July 23, 2012

Speaking gibberish, haunting cathedrals

For a South African journalist in England, there are plenty of things to see and do that she hasn't before

July 6
To get in character for this trip, arrive at OR Tambo airport and drink tea with something resembling cake, buy Three Men in a Boat for airplane reading, and brush up on the monarchy. Take the scenic route via Abu Dhabi. The airport has two circular levels with shops and restaurants. But not enough to fill seven hours of waiting time in the middle of the night. Just as time begins to seem endless, I meet a six-year-old Irish lass. Living in Kuwait, Lucy is travelling home for the holidays and says she is learning Arabic on the flight to add to the three other languages she spoke. "English, French and Gibberish!"

July 7
London Heathrow. Not as busy as I expected. Passport control, baggage collection, SIM card purchase, all completed inside 40 minutes. Plenty of time to get to Paddington station and wait for the train to Taunton. Time to walk the streets around Hyde Park, to marvel at Marble Arch, and for a coffee and a chat with the Jamaican waiter at Markus about the shop's Hungarian founders. Time also to get rained on by a fierce but quick downpour and buy a £5 umbrella. It comes in handy later on.

July 8
Work begins. Somerset County Cricket Ground as gorgeous as it's been talked up to be. In sunshine, South Africa train outdoors. Autograph-hunters wait in the passage near the dressing room and stop every player. Did not expect to see grown men asking for signatures but they do. Players oblige happily. Meet a fellow Southern African, Mark Salter, who will be covering the tour for the Avusa newspaper group back home. After 20 years working at the Telegraph, he plans to return to Cape Town in September. Immediately, we are friends.

July 9
Work really begins. After a fairly uneventful start to the two-day runaround against Somerset, Mark Boucher is hit in the eye by a bail. He leaves the field as reporters scramble to find out what the exact injury is. With no television coverage, photographers are the best sources. Their pictures show blood coming out of Boucher's eye. South Africa's media officer, Lerato Malekutu, earns her pay with quick information. Boucher will have surgery that evening and the news does not look good.

July 10
Wake up to a 5am text message to say Boucher has been ruled out of the series. His eyeball has been lacerated and he will fly home to recover. The cricket goes on and a press conference is called at lunch. Graeme Smith reads out Boucher's retirement statement. Jacques Kallis is at his side. Both are sombre. More telling is the expression on team manager Mohammad Moosajee's face. We are told Boucher may not see out of that eye again. He is due to return home that night and the show will go on without him.

July 11
Can't enjoy Taunton enough, given the circumstances, but there is time for a last walk around the historic town centre before leaving for Canterbury. Trains are not common forms of transport in South Africa, so there is still a lot to get used to, especially when it comes to working in a moving vehicle.

Ending years of speculation about who will succeed Boucher as South Africa's keeper, Thami Tsolekile is named his replacement. He gets mixed reactions - there are those who believe in his ability as a gloveman and those who doubt his talents as batsman. Those thoughts are put down on the railway journey, which leaves me a little queasy. There's rain on arrival in Canterbury and a quiet night in an old Victorian-style hotel.

July 12
Being on tour presents few opportunities to be a tourist but this morning is one of them. Canterbury Cathedral. An imposing and majestic structure, it is also the perfect place for a journalist because it is full of stories. The guides have encyclopaedic knowledge. They tell tales of Thomas Becket's murder and of the tomb of King Henry IV. The annual graduation is taking place, but although that limits the number of rooms that could be explored, the organ music and cheering add to the aura.

Later on, South Africa host an open media session. Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Alviro Petersen are our victims. Steyn impresses the English media the most, with his jibes and mischievous sense of humour. Once he is done with the Sundays, we chat about the first time he came to England, on an Under-14 school tour. He saw only one county ground, the one in Canterbury.

July 13
Another casualty for the tourists. Marchant de Lange's back injury will take too long to heal so he is going home, massively disappointed. Tsolekile joins the camp, as does Albie Morkel. Imran Tahir takes his best figures in a South Africa shirt to prove his worth, and there is some cricket to write about again.

