August 8, 2012

Cakes and ale

There's plenty of both on offer when one is touring England

July 23
South Africa need six wickets at The Oval. England need to bat out the day. First, a complimentary ride on the London Eye. Picked the right day for it, too. Bright, azure skies allow for seemingly endless vision. The dome of St Paul's Cathedral peaks out at first, before disappearing into a sea of buildings. The famous Gherkin, Waterloo Station, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben all appear. In the distance the Horseguards' Parade readies to host the Olympic beach volleyball tournament. Feels like the centre of the world.

So does the underground to The Oval. Crammed on the way there and jammed on the escalator out. Eventually everyone is let through without having to scan their Oyster cards. A packed fifth-day crowd appreciates Matt Prior's efforts and Dale Steyn's wickets with equal gusto. South Africa take a giant step to No. 1. Graeme Smith heads to Heathrow minutes after the win. His daughter, Cadence, is due.

July 24
The hottest day of the year in London, so far: 31 degrees, say the meteorologists. I can feel every one of them. Head to the Disney office for a meet and greet. Get on the wrong train and go a stop too far. Mistake quickly fixed. Mickey Mouse greets me with his typically wide grin but everything else about the Hammersmith building is serious. ESPNcricinfo's desks are in front of a massive wall photograph of Lord's. Say hello to the editorial teams of our sister sites - ESPNsoccernet and ESPNscrum - before guesting on Switch Hit.

Wander through South Kensington, mainly because it has the same name as the suburb I grew up in. Meet a friend in the evening at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Called "the most important theatre in Europe" by the New York Times, it is a theatre-cum-bookstore-cum-restaurant-and-bar and one of many impressive cultural sites to explore.

July 25
Back on the road, this time to Worcester. Place reminds me of a mixture of some of South Africa's smaller venues. Benoni, East London and Kimberley come to mind. On the way to a stroll along the Severn, a man collapses in the street and the people who stop to help ask my companion and me if they can use our mobile phone to call the ambulance. We oblige.

July 26
New Road greets us with warmth but there is ample evidence of how the weather has ravaged it, as recently as two weeks ago. The flood-o-meter on the back of the Basil D'Oliveira Stand shows how high the water came in in years gone by: 2007 was the worst, when almost half the stands were submerged. Worcestershire put a new drainage system in after that. David Leatherdale, the chief executive, says that was probably the only reason the tour match against the South Africans was able to go ahead after heavy rain threatened to soak the ground again.

July 27 Cricket. A two-day tour match against Worcestershire starts minus Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla, who are being rested, and Smith, who is at home.

Spicy start. Rookie seamer Chris Russell removes both Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen cheaply. AB de Villiers cashes in.

About 200 miles away, something else, something bigger, is starting - the London Olympics. A cricket scene features in the Danny Boyle spectacular. Caster Semenya, the 800m runner who was subject to gender testing after the World Championships in Berlin three years ago, is the South African flag-bearer. Remember covering her ordeal then. Hope she can be one of the 14 medal winners the country is aiming for.

July 28 The South African batting trio who most need time in the middle - Petersen, Rudolph and JP Duminy - don't get much. Russell takes another three wickets and is overwhelmed by his success.

The Ladies' Pavilion tea and cake is the highlight of the trip to New Road. An enormous selection of sponges, biscuits and other delicacies are on sale. The packed crowd, including me, jostle to get a bite.

De Villiers and Allan Donald are tasked with addressing the media afterwards because the team will enjoy a day off on Sunday. De Villiers' interview is interrupted by young autograph-seekers. On realising it wasn't a signing session, they put their phones on the table and record him instead. Donald is more intimidating and the kids melt away when he makes a reference to Morne Morkel becoming a mongrel.

July 29
Spend the morning browsing newspapers at the quaint Boston Tea Party café in Worcester. Olympic hype dominates. The journey to Leeds via Birmingham is entirely rained on but beautiful nonetheless. Lush countryside dotted with red-brick houses paint the sort of picture-book scenes associated with this country, and thankfully there's time to enjoy it.

The team need to find fancy dress for a visual improvisation session that night. Kallis chooses to dress up as a hot dog.

South Africans continue to rack up accolades at the Olympics. Cameron van der Burgh wins gold in the 100 metre breaststroke - South Africa's first gold medallist since Athens 2004.

July 30
The hotel receptionist says Headingley is "about an hour's walk" from the city centre. Decide to take the bus instead. Cricket stadium, rugby league stadium and university are all in one area.

Easily the most different press box I have ever seen. It doubles as a lecture theatre, slopes steeply, and has a few back rows with no desks in front of them.

Later, walk through the streets of a new city. Intriguing gothic edge to it. Decide to dine at Jamie's Italian, run by Jamie Oliver. Expect stupidly expensive but it is not. Without doubt the best meal of the tour so far.

July 31
South Africa's management team invite the media out for a mingling session. Although all familiar faces, we don't know that much about each other. Time to learn. Team physiotherapist Brandon Jackson has run the Comrades Marathon - a race of 90km - 25 times. "I do it to keep fit," he tells me. Assistant coach Russell Domingo has no plans of joining him, although he has started an intense fitness programme of his own. Mohammad Moosajee, team manager, recalls his visit to the UK in 1991, which ended before it began because of logistical issues. He had not been back until the victorious tour of 2008.

Three of the touring party are fasting - Moosajee, security officer Zunaid, and statistical analyst Prasanna - and they are hosted at a small table after 9pm to eat their sunset meal. The 18 hours between their morning and evening meals sound impossibly long.

August 1
The day is all about Rudolph. Yorkshire is where he spent five years reviving his international career, and he has fond memories of his "second home". Ground staff, office clerks and old friends are all desperate for time with him and his wife, Elna.

In keeping with the Gary Kirsten way, there does not appear to be a team dinner the night before the Test. Jacques and Elna meet some friends at one of the restaurants they used to most enjoy going to.

August 2
Round two of the contest begins. Headingley plays a trick on England's selection plans again. They opt for all pace. Andrew Strauss fields first. South Africa lose their first wicket with the score on 120. Petersen defies all odds and scores a fighting century. Looks as though nothing can go wrong for South Africa.

August 3
But something does go wrong. Petersen strains his hamstring and cannot open the batting in the second innings. His 182 was a struggle but one he won at the end.

The Two Chucks have invited a bunch of us for fish and chips at the famous Brett's restaurant, frequented most notably by John Arlott. He held his retirement function there and the photograph of him on the wall was taken on that day.

There's a wonderful symmetry to this trip. Having met the D'Oliveiras at Worcester, it is eye-opening to see a place where Arlott was in his element. The stories of England and South Africa's cricketing journeys are closely tied and at Brett's the closeness is highlighted.

August 4
Kevin Pietersen scores a century that will stay in the memory for years to come. South Africa's bowlers come under attack for the first time in the series and run out of plans against a batsman who can own any stage he chooses. A strangely cold air hangs over his press conference. He speaks about his century in a weirdly humble way and kills all questions about his future plans with sharpness. There is a sense that the match has come alive and South Africa will be in for a fight.

August 5
A lot of the tension evaporates when Pietersen is dismissed off the second ball of the morning. England end up with a six-run lead and repeated rain intervals stifle the contest.

Leeds City Centre is shut for a gay pride parade, which is still in full swing when we head back to the hotel. Rainbow-coloured flags and disco music fill the air. Outfits I would be happy to own, most made of lace and organza, are on display and the mood is festive.

Usain Bolt wins the 100m sprint in 9.63 seconds. Wonder what kind of fast bowler he would have made.

August 6
A Test that seemed headed for the inevitable ends that way but takes a detour along the way. Stuart Broad's burst, Graeme Smith's declaration and England's positive intent with the bat all combine for an exciting passage of play. The night will be filled with work but a quieter tomorrow awaits, with a chance for some rare time off while the team attends the Games.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent