooms). Then there's the Burnley-shirt wearing family and Brett Lingley, our faithful tour leader.
They seem to be having a good time despite England's demise. And they haven't got air-conditioning... or those ubiquitous jugs of beer.
Good solid Barmy Army fans. Hoping for a wicket. Hoping England aren't too hot and bothered with just four real bowlers to rotate. We live in hope... official attendance today? 17,364.

Boxing Day Test: Lunch, day one: Two wickets then too hot as England face the Durban hothouse

WELCOME to a world where thousands of people lug jugs of lager around in the blazing sun at 8am Greenwich Meantime on Boxing Day.
To a city where you sweat in the shade, melt in the sun. To a ground where England are being baked into submission after a promising start to the second Test at Kingsmead.
Durban when the sun comes out in summer is a tropical paradise. If you have constant access to air-conditioning or a swimming pool.
For pale British cricketers, it can be hell. For the first 12 overs, as I predicted, James Anderson, Graham Onions and Stuart Broad were able to bowl their hearts out on a track which had a bit of life in it.
Then, on the hottest day of the summer so far - just as it had been in Centurion - the withering heat and 90 percent humidity began to tell.
Anderson got Ashwell Prince (2) to nick to Graeme Swann at second slip in the third over. In the tenth, Broad came on after Onions' impressive opening spell, and immediately trapped the Centurion centurion and local hero Hashim Amla (2) bang in front LBW.
At 1-3 and 2-10, South Africa were in all sorts of trouble after Graeme Smith had won the toss and elected to bat. But they were assisted by touring coach Andy Flower as England refused to change their side and kept the lamentable Ian Bell as non-scoring batsman No6 instead of drafting in another seamer in Ryan Sidebottom or the all-rounder Luke Wright.
And for the rest of the morning spell, they paid for that. By lunch we had Jonathan Trott, at best an occasional Test bowler, coming on from the Hilton Hotel end with his wobbly dobblers. Ridiculous.
This was a day for four seamers, with a bit of swing in the air early on and hellish conditions to come this afternoon. Smith (29) and the old warhorse Jacques Kallis (28) have added 67 for the third wicket.
England only managed 25 overs rather than the expected 30 this morning, and they face two torrid sessions before the blazing sun goes down over the Berea ridge overlooking the city.
Down in the bowels of the main stand, the honours boards, Lord's-style, show the centurions and five-wicket bowlers going back to 1923, when, like Wembley, Kingsmead first staged an international.
Then this curious gap between 1970 and 1992. Those are the 22 years local cricketers gave up to Apartheid. Barry Richards, Mike Procter and dozens of other talented South Africans were forced to miss the best Test years of their careers because of their nation's disgraceful political system. Just before isolation, they whipped Australia 4-0 with Richards, Procter and both Pollocks tearing the convicts apart.
Things have changed, they've even dug up the old pictures of local Indian and black cricket to adorn the walls, where once it was all white on the night.
Outside though, few of the local Zulus can be bothered with the men in white who spend five days in the sun eking out a draw. They prefer the brand new Moses Madibe Stadium a mile away, purpose-built for the World Cup next year.
Kingsmead remains a typically old-school South African crowd, though the cricket-mad Asians, a massive presence in Durban, once restricted to a small section of the east stand, can now mingle as they wish.
A packed crowd of nearly 20,000, around 5,000 of them British, have been downing jugs of lager since 8am British time. Castle Corner, the notorious Kingsmead nook, are waiting to laugh at us. It has been packed since 9.30am this morning with big, red-backed men and scantily clad women (see above) and the odd surfer dude.
This is what Boxing Day cricket should be all about. Us larking about in the sun while England freezes over.
If only we'd picked Sidebottom. If only Andrew Strauss had won the toss. Meanwhile, we shall make the best of it. Where's that sunscreen...?

England unchanged for Boxing Day Test. It's hot, it's sunny and South Africa chose to bat

JUST as it did in Centurion, the sun has come out for the Test in Durban. And the locals are peering at it like somebody just turned the bright lights on.
After weeks of mid-summer rain, England have emerged for the Boxing Day Test with conditions all changed from their bizarre, high-energy training session on Christmas Day.
Yesterday it was cloudy, humid, wet. The pitch looked damp, plenty of swing in the air, tide coming in... put them in!
Today, under blue skies, it's apparently a batting track. Drying fast, heat exhaustion for the fielding side... get in and bat!
These conditions favour five bowlers. If James Anderson, Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad and Graham Onions were knackered in the dry heat of Centurion, 450 miles inland, a couple of days in Durban's tropical humidity will push them to the limit.
Yesterday Luke Wright got a cheer for something or other in the huddle. Today nothing. Just a 25th cap for Matt Prior and a 50th cap for Alastair Cook.
With Ryan Sidebottom and Liam Plunkett working out harder than the others - suggesting they won't play - and England have confirmed they're going into this one unchanged.
South Africa, bizarrely, have dropped the man who nearly won the first Test with the new ball, Friedel De Wet, despite taking five wickets on his debut. At 29, he must be gutted. But the world's top ranked bowler, Dale Steyn, is back after his hamstring problem.
Tomorrow, there's scattered thunderstorms predicted with a 60 percent chance of showers. Today, according to the weather gurus is going to be "mostly summer".
But looking at the track yesterday... I wonder. Is this England's chance to extract a little early life? In the 80s they used to talk about the effect of the wind and the tide here, how it influenced the swing.
There's hardly a breeze out there, I can't see the tide and it's bloody hot for England in the field... but I just wonder if this might be Jimmy Anderson's morning.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas in Durban, is the force with Luke Wright?

NO rest for the wicket on Christmas Day. There we were, the hardiest of journalistic souls, down at Kingsmead at 8.30am English time, 10.30 local time... and the England team bus was just pulling after the short trip from the hotel in Umhlanga.
While most of England were nestled all snug in their beds and visions of sugar plums danced in their heads, we were offering Xmas greetings to the squad preparing for the Boxing Day Test in Durban tomorrow.
Immediate discussion centred on the team huddle. Alastair Cook was given a bit of a roar, but then it's his birthday. Funnily enough, the uncapped all-rounder Luke Wright was also singled out for collective appreciation.
And immediately we were wondering: is Wright being lauded for winning his first cap, drafted in for the out-of-form Ian Bell, so woeful at No6 in the drawn first Test in Centurion?
Does this mean England, rather than playing another seamer in Ryan Sidebottom, will take the middle role of a batsman who can bowl?
We shall find out tomorrow, around 9.30am local time, 7.30am in England, though coach Andy Flower seemed to suggest he was supportive of Bell and England would stick with an unchanged side.
Wright looked charged up during Christmas Day training though - but then the entire squad has looked lively in practice on this tour. Little wonder. The losing team of four in the fielding disciplines were subjected to a unique torture. Five England players, including the squealing Alastair Cook, were forced to bend over and have the bowling machine, operated mostly by Paul Collingwood, fire real cricket balls at them from 30 yards. Whatever gets you going on Christmas Day I guess!
Next to the loud England warm-ups, South Africa's pace bowlers were going through their paces on a strip next to the dangerous-looking track being prepared for the Test.
Dale Steyn looks set to play, though his hamstring stiffened up late to rule him out of the first Test at the last minute. Will he come in for Makhaya Ntini, who won his 100th cap in Centurion, or for Friedel De Wet, the debutant who nearly destroyed England with the new ball? Or perhaps Morne Morkel, who bowled as well as either of them and can bat a bit?
Again, we shall have to wait until the morning to find out.
But I popped over to speak to Ntini anyway, offering Christmas wishes from the England press corps. "And to you sir," he said in his disarming Xhosa way, and we went on to discuss his room in the Hilton Hotel ("You can see it from here," he said, "On the 12th floor," and then we discussed local football. Lovely fellow. Hope he plays, though there are political considerations surrounding his selection.
After training it was off to Ballito Bay for lunch with the dozen-strong Living With The Lions tour party, brilliantly led by local lad Brett. Great lunch, swam in my underpants, walk on the beach and back to the Hilton for a swim in the evening rain.
And so to tomorrow's great showdown. The only problem? Persistent drizzle again here in mid-summer. And it's been that way for weeks apparently. This one could be a damp squib... either way, given the state of the pitch, the cloud and the conditions, I wouldn't like to bat first tomorrow.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Pietersen relaxed about the boos flowing on Boxing Day

KEVIN PIETERSEN is hoping the festive spirit will prevail at Kingsmead (above, with my Hilton Hotel looming behind the main stand) on Saturday and that the Christmas boos will have dried up by the time the Boxing Day Test starts in Durban.

In fact, the pre-Christmas spirit, with the wives and girlfriends now in the England hotel, is so strong, Pietersen even held out an olive branch to South African captain Graeme Smith, insisting: “He’s turned into a really nice guy.”

You can almost hear the “Ho, ho, ho” as he prepares to play back where it all began for him in 1999 where he got 61 not out and four wickets for the Natal Dolphins against Nasser Hussain’s England tourists. Apparently that was the day he contacted the England officials and said he was interested in switching allegiances.

Michael Vaughan, on his first tour at the time, later suggested Yorkshire should sign him, but he ended up with Nottinghamshire, then Hampshire. And the rest is history.

Given his roots in Pietermaritzburg, about 40 miles inland, his return to this humid Indian Ocean port beneath an England cap could yet be greeted with a tirade of abuse from Kingsmead’s notorious Castle Corner.

I am currently about 200 yards from there in room 111 of the Hilton Hotel (above, it overlooks the ground) with the Living With The Lions tour party, led by the fabulously friendly Brett (see their link on this page). I've got Graeme Smith and the South Africans in the same hotel while England are 10 miles north up the coast in the Oyster Box in Umhlanga. Should be an interesting Christmas with the Proteas in the hotel bar! It's cloudy but muggy in Durban, which is packed to the rafters judging by my time in the downtown traffic jams today.

We can expect a huge crowd on Saturday, this is summer holiday time in Durban, but after his two fine knocks of 40 and 81 in the drawn first Test at Centurion were greeted with polite applause, Pietersen i s hoping he – and fellow South African-born Englishmen Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior and Andrew Strauss – are over the worst of the abuse.

Not that it gets to him of course. He said: "I don't mind the booing. The opposition get a fair amount of stick when they tour a country and that happens when Australia come to us.

"As long as good cricket is respected, I don't mind. I don't mind being abused on the boundary. I don't mind any of that stuff.

"When you field for 240 overs like we did in the First Test, it can be quite boring so it's fun to have some interaction with the crowd.”

Widely reviled by when he first appeared in his mother country as an Englishman during the one-day series in 2005, Pietersen, 29, says: "I have a fantastic relationship with the South African players, I don't have a single problem on the field.

"I have played with Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn in the IPL. And Graeme Smith has calmed down and turned into a really good guy.

“The only thing I don't like is when people swear and abuse you when there are kids around. I've had to ask the stewards to speak to the people concerned.

"A couple of times on this tour, kids have been waiting on the boundary for an autograph and people are swearing at me. That's not great.

"I'm not just saying it because I'm going to be a father - I never swear in front of kids."

Another man who started out in that tour match between the Dolphins and England in 1999 was a 16-year-old Hashim Amla.

Though over-shadowed by KP a decade ago, it was Amla’s patient ton in Centurion which ensured South Africa had worked their way into an unbeatable position by the end of day four.

And when he reached his century, his old Natal team-mate Pietersen was there to shake his hand. Amla, who dismissed his first century at Lord’s saying: “I’ve always thought Durban was the home of cricket,” may not be as prominent in the headlines as Pietersen, but he forms a vital part of the South African resistance movement.

Yet to score a hundred at his home ground, the generously-bearded Amla, a devout Muslim unlikely to pick up Gillette or Castle Lager as personal sponsors, grins: “Of course I would love to score a Test ton at Kingsmead, but I don’t look too far ahead.

“I’m just concerned about the process of batting, focusing on each ball as it comes, doing my job.

“If you start thinking too far ahead, you upset that process.”

Often criticised for his awkward stance and stolid approach, the happily low-key Amla, born in Durban to a family from Gujarat, adds: “So long as I score runs, nobody will say anything. But when I got through a bad patch, I expect the same old comments to come out.”

England are set to field an unchanged side on Boxing Day, with coach Andy Flower refusing to axe the off-form Ian Bell for an extra seamer in Ryan Sidebottom. South Africa are still waiting for a final verdict on Dale Steyn’s hamstring.

The world’s top-ranked Test bowler withdrew at the last minute before the first Test but Amla, who could yet become South Africa's first non-white captain, argues: “Dale Steyn’s return is the key for us. He brings so much experience to our bowling unit. But we aren’t worried about that. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

The first British journalist into England's training camp... ME (and me dad and me brother!)

YESTERDAY I became the first British journalist allowed to view the England training camp before the 2010 World Cup.

And believe me, it wasn’t easy. Hidden behind the faded motel entrance (pictured, right) the Bafokeng Royal Sports Palace Complex isn’t even finished yet. Exactly 6km (about two-and-a-half-miles) beyond the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which rises out of nowhere in Phokeng, just outside Rustenburg, Fabio Capello’s pre-tournament home is emerging out of the platinum-rich red earth.

England will play the USA at the recently-revamped 50,000-capacity Palace on June 12. But their high-altitude base is the key to success. Hidden behind a peeling sign proclaiming “Sun Gardens Motel” an unbelievable centre for sports excellence is being built in secret, funded by the local Bafokeng tribe, who claim a percentage of the platinum profits.

But British journalists and hopeful onlookers are kept at arm’s length between Phokeng and Boshoek, two tiny African villages outside Rustenburg. We drove for miles searching for the mystical England training complex, expecting huge signage, before a local explained: “It’s behind that tree.”

In disbelief, we crossed the N14 to Sun City, about 100km from the international airport in Johannesburg, which we had travelled for some time. And the gateman at the apparently drab “Sun Gardens Motel” told us: “The Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex is here sir. But you are not allowed in.”

But we are old hands at this. My locally-based father Bob, my brother Glynn and I have already discovered the German base at Velmore Estate, the Italian camp at Leriba Lodge and the USA base at Irene, all near the Test cricket ground in Centurion.

After much persuasion, the gateman called up the big guy. Mark Ferguson, group security in charge of keeping prying eyes away from England’s base. Built to satisfy the king of the Bafokeng, Kagosi Leruo Molotgeti, England have the prime spot for their World Cup preparations. But nobody is allowed to see it.

While Spain, Italy, Argentina and the like face bus journeys between their hotels, training grounds and World Cup venues, England have it all on their doorstep as they prepare to dominate Group C in June next year.

Ferguson confirmed: “The tribe are funding all of this, it’s going to be a sporting centre of excellence for years to come. We are the highest point in South Africa, 100m higher than Johannesburg and Pretoria at 1500m.

“It sets teams up for playing at altitude. We will have the New Zealand and Australia rugby teams preparing here for the Tri-Nations. All kinds of sports teams will come here. But at the moment, we’re trying to keep things under wraps, no journalists allowed. No visitors”

There followed a brief chat. It turns out Ferguson, from Durban, used to play football in Kwa Zulu Natal. I know his old mates. He lets us through the gate, beyond the Sun Gardens Motel, which appears to be a lowly front for what is to come.