July 14
Rain ruins valuable practice time for South Africa. The day's play is called off just after lunch and Russell Domingo is presented to the media. One of the better talkers in the South African camp, he is honest about the preparation. He also clarifies the confusion over Tsolekile, who he says will not take the gloves in the first Test but has been told he has to wait in line. There's some time to take in Canterbury's High Street, an area filled with buildings recognised by the historic council. Structures this old don't exist in South Africa, and the novelty of seeing these is yet to wear off.

July 15
South Africa's bowlers struggle for the second match in succession on an unhelpful surface, which turns out to be ideal preparation for the Test. Two youngsters, Daniel Bell-Drummond and Sam Northeast, put on a 105-run stand. Bell-Drummond is touted as the next big thing, and even though he has to rush off to join the England Under-19 squad, I am allowed a few minutes with him. He is mature and engaging and talks about his West Indian heritage with great fondness. He recalls being scared of South Africa's attack and is bashful when Steyn interrupts our conversation to congratulate him.

July 16
A run through a beautiful park in the city caps off the trip to Canterbury. It is not without its perils - cattle gratings are almost impossible to run through without falling. The scratch stings all the way to London, on another train.

July 17
Feel as though I know the Thames intimately, thanks to Jerome K Jerome, and the sights are familiar. An unfamiliar one is of Shaun Pollock, who comes speeding past on his morning jog and mounts a flight of steep stairs with speed. The area around the London Eye is full of Olympic branding and it's clear what will be the main focus for the next few weeks.

First trip to The Oval and the first proper meeting with the bulk of the English press. Kallis holds the first preview press conference but does not give much away besides his golf handicap, which is five.

July 18
It is Nelson Mandela's birthday. Smith makes sure to mention it in his press conference. He talks candidly about the goals for the series and the desire to make it to No.1. South Africans have heard all this before.

The South African players hold a training camp for children at a local club. Some of the club's players were badly injured when a tree fell on them during a match and the players thought it would make them feel secure about the game again to be coached by internationals. The session lasts just over an hour and gives players like Morne Morkel, who loves children, a chance to relax before a big day.

The ESPNcricinfo office relaxes with a team dinner. Faces are finally put to names as all of us converge in Hammersmith. Australia correspondent Daniel Brettig is also in town and he joins in. Andrew McGlashan promises to pick up the tab.

July 19
A day that was supposed to have been washed out is fairly dry. So are South Africa's bowlers. A flat effort on a flat deck makes for a tough day of Test cricket. Despite the attrition of the contest, there is a feeling of anti-climax among the packed crowd. Vernon Philander goes his first day in Tests without taking a wicket and Steyn appears to be nursing a niggle. His ankle is strapped and he is off the field for large chunks of time.

Allan Donald arrives at the press conference looking very grumpy. He denies rumours that Steyn is injured and denies the team is undercooked. He isn't usually so brusque and leaves giving the distinct impression that there is unhappiness in the South African camp.

July 20
Steyn storms back into the match with two wickets in two overs and England lose eight wickets for 134. Matt Prior defies the South African attack but the rest give it away. England are dismissed for under 400 but take out Alviro Petersen with just 1 on the board. Smith and Amla calm the situation with a partnership interrupted by rain and there is nothing to choose between the teams at the end of it.

July 21
Smith becomes the seventh man to score a hundred in his 100th Test. He is relaxed and friendly afterwards. His wife, Morgan Deane, is due to give birth in three days and jokingly tweets that her water broke when he reached the milestone. The match has finally swung. South Africa are in control and England's bowling coach, David Saker, admits there is no way back for his team.

July 22
Amla makes the highest individual score for South Africa, with an innings of class, elegance and poise. Some of the men he surpasses - Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers - are in the dressing room to applaud his effort. Kallis scores an important century alongside him and gestures to his eye in celebration, a tribute to his friend Boucher. Have never seen a stadium full for all four days of a Test. South Africa are in control and the series is set up to be a classic.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent