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The past smacks you in the face when you're in England; and South Africa make their own history too
August 22, 2012
You hardly get time off on tours so this is rare. Day trip to York. Something to marvel at straightaway. The train station was the biggest in the world when it opened in 1877. Best way to describe York is as a tourist village. Beautiful gardens around the museum to picnic in. Magnificent York Minster to photograph. Gorgeous cobbled streets to walk on, including the Shambles. Timber-framed buildings with overhangs that nearly touch, in an area that used to be run by butchers. The middle area was where the blood would run down. Not the most appetising thought to take to the flea market, where there's homemade lemonade and a chocolate factory. Walk along the city walls to end the trip. Mind-boggling to think the Romans built them around 209 AD.
Last day in Leeds, to end the longest stay in a single city on tour. The South African team go the Games in London. Jacques Rudolph and Faf du Plessis watch hockey. Some of the others meet their country's athletes. We end with a trip to the Royal Armouries museum, where a historical account of war is told in a compelling, creative way. There are guns to shoot, bows and arrows to aim with, and surveys being taken on what makes a good democracy. Also contains artefacts from around the world, including the most complete set of elephant armoury, obtained from India. A more modern section upstairs details crime. A graph with homicide rates catches my eye. Embarrassed and sad to see South Africa leads, with more than 48 people per 100,000.
Derby. Never stayed so close to a cricket ground before. The hotel overlooks the field. The match could be covered from the window. Walk into town, past the world's oldest factory: a silk mill. Catch up on cricket news. Every member of the team is reported fit. Then tragedy. Word comes in that Elise Lombard, chief executive of the Titans franchise in South Africa, has died of a heart attack. It is Women's Day in South Africa. She was one of very few women directly involved in the game in the country and had given a speech the day before at Cricket South Africa's celebratory event. Will miss her and her mentorship.
Another two-day match. These start to feel like glorified practice sessions, given the structure of the game. Each side fields 14 players. AB de Villiers retires after a blistering 97. Perhaps he wants to save a three-figure effort for the Test. I think of Peter Kirsten and the stories he told about Derbyshire. He sends a message to say he wishes he was here. Something else is cooking, literally, in the ground. South Africa's first Masterchef winner, Deena Naidoo, will prepare a meal for the national team. Du Plessis, a keen chef, joins him in the kitchen afterwards to help.
On-field activities take a back seat to the saga boiling in the England camp. Newspapers report that Kevin Pietersen sent text messages to South African players that contained unflattering words about his captain. The South African camp denies it was about Andrew Strauss. Was only friendly banter, they say.
Later, a packed fan park in Derby watches Mo Farah win gold in the men's 5000 metres, to add to his first-place finish in the 10,000. The crowd disperses by the time Caster Semenya, South Africa's last medal hope, is due to run the 800 metres final. Semenya starts slow and is soon in last place. Heart sinks. She leaves the final burst too late. Every second feels more difficult to watch. In the end she gets silver. Disappointment descends. Hope can hurt.
The Olympics are ending in London, so we remain in Derby. Decide to take a walk in Cromford, part of a world heritage site, where the Industrial Revolution was born. Visit John Arkwright's cotton mill. Find "Britain's most enjoyable bookshop", Scarthin Books. A small café upstairs and some of the oldest editions of novels I have seen. The ideal place to jot a few words down. Alas, no wifi. A pub around the corner, the Boat Inn, built in the 17th century, has internet, so settle in there instead.
Back to London, where all signs of the Games seem to have disappeared, save for the pink stickers indicating Olympic venues. The South African High Commission is hosting the team at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. Nelson Mandela's statue greets us. The building itself is old-school South Africa. Dark wood, Pierneef paintings of the country's landscape, and gold trimmings. As a listed site, it has no air-conditioning.
JP Duminy recounts how he got his nickname "Koppe" which means "heads" in Afrikaans. "Some idiot thought that when I put my helmet on it made my head look big, so the name stuck." Lonwabo Tsotsobe reveals that after him the most stylish man in the squad is du Plessis, and Hashim Amla confesses that he used only one pair of batting gloves during his triple-century.
A friend from school has come from Swindon to visit. She will be married soon, and has two young sons. I consider how much has changed since the days of pigtails and sitting around the grass at break time. We lunch on Portobello Road and stroll around the market. There's definitely shopping to be done here but I ignore almost everything, although a black-and-white painting of a London street with colourful phone booths catches my eye. Notting Hill was shot on this road. Still hard to believe I am actually here.
First visit to Lord's. Looks homelier than it does on television. The pavilion is not as imposing as the camera angles make it seem. We wait in the rain in the Coronation Garden, where Andrew Strauss is so late for his press conference that Graeme Smith goes first. Kevin Pietersen has apologised for the text messages, so he dominates the agenda. Smith is visibly irritated by this. After all, his team is attempting to make history.
Officials from CSA arrive and invite the media out. While waiting for them, catch sight of Smith and his daughter, young Cadence. She is asleep in her pram and Smith is taking her for a stroll. "Mom is resting because she didn't sleep on the plane. So this is daddy's first day out," he tells me.
London's blue skies become grey just as South Africa choose to bat. They are reduced to 54 for 4, and there is a proper contest. Vernon Philander and JP Duminy rally at the end of the day, when a power cut ends play. Thought that kind of thing only happens in the "third world". Series sponsor Investec has planned a function, as they do after every opening day. And it is not cancelled despite the lack of power. The event takes place in the dark and a good time is had by all. Brian Lara puts in an appearance as well.
England bowl South Africa out for 309, and in reply they too slump to 54 for 4. Jonny Bairstow bats them into a good position in front of a Lord's crowd that wills him on every step of the way. As Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel bowl, I think of Makhaya Ntini and his ten wickets at Lord's. We seldom realise the incredible efforts bowlers put in.
Visit the Lord's museum during play. Compared to other cricket museums, especially the Basin Reserve's in Wellington, it seems to have fewer items but is equally well thought-out. EW Swanton's copy of the Wisden Almanack from 1939 is on display, along with a cap WG Grace wore in 1891, a gramophone recording by Don Bradman, and a cigarette case belonging to Ranji. There are modern touches too: a Royal Challengers Bangalore shirt and portraits of players commissioned by the MCC. Glenn McGrath's is the most thoughtful. Done soon after he lost his wife, Jane, to cancer, it shows him in darkness, with his wedding ring on.
Have been running through Hyde Park every morning. Seen many routes by now. My favourite is the rose garden and the Princess Diana memorial walk, which includes a path past Kensington Palace. The match turns in South Africa's favour. Amla's second hundred of the series allows them to set England a target of 346, and they take two wickets before the close. Thoughts of No. 1 are ever closer.
After Matt Prior and Graeme Swann threaten to take the match away from South Africa, eventually Philander wins it and South Africa are No. 1. Surreal. After so many attempts, they have finally done it. Smith can barely contain his excitement. At the post-match presser, he and Philander sit next to each other. I'm reminded of them ten Tests and eight months ago, when they were in exactly the same position on the table after South Africa beat Australia at Newlands. That was Gary Kirsten's first Test as coach. How far the team has come in such a short time.
Return to the Markus coffee shop - the one started by Hungarians, owned by a Pakistani, and with a Jamaican waiter. Reflect on the series that has passed. Every series I have covered since becoming ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent has seen the team on the verge of No. 1. Finally, they are there. Wonder what will happen from here on. Their next trip is to Australia. Will catch up with you to find out then.
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