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So this is it. The tour everyone wants to go on. The visit to the country that is the home of cricket which will culminate with a Test at ground known as the home of cricket.
It's supposed to be cricket everywhere. Not just any kind of cricket. Cricket the old-fashioned, white-picket fence, actual tea at tea-time kind of way. Cricket from the story books and I'm getting to write my own.
After taking the long way around, which included a seven-hour stopover in Abu Dhabi, Paddington Station arrived with the same rush as the train that took me to it. With time to kill and curiosity bubbling, my first stop was a coffee shop where a chat with a lady led to a strange co-incidence.
A question about the practice of tipping in English cafés, turned into a conversation about respective lives and, as luck would have it, to cricket. Jennie Milnes was my companion and on hearing what I do, told me about her father, Richard Ashley and her childhood in Mumbai. She only remembers Ashley "playing for India," (he actually played for Mysore in the Ranji Trophy in the 1930s and for the Europeans in the Bombay Pentangular Tournament) and how he "loved the game of cricket so much that he would play anywhere, in any village, with anyone."
He also played for Somerset, which happened to be the first stop for me and South Africa. A walk through Hyde Park, a marvel at the many inviting restaurants in the area , including a particularly quaint coffee shop called Markus (started by Hungarians, now owned by a Pakistani and with a Jamaican head waiter) and a drenching in an afternoon shower later, and I was on the train to the West country.
Somerset County Cricket Club has been described by many as "a South African's second home." From Jimmy Cook to Richard Levi, African cricketers from our country have found a place in Taunton and many of them have made a lasting impact on the club. Graeme Smith's leadership style is said to have turned around the 2005 season, when he led Somerset to victory in the Twenty20 competition. Vernon Philander played for them in this year's first-class competition and took a five-for on debut, Albie Morkel and Levi are currently involved here and Faf du Plessis would have signed on, if not for his national commitments.
Another South African, Paul Lawrence, has also entrenched himself in the club. He and his wife, Chantelle, have lived here for 13 years and have found a small enclave of other South Africans. Lawrence is the spin coach at Somerset and works in the junior divisions. He is also the coach of Gibraltar, who are competing in the World Cricket Leagues. His accent is almost entirely English but Chantelle's is clearly Afrikaans and she even speaks the language to their 15-month-old son, Xavier. Meeting them was like catching up with old friends and we immediately made plans to be in touch.
With so much hospitality going around, the only thing that set Somerset apart from South Africa was the hundred-year-old buildings there that are likely to catch my eye right through the tour. One of them had a particularly attention-grabbing sign in front of it, "South African biltong for the cricket." This is it then, cricket and home, just like it's supposed to be. Let the tour begin.
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