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The weather is changeable but South Africa are steadfast, wrapping up the tour with three series wins out of three
March 28, 2012
Sunshine. Graeme Smith says what we have all been thinking: Hamilton's weather is much more hospitable now. It should not change moods as much as it does, but it does. Remember hearing that people who live in countries where gloomy skies are more common than blue ones tend to feel less upbeat. Can understand why.
Walk into the Grant Bradburn sports shop, looking for the man himself. Cricket and hockey equipment decorates the walls. Bradburn started in the retail business when he was in partnership with Billy Bowden, but went out on his own. He also coaches Northern Districts, which has produced national players in abundance over the last two seasons. He tells me how he hopes to sort out Tim Southee's form dip and that Brent Arnel will make the starting XI in the second Test.
Arnel and Mark Gillespie both make their comebacks but have to wait to actually take the field because the first session is washed out. Even though there is very little actual rain around, the outfield is too wet to play. They have to wait even longer because South Africa choose to bowl on the green "bride", as groundsman Karl Johnson calls it. There's not as much in the surface as anyone expected and New Zealand set up for a solid first-innings score. South Africa engineer a dramatic collapse and take five wickets without conceding a run to turn the day on its head. Brendon McCullum is a sorry sight at the post-day press conference and says the team had been scolded by John Wright. Makes me wonder about the temperament of the New Zealand line-up. They can see off pressure in pockets but then something gives way. What is it?
The bride turns into Bridezilla as 12 more wickets fall. Lack of application is costing most batsmen. Gillespie takes five on his return and is presented to the media for the first time most New Zealand journalists can remember. He is an abrasive personality and his words come out like knives. He says he "doesn't really care" who he gets out as long as he takes wickets. He makes a reference to a back injury that almost ended his career two years ago and says he still bowls through pain every day. He mentions an idol who said that all fast bowlers learn to push through the pain barrier but won't say who it is.
The colour of the day is still green but not because of the pitch, although the television crew play a heated match on it after the Test is over. It's St Patrick's Day. Lots of New Zealanders have some Irish heritage in them, so it promises to be a big night. The locals are headed to the Quadrant bar and we join them. The South African team is also there, celebrating victory. Smith has a small green hat perched on his head. He looks more relaxed than I have seen him in a long time. Don't see any of the New Zealand team but then remember that they have dispersed for two days off.
Have booked a bus trip to Auckland. It's the only opportunity to see the big city on this trip, with no Test at Eden Park. It's a comfortable two-hour ride from Hamilton, which starts off through the suburbs. Notice that very few houses are made of brick walls; most are timber weatherboards.
Eight hours is not nearly enough to take in everything Auckland has to offer. First stop is Devonport, a pleasant seaside town with cafés and bookstores, a 12-minute ferry ride from the harbor. From the grass banks that border the seafront, the Auckland skyline is in full glory. The Sky Tower, the tallest building in the southern hemisphere, is its defining feature. The sea is a major attraction on the day because it is the start of the fifth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. The Devonport vantage points are not crowded and provide a perfect view of the loop the six yachts travel on before setting off for Brazil.
Back in the city, architecture is the attraction of choice. Auckland is home to a variety of building styles, most of them concentrated on Queen Street. The most striking of them is the Civic Theatre, a brown building in rococo style. After a quick meet-up with a friend from high school, it's back on the bus to Hamilton.
Just as well the Test did not need five days. Rain pours down into Hamilton, unrelenting. Most of the South African squad are not around to see it - they've been given two days off to look around New Zealand. Dale Steyn, Jacques Rudolph and a few others go to Raglan beach and Lake Taupo.
With no sign of the wet weather abating, three of us decide to take umbrellas on a visit to Hamilton Gardens, built as part of a public works project. Despite having to trundle through soggy grass, it is quite romantic to wander around. The Italian and Indian gardens are the most ostentatious, the Japanese, American and English quite minimalist, and the Chinese the most thoughtful. We end with hot chocolate at a local café to warm up.
Having travelled by plane, bus, car and ferry, the only thing left to do was train. Hamilton to Wellington on the Overlander is it. Supposed to be one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. The train travels over hundreds of kilometres of volcanic land, through the Tongariro National Park and across many viaducts, including the famous Hapuawhenua one, which is 414 metres long. The real feat is the climb up the Raurimu spiral, an engineering marvel designed in 1898 that spirals up a steep slope, impossible to ascend if not for this unique design. There's no point on the spiral from which one can see the entire thing; once you've reached the top, you can see the horseshoe bend far below.
There's something quite civilised and old-school about taking a train. Even though there is no dining carriage and the lounge is a small section at the back of one of the carriages rather than an actual lounge, we all enjoy it. There is a practical benefit too. We are told taking the train was probably the best way to travel to Wellington that day because strong winds caused those on flights to experience landings of a far more exciting nature than they are used to.
More rain. And wind. Training at the Basin cancelled and moved to the Wellington School of Cricket at Westpac Stadium. Walk there in the rain and wind. Arrive too late for New Zealand's presser but in time to hear Gillespie practising Hindi. "Mera naam Mark hai," he repeats, at least three times. IPL calling? He confirms that Allan Donald is the idol he made reference to during the Hamilton game. Donald flew home the day before, to get some time off in what CSA call "a busy year".
The weather conspires against New Zealand. Rain in the morning, brief bursts of sunshine in the afternoon. New Zealand train indoors, South Africa at the Basin. First sight of the ground. Just lovely. The South African squad enjoy a run around outdoors. Everyone in high spirits except Jacques Kallis, who strains a muscle in his neck in training.
South Africa's team sheet has to be shuffled frantically as Kallis is ruled out. Reminded of his massive worth as he is replaced by two players, one to bat, one to bowl. The one to bat, JP Duminy, shows signs of being deserving of a Test recall.
Rain has become a familiar sight. More of it in the morning. Use the time to stroll around an empty Basin. Look at each of the historical reminders - the William Wakefield Monument, the plaques - and spend at least two hours in the museum. Reminders of years gone by are everywhere, including in the Norwood Room, where a reunion of the 11 members of the 15-man squad that travelled to South Africa in the summer of 1961 is being hosted. Don Neely organises the get-together. John R Reid, who enjoyed a fruitful visit of South Africa, delivers a speech about the four players and the team manager who have since died.
Wellington looks a different place. The sun shines, the wind does not blow, the air even has a little bit of warmth in it. Glorious. South Africa make good use of the conditions. Alviro Petersen and JP Duminy score hundreds. New Zealand put on their best opening stand of the series. Batsmen are in the game once again.
South Africa make sure the only results possible are a win for them or a draw. It sets up a tense final day. How much time will they give themselves to bowl New Zealand out? Will the New Zealand batsmen have the temperament to survive? The journalists ponder it in one of the many cafés in the city centre. Have not had much time to see Wellington but the little I have seen has confirmed it as the food-and-drink capital of the country.
South Africa win their third series of the tour, ticking every box. Every member of the team has performed. The smiles are wide. All-round. Jacques Rudolph and Kruger van Wyk share a drink in the change room afterwards. It hasn't been a marquee series but it has been competitive. Pity it had to end so soon. Maybe a pop-in at the famous Te Papa Museum tomorrow and then the start of the 11-time zone travel back to South Africa. Thank you, New Zealand. We made some good memories.
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