December 18, 2013

Rain, marimbas and memorials

When great men die, it pours. And South Africans break into song and dance

December 3
7:30am. OR Tambo Airport. Immigration officer talkative. As ever. Talk about cricket. Promise rain is headed towards Johannesburg. They all talk a lot. Wonder if being talkative is something of a job requirement - to do with looking for shifty-eyed dodgy arrivals. Then again, they seem genuinely nice, which is at odds with the visa process over the last week. Unannounced holiday on Friday. Long weekend. Visa delayed by three days. Organisational mayhem. Three days lost in an already shortened tour. Don't believe in jinxes. Drop bags and go straight to the Wanderers.

Weird to not be allowed to walk down the tunnel. Did that the last time, in 2010-11. On first day in South Africa, and also before an ODI later in the tour. Walked right down the 36 steps. Empathised with batsmen who take that lonely walk.

December 4
"Four Seasons in One Day". Song written by Neil Finn, an Aucklander. As part of Crowded House, a Melbourne-based band. Matter of debate which city inspired it. The weather in neither can make its mind up. Might well be about Johannesburg of December 2013. Stars visible at 4.30am. Thick fog at 5. Sunny at 8. Rains at 10. Unbearably hot at 11. Cold ten minutes later. Woke up early not out of habit or jet-lag. To retrieve wallet forgotten in gym. No rest for the devil. "Smiling as the shit comes down," to quote the song.

December 5
First match. India walk into blind alley. South African pitches, despite being difficult to bat on, not for bowlers who just put the ball there, hoping for the rest to happen by itself. Right areas overrated. India go for 358. Batsmen under too much pressure. Rohit Sharma takes 15 balls from Dale Steyn before touching one. Ulwamkelo to South Africa.

This is also Pink Day. Wanderers and everybody inside is in pink. To raise awareness for breast cancer. Sunil Gavaskar, doing commentary, urges everyone to wear something pink. Point him to the Pink Floyd t-shirt. Sunny not too impressed. Get a pink hat.

December 6
Midnight. Tired and woozy. Music stops in bars. News channels come on. Nelson Mandela is dead. Spend rest of night outside Mandela's house in Houghton. Lovely scenes of impromptu songs being sung and dances being danced. Hussein Manack, former first-class cricketer and now a commentator, of Indian descent, is here. Still dressed in pink. Struggle songs, Nelson Mandela songs, gospel songs. People of all colour present. Mandela would have loved it. It's 5am, about the time he used to go on his runs. People still coming in. Got to leave for an early flight to Durban. Do a quiet Mandela Jive after reaching hotel.

Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala dead too. Popular boxer. Mandela once said he didn't want to be invited to parties where Baby Jake is present. Baby Jake would get the bigger reception

December 7
Durban. Feels like home. More intimate than Johannesburg. Has the sea. Kingsmead more intimate too. Know groundsman Wilson Ngobese, first black head groundsman in South Africa. None of the touchiness that other groundsmen display. Can walk right up to the pitch, knock it with knuckles. Can feel amount of moisture with palm. Some other grounds in other parts of world won't let non-captains look at the pitch before the toss.

Wilson has aged over the last three years. Doesn't want to talk about pitch when the recorder is pulled out. "Makes me feel like I have done something wrong." Don't need Wilson to say pitch is so green it is hard to tell it from square. Dale Steyn loves it. Says they might already have scared some India batsmen.

Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala dead too. Popular boxer. Mandela, an amateur boxer himself, loved him. Once said he didn't want to be invited to parties where Baby Jake is present. Baby Jake would get a bigger reception. Believers in life after death say friends have been reunited.

December 8
India lose again. Bowlers profligate again despite a pull-back to keep South Africa to 280. Batsmen try more shots this time around. Fall faster than in the last game. Over in India, Murali Kartik in controversy over mankading batsman in Ranji Trophy. How silly to blame bowler when batsman is out of line. Kartik even warned the batsman. Not that keepers warn batsmen before stumping them.

Peter Kirsten, commentator now, present at Kingsmead. Part of ugly spat with Kapil Dev when latter mankaded him in 1992. Ask him about his views on mankading, now that there is no heat of moment. Says he thought it had been disallowed. Then says, now looking from afar, bowler within his rights. Also adds that it is instinctive to move out. Says batsmen not always looking to gain ground. Agrees you got to follow rules.

December 9
Stay in Pretoria for Centurion ODI. Teams and others prefer Johannesburg. Promise self not to sit in cab in this small town. Walk to nowhere in particular in the middle of the night looking for food. Find French restaurant. Raining again. Got to take cab back. Driver says this is Madiba rain. Good omen, he says. When great men die, it rains. If it doesn't rain when you die, you are probably not great. Will rain - even if a little bit - every day until funeral, on December 15, he says.

December 10
Rains again. Been raining every day of tour. Car radios, TVs in bars, TV at SuperSport Park all tuned to Mandela Memorial Service at FNB Stadium. Watch on TV at SuperSport Park. Jacob Zuma, current president, booed massively. Signer for deaf people standing next to speakers signing differently to one sitting in TV studio. Find it odd.

