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Get a load of the east coast, and a furore about racism, on the first leg of our correspondent's Australia tour
November 17, 2012
Board the now well-used Gautrain to the airport. At Sandton station, catch a glimpse of Mark Boucher stepping off. He looks well. His non-profit rhino conservation company is being launched today. He was not due to go on this tour anyway and would have retired after the England series had he not been forced to so by injury. First tour for me without him - and for every member of the squad except Jacques Kallis.
Arrive in Sydney late in the afternoon. Long drive through the city gets the eyes wandering. Then out to the western suburb of Ashfield. Geographically, not the best booking. It's quiet, but a short walk down the road reveals a bustling immigrant quarter. Serious jet lag sets in. Worse than when travelling to New Zealand even. No choice but to take an early night.
Am informed it will take two bus rides to get to the SCG. The first stop is at Hyde Park. Fond memories of the London version and its beautiful running routes. This one looks just as good. Second bus needs a prepaid ticket. Don't have one. Sympathetic driver agrees to provide an all-day pass for just $2.50.
The SCG and surrounds soon loom large. A statue of Steve Waugh is the first artistic touch. Stroll along the walk of honour, where plaques have been erected in tribute to some of the country's most loved and respected sportsmen. Don Bradman, rugby union legends the Ella brothers and John Eales, and rugby league players Ken and Dick Thornett.
South Africa hold an open media session at nets. JP Duminy recounts his successes of 2008, AB de Villiers explains away his bad back, Dale Steyn talks about legally being able to kill people with a ball, and Vernon Philander laughs at the suggestion he will finally struggle. Afterwards do some work in the café next to the gym and pool. Magnificent facilities, just like Andrew Hudson said they would be.
First glimpse of the SCG field. Patchy and sandy, it looks horrible to field on. The venue itself could become a favourite, as long the character-filled ladies' and members' stands are not knocked down. Construction is on in earnest. Soon a modern stand will be put up. As a result, media are housed in the football press box, which provides an interesting, almost square-on, look at the match.
Rob Quiney impresses, but is downbeat at his presser, saying he does not think 85 will get him a national call-up. Little does he know.
In search of a good supper, stumble upon the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. A wonderful find. Fireworks on New Years' Eve must be an incredible sight.
The South African attack toils without much reward on a lifeless surface. Even Hashim Amla gets a bowl. After Alex Doolan has made enough of a case with 161, Australia A declare and the rhythm resumes, with the visiting batsmen meandering their way into form. Nothing like the fiery tour match in Potchefstroom last summer.
It's Halloween weekend and the locals are more into the occasion than most South Africans. Catch glimpses of everyone from witches to ghosts to a fully kitted-out cricketer.
Visit Michael Clarke's Western Suburbs grade cricket ground, Ashfield Park, before the day's play. Pristine in spite of its working-class reputation. Most impressive, the sculpture garden. Features a stone with the phrase "No stranger shall go empty from our door, for we ourselves eat at the doors of strangers in their land" translated into 17 languages.
Back at the SCG, Steyn ends the match with a fast, furious spell. Jacques Rudolph calls it the quickest he has seen in "six or seven years". South Africa are ready.
Not much time to take in more of Sydney. Bondi has to be saved for another trip. Darling Harbour is ticked off, though. Much like on the Cape Town waterfront, the food is pricey, the dress code smart, and tourists plentiful.
Test match week begins. Brisbane greets us with warmth, humidity, and a distinct Durban-like feel. Being a travel day, the team don't train. Not so for the journalists.
A torn contact lens necessitates a trip to the optometrist. They cannot give me a replacement without a prescription. Put in a call to Mohammed Moosajee, the South African team manager, who is also a doctor. No point. They meant a doctor registered in Australia. After much faffing and a knock on another optometrist's door, a new lens is bought.
Thank goodness, because not being able to see the Gabba would have been a regret. Its brightly coloured seats are quite fun. Australia have their open media session. I concentrate on injuries suffered by young bowlers and talk to James Pattinson. Move on to Mickey Arthur. "Howzits" all round. It's good to see him again.
Run along the Brisbane River on a route that goes through the Botanical Gardens. No sightings of koala or kangaroo, though, two animals I am keen to spot, especially because we don't have them in Africa. The green on the Gabba pitch is visible. It looks a paradise for the quickies.
The alleged Australian "dossier" is the source of much amusement for everyone, including Michael Clarke and Graeme Smith. Clarke said it made for "good reading", while Smith said South Africa prefer "the guys to have the information in their heads so we don't leave dossiers lying around". The most interesting plan is the one to Hashim Amla, which will be to sledge him. Whatever the source of the document, it sets the tone for a typical Australia-South Africa contest - full of needle.
Day one delivers almost none of the drama it promised. Instead of pace, bounce and carry, the pitch is slower than expected and flat. Amla and Kallis combine to become South Africa's most successful run-scoring pair. Most of the drama happens afterwards, when Duminy slips and ruptures his Achilles during shuttle runs.
Australian sponsors host a media event, similar to ones I have been to at home and in England. Get to know some of the local media and we discuss issues affecting cricket and society in both our countries, as soft rain falls.
Last night's drizzle has become this morning's downpour and it does not look good for cricket. The South African team leave the ground before lunch but with a good few thousand people expected in, the rest of us wait. I interview Ian Healy about his home town. He asks after Boucher's health. After 4pm, play is called off.
Clouds still hover but drainage is excellent and play begins on time. Kallis and Amla both complete centuries but Australia hit back to dismiss South Africa for 450. The much talked-about South African attack show what they are capable of. With Australia 40 for 3, eyebrows are raised. Ed Cowan and Michael Clarke dig in, and I suspect South Africa will miss Duminy's bowling more than they expected.
The local journalists introduce us to West End, a trendy suburb that reminds me of Melville, the student area I used to spend a lot of time in back home.
Cowan, Clarke and Hussey dominate in a way that makes Kallis' and Amla's innings look nothing more than appetisers. Rory Kleinveldt's debut does not improve, a shame, especially as his father has made the long journey to watch him. South Africa overstep an alarming 23 times.
Clarke's declaration duly comes, and for a few overs, South Africa's vulnerability is laid bare as they slip to an effective 14 for 4. Eventually, for the first time in 14 matches, the two sides draw a game.
The media heads for the Story Bridge Hotel, where chatter centres on Greg Ritchie's racist joke-telling. Someone overhears and joins in, insistent that what Ritchie said "wasn't that bad". He launches his own speech, filled with k-words. The South Africans flinch. Our Australian counterparts are apologetic. They tell us the word does not have as bad a connotation here. We understand.
The South African squad disperse. Many head to the Sunshine Coast. On landing in chilly Melbourne, wonder if I shouldn't have done the same. Chose to visit the Victorian capital because South Africa won't play here on this trip. Drive pass the Albert Cricket Ground on the way to the hotel. Amazed at how many excellently manicured and cared-for fields I've seen so far. My colleague Brydon warns me the water will taste different in every state because of the different minerals used. He is right. Victoria's is far more acidic.
The city-centre laneways are my office for the day. Marvel at the vintage bikes going past, while I work. Have been told Melbourne is a great city to live in and I can see why. Loads of cafés, cheaper food and drink, and endless parks.
Run along the famous Tan track. Wish we had something resembling this back home. To the left, the Rod Laver Arena is visible. Wish South Africa had played here later - could have watched some of the Australian Open perhaps. Not much more time to wish, though; the hill is steep and there will be another one to climb afterwards. The tour goes on.
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