We follow him on his quad bike, into the complex. Five plastic pitches are being prepared. Ten grass pitches, unfairly criticised by Capello for having bare patches, are taking shape. They’ll be perfect by May, the rains are good. At least 12 floodlight pylons are already up, with the actual lights still to come.

This is an African sporting paradise. Two of the four sections of the luxury hotel were released by the builders in November. Two more are still to come. The Presidential suites are fabulous, the mirrors are huge, the players will want for nothing. And there is a high-spec gym under construction, with oxygen chambers and all a modern footballer could wish for.

“Look, this is a project still under development. We can’t even confirm England are staying here,” says Ferguson with a wry grin, “We will be ready by May though. You’d be amazed what we can do here, and we are only using local labour. The overseas experts will be brought in later.”

Across the road lies the Kedar country hotel, already fully booked for the World Cup. You’d pay £1,000 a night to book the Presidential Suite here, in a hotel with game lodge attached. Beautiful.

In six months, England will be perfectly placed for their World Cup crusade, David Beckham’s final attempt to end 43 years of hurt. Wife Victoria and the WAGS will be based in a lodge like Kedar or Sun City, South Africa’s Las Vegas, 30 miles up the road.

If we don’t win the World Cup from here, in the middle of nowhere, we never will. With the African nations all suffering in the draw in Cape Town on December 4 and England facing the USA down the road before games against Slovenia in Cape Town and Algeria in Port Elizabeth. They’ll pop down to the coast for those two games to maintain their altitude acclimatisation. When you play at sea-level after training inland, you can run forever.

And then they come back to Phokeng, barely three miles from here, for their first knock-out encounter. It couldn’t be any better. England are looking good for the World Cup 2010. As long as you know where to look.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Pietersen: I'm nearly back to my best for Boxing Day

Kevin Pietersen returns to the ground where he made his first impact AGAINST England 10 years ago, insisting: "I am nearly back to my best."

Pietersen, who scored 61 not out for the KwaZulu Natal Dolphins as a 19-year-old against Nasser Hussain's England at Kingsmead in 1999, heads into the second Test against South Africa on Boxing Day on the back of a match-saving 81 in the second innings of the drawn Test in Centurion on Sunday.

After a troubled operation on his Achilles tendon in the middle of the Ashes series in July, the 29-year-old, born 56 miles inland from Durban at Pietermaritzburg, said: "Learning to trust my leg was a big thing for me but I am almost there and hopefully the consistent batting will come back at some stage and I think I am almost there. Technically-wise, I think I am almost back to my best."

Pietersen shrugged off the suicidal run-out that ended his resistance and led to gloating from South Africa captain Graeme Smith saying: "That run-out was my fault and I held my hands up and apologised for it. It was just a bit of a brain freeze. Well, not really a brain freeze, it was a case of trying to rotate the strike.

"It is the way that I play. I make mistakes but I was actually really restrained all day and played an innings that is not typically me. Even the dismissal was restrained. It was played right under the eyes and I just misjudged a run."

Pietersen, who put on 145 runs for the fourth wicket with Cape Town-born Jonathan Trott, added: "The important thing was that three and four batted in a partnership.Paul Collingwood, at five, and myself have formed a good partnership of the last few years in terms of how we have gone about things.

"Our top-order has always been 20 for three or 10 for two and if we can get some consistency so that one, two, three, four, five and six can bat really well together and build partnerships then, for the England cricket team, it will be magnificent."

On Saturday, Pietersen will face severe barracking from Kingsmead's notorious Castle Corner. He said : "I believe we can score runs against their bowling attack but we need to take 20 wickets.

"Graeme Smith is a big wicket for us, so if we can keep getting him out cheaply, and manage to nip Jacques Kallis out, I think it puts a lot of pressure on the other players."

Neal Collins' novel "A Game Apart", the book you must read before the World Cup, is now available.