Not much practice for teams because of rain. Only press conferences. Find way to indoor nets. Empty. Two balls there. Take turns to bowl at nobody. Thrown out minutes later. Where is Wilson Ngobese when you need him?

December 11
Everybody apart from those who have been here is surprised the game is starting on time after so much rain over the week. Ground staff and drainage excellent here. On India's last trip here, washed-out first day was imminent with flooding all around. Toss at tea. India lose nine wickets. Game over.

This time South Africa choose to bat. Quinton de Kock scores third century in a row. Only fifth player to do so. Brings it up alongside another batsmen who once achieved the feat, AB de Villiers. More rain, though, and chase is washed out. Read during rain that signer at Memorial was fake. Figures.

Ishant Sharma later says de Kock has been lucky. Not in position to judge whether it is lack of class or hold over English language or just unease at public speaking. De Kock shows humour in saying he probably was lucky. "Must go back into my bubble."

De Villiers and de Kock a treat at press conferences. Been to two of those. De Villiers finishes his bit, moves aside, and watches over de Kock's conference like big brother. After first ODI, de Kock says he didn't know till match day that he was playing. De Villiers says he is lying, he knew it all along. Laughter all around. This time de Kock is asked about nineties and advice he got from a man who has done three in a row before. De Kock, shy of speaking but not of taking strike, says not much. De Villiers interrupts again, and says there was plenty of advice. Winning team. Happy team.

December 12
Some things I know about Johannesburg

Ball travels faster in rarefied atmosphere of Highveld. It takes 60 seconds longer to boil eggs here than it does in Durban.

World's largest city with no natural body of water, nothing that will pull weary visitors looking for sense of direction towards it.

One of the world's youngest cities. Gold found in the area brings people here. Gauteng Province is richest in South Africa.

Some hotel staff won't let people walk outdoors in the evening. "We must get you a cab." A bit too much of fear psychosis.

It likes to claim it is lightning capital of world.

Revolving restaurant in Hillbrow Tower, 269 metres high, was shut down long ago, presumably for safety reasons.

Miners who came from here named mining district in California, Johannesburg. Area named Randsburg found near both Johannesburgs.

Will call Johannesburg home for next ten days. Would have preferred to stagger it and go to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth too. Cricket boards, though, don't plan tours with nomadic journalists in mind.

December 13
India's two-day practice game in Benoni, their only one on tour, has been washed out despite warm sunshine. Outfield not in great shape on one of slower draining grounds in South Africa. Teams didn't want anyone getting injured. India have a Test next week, South Africa Invitation XI players have first-class games.

Walk towards Benoni train station looking for cabs. None found. Not even at train station. No one leaves this place. Big joll on. Street food aplenty. Loud music - trance-like, repetitive rhythm, almost like a song put on repeat in iTunes - inside what looks like a bar, restaurant, everything. Rhythm, as Syd Barrett would say, is "kinda catchy". Pool tables inside. Everybody jolly. Can't stay here. Got to go and work.

Can't find a cab. People say got to take a "special". A "special" is a minibus with four sitting in space meant for three. Need to wait in a long queue. Worth the wait. Only 16 rand to get to Johannesburg. Goes through inner city, and not highway. Finally see broken roads, small stores, street-side barbers, street-side braiders, more street food. Johannesburg feels more like a city of people than of fancy cars. Get off at Joubert Park. Most densely populated place seen in South Africa. More jolling on. Overall like a marketplace in India. Hustlers trying to sell high cab fares. Take one eventually because of deadlines. Decide to come back despite later warnings of crime here.

Rains in the evening again. Possibly correct move to call off practice game. Still not a day without rain.

December 14
Saturday. Rosebank Mall. Early morning. Kids wearing colourful printed shorts have started lining up a steel band in the middle of the mall. Row behind it has what looks like a wooden percussion instrument. Find out later it is called a marimba, a type of xylophone. Soon a third row emerges with drum kit, with trumpets next to it. Once the band is ready, these kids put up quite a show. African music, struggle songs, covers of popular western classics, Nelson Mandela songs, all are performed. Lovely Saturday afternoon.

Seek out man directing traffic. Michael H Rea. These kids are part of the Soweto Marimba Youth League. Band comprises full-time students, underprivileged and from Dobsonville in Soweto. Donations from this lovely music played on weekends and holidays go a long way in supporting their education. "It's not about music, it's about education," the League says.

December 15
India don't train. Much-needed day off three days before first Test.

Mandela funeral. Spend quiet minutes at Tolstoy Farm, about 40km outside of Johannesburg. Gandhi lived here from 1908 to 1914, and planned satyagraha. Not much left now. Can't even get here without Gandhian Mohan Hira's navigation, who has also inscribed a giant "Gandhi" on a hill. Takes personal interest in preserving site. No mobile signal. Fresh breeze. Peace. Lovely place to take nap. Realise Gandhi did much more.

Doesn't rain. Mandela's body has been lowered into his grave. Must have been a great man, then.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo