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Breakneck car-rides, dense fog, hyperbaric chambers - in our correspondent's look back at the first couple of weeks of the Test half of England's South Africa tour
December 22, 2009
Matches: South Africa v England at Centurion | South African Invitational XI v England XI at East London | South African Invitational XI v England XI at East London
Series/Tournaments: England tour of South Africa
Shepherds Bush, West London, to East London, South Africa. A 17-hour journey via Johannesburg. There shouldn't be any jetlag as the time difference from the UK is two hours. Try telling my body that. Collapse on the bed and vow to start the tour tomorrow.
Rain. Lots of it. Open the curtains and can barely see the building across the street. England cancel practice and head to the gym. Kevin Pietersen speaks to the press later and says he finds being booed "amusing". If he lives up to his word and uses it as motivation, the local crowds may have to reconsider applauding him to the crease.
Gets so foggy, the sea disappears from my sea-view window. There's an almighty thunderstorm during the night. Did I actually get on a plane?
Apparently one of biggest tourist attractions in East London is a stuffed fish. Decide to pass, partly because England manage an outdoor training session, and partly because it's a stuffed fish.
The net bowlers give Pietersen a working over but he is gracious and nods at the good deliveries. Tyron Henderson, the Middlesex allrounder, pops in and is greeted by a few of the England players. His son seems more interested in playing hide and seek. A few of us realise Adil Rashid isn't with the team and are told he has stayed with the Performance Squad in Pretoria for match practice.
Cricket, there is actually cricket. It was tough enough waiting three days; England's players had barely got outside for a week and a half. Charl Pietersen, who managed five first-class wickets in two seasons at Northamptonshire, takes two in his opening spell. Then more rain. What a pain.
Sun stays out all day. Graeme Swann gives a typically flamboyant press conference after taking six wickets and missing out on a hat-trick by a whisker. He did, though, bag three in four balls with the help of Matt Prior's jokes. "The batsman was still laughing because Matt Prior said something funny, bless him," Swann said. "He said there are two things you should never do: cut a spinner and pat a burning dog."
Mickey Arthur reveals Jacques Kallis has been using an oxygen chamber in an attempt to be fit for the first Test. It's the type of hyperbaric chamber that divers use when they have the bends.
Off to Potchefstroom, west of Johannesburg, to have a look at the South Africans during their training. A car journey that would normally take about an hour-and-a-half is done in about 45 minutes - there is a press conference to get to. Day ends with the heaviest thunderstorm imaginable. Even the locals say it is unusually heavy. Roads turn to rivers. Try to wait until the worst passes but still get drenched.
Like Lord's, there's some good drainage at Senwes Park. Twelve hours after being under water, the outfield is fine for the South Africans to train on.
Speak to Makhaya Ntini ahead of his 100th Test. He's in fine form and happy to indulge in a range of stories, including the famous one about his broken shoes. "When I left home I tied them with wires all over, and when I bowled one ball it all fell off, but you can't stop, so each time you run in, the shoe flaps and you have to try not to trip. It was one of those tough times."
Back in East London, Ryan Sidebottom takes five wickets. Makes for an interesting selection meeting ahead of the first Test.
Arrive back in Johannesburg during the afternoon. This time the car journey does take 90 minutes. Head along to a screening of the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, where England collect the team award. At least this time they don't have to be up in the middle of the night as they were in Lahore in 2005.
The long build-up continues with a trip to the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. South Africa likes its sporting universities. Maybe that's why they are quite good. Argentina will base themselves at the HPC during the football World Cup and will take over most of the campus. The England Performance Programme has been here for five weeks, staying in dorm rooms. These are being ripped out and replaced with luxury bedrooms for the footballers. Who says they are pampered?
Attend a briefing about the Umpire Decision Review System from Dave Richardson. The process has merit but the players must learn to use it properly. And there's no Hotspot in this series. Not enough cameras in the world.
First sight of the Centurion Park pitch and it almost blends in with the outfield. Michael Vaughan says it reminds him of the drop-in surface in Christchurch in 2002, when Nasser Hussain made one of his finest hundreds, Matthew Hoggard claimed seven, and then it turned into a batting paradise on which Nathan Astle careered to 222 off 168 balls. Something similar now would make for an interesting start to this series.
Finally, it's back to Test cricket. It's strange seeing players in whites facing up to three slips and a gully. It's a proper day of five-day action. Jacques Kallis makes a typically cussed hundred. England aren't impressed with the review system when AB de Villiers survives a caught-behind appeal. It won't be the first moment of controversy.
Stuart Broad is any angry young man. After being given out lbw on review (correctly, it has to be added) he remonstrates about the time it took for South Africa to make up their minds. That's another review story to write then. Thankfully Graeme Swann makes a career-best 85, which means we can talk about something else as well. It also means he faces the media again. Cue the gags. "I haven't had much chance to speak to them yet," he says of the top order. "But I'll be going back to give them a lecture in about 20 minutes."
Spend 15 minutes chatting with Omar Henry. It's a special Test for him as he watches Makhaya Ntini play his 100th match. Henry was denied a proper international career, but he has no regrets. "The idea of representing my country was almost non-existent. At the time I was in my 20s, and it was almost impossible to think I would ever play. So when the time came there was no regret. It was more an achievement of the impossible."
Test cricket again shows its capacity to thrill. England are comfortably saving the Test when Jonathan Trott is brilliantly caught at slip and 11 overs later England are nine down. It's left to Graham Onions to block 12 balls after Paul Collingwood can't regain the strike for the final over. At this rate Andrew Strauss will be the next England captain to need a visit to Advanced Hair Studios. "I was a great Test," Strauss says. "I was going to say we are fortunate to get into these situations, but we aren't." Who needs Monty Panesar?
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