The makeshift opener who batted and batted
Shortly after being selected to tour India in 2004, Andrew Hall found himself in a heat simulation chamber. It was the property of South Africa's Chamber of Mines and usually helped acclimatise miners to the wet heat and intense claustrophobia of deep-level mining. "You could adjust the temperature to something like 42 degrees," said Hall. "Jet [Ray Jennings, South Africa's recently appointed interim coach] had us jumping up and down a step into the chamber because he said that's what it would be like in India."
Jennings had other smart ideas too. He dug and roughed up practice pitches; he had the players batting in the nets with rubber balls. Stones were rolled into follow-through marks. He cajoled Jacques Kallis - the senior player and the best player of spin bowling in the squad - to share his secrets and play a more active role in team meetings. He massaged and pricked and boosted. By the time the South Africans had survived their first warm-up game, against Board President's XI in Jaipur, he felt the visitors might just be able to burgle a draw or two and so square the two-Test series.
Of all the background noise prior to the tour - and there was much of it, as Eric Simons' tenure gave way to that of Jennings - it was Herschelle Gibbs and Nicky Boje's decision not to travel that disrupted the new coach's plans most. The two took legal advice based on their alleged involvement in match-fixing on the 1999-2000 tour of India, and both withdrew. Charl Langeveldt cried off through injury on the eve of the team's departure and so three influential first-choice starters watched the series back at home, close to the kettle and the frothy delights of the fridge.
Boje's absence was acute - and meant the side was without a front-line spinner - while the ramifications of Gibbs' decision meant that Graeme Smith, young and still earning his spurs on his first Indian tour, had no obvious opening partner. Jacques Rudolph was pressed into service in the warm-up game (where he was run out twice, for 26 and 31). After flying into Lucknow and surviving a broken-down bus on the way to Kanpur, the venue for the opening Test, Jennings had an epiphany.
"We looked at the wicket about two days before and we didn't think it would rag big," remembers Hall. "It was like glass, so we were looking to win the toss and bat once. Ray said to me that we didn't have a full-time opener for Graeme and he felt Boeta [Dippenaar] and Jacques would be better down the order. Would I like to open?"
Hall was South African cricket's rag-and-bone man, collecting scraps, a Test here, two there; maybe an inspired run or show of selectorial faith that would see him get three on the clip. He invariably slotted in at two or three in the pecking order, behind Kallis and Shaun Pollock, knowing his place but chafing. In August 2003, at Headingley, he stood stranded at the non-striker's end on 99 when James Kirtley bowled No. 11 Dewald Pretorius to close the innings. "I thought: 'That was it, that's my chance. I'm not going to get another chance for a Test hundred in a hurry.'" Then Simons was sacked and Jennings in all his incarnations - the hard, the soft, the sulky, the brave - came along. A window of opportunity hove into view.
Hall had always liked and trusted Jennings, their association going back to their days at Transvaal together in the 1990s. Jennings thought Hall was feisty, no-nonsense, arriving as a keeper who could bat and finishing as a ballsy allrounder.
Jennings never forgot a promise Hall made to a girl to be her partner at a matric dance. It was a long-standing arrangement and happened to coincide with one of Transvaal's pre-season friendlies in the early days. Hall took the girl because he'd made a promise, missing the game. As coach, Jennings couldn't be seen to approve, but as far as he was concerned, the act spoke volumes. For his part, Hall trusted the gaffer. He wasn't going to think twice about opening, whether against India or not. What was there to lose, and anyway, he might never get a second chance.
Not only was the Test South Africa's first in India for four years, it took place in an atmosphere of rapid change, fraying confidence and underperformance. South Africa had lost both the brief Test series (1-0) and ODIs (5-0) in Sri Lanka immediately before the India tour, with Simons having brought a breezy, player-centric philosophy to his tenure. There was, however, disconnect between philosophy and results: Simons wanted the players to take responsibility for their decisions rather than him wagging his finger from afar, but he often found himself frustrated, subtly at odds with players used to receiving instructions rather than implementing their own plans.
Jennings was different. He was more direct, more foregrounded. The players were understandably confused as they tried to adjust between systems and coaching styles. All they knew for sure was that they needed to pull a finger. Sri Lanka had been a sub-tropical nightmare; they were coming to terms with a young, slightly gauche captain and a new coach. Now they were in a backwater as far away from the glamour of Lord's or the MCG as it was possible to be. If ever there was a time to make a statement, it was now.
Match day arrived, South Africa won the toss and Smith went after 90 minutes for 37. Martin van Jaarsveld, inexperienced and nervous, joined Hall. He went back to Anil Kumble when he should have gone forward, and it was left to Hall and Kallis to ease things to lunch.
"Ray said to me at the break that he needed me to bat past lunch on day two - that would allow us to put pressure on them," remembers Hall. "He said we shouldn't worry about the scoring rate, just rotate the strike and get runs in the bank. The Indian guys were complaining, saying we were scoring too slowly, but we knew if we could get four-five hundred we'd be in a good position to dictate."
India had chosen a spin-heavy attack, meaning that Sourav Ganguly opened the bowling and the fast-bowling load was shouldered by Zaheer Khan alone. The three spinners twirled through the slow afternoon, the match turning turbid like a great lazy river. Having just gone to his fifty, Hall swept Harbhajan Singh to the deep-midwicket boundary, where Kumble managed to get his fingertips to the ball without pulling off what would have been a fine catch.
"After that close shave I said to myself, 'Let's put that one in the locker', and we cut out the sweep for a while," Hall remembers. "The bounce was a little indecisive and one or two loopy ones really turned, but the longer we batted the more impatient they got. We were just wearing them down, hitting the sweepers on the boundary. We wouldn't over-attack."
Two wickets in quick succession preceded tea but Dippenaar and Hall steadied matters to the close, the makeshift opener not out on 78. Dippenaar went the following morning, and although Zander de Bruyn took 15 balls to get off the mark, Hall was steadily closing in on his ton, taking his score to where he was stranded at Headingley and, hopefully, one run beyond. He finally went to it with the deftest of sweeps off Kumble for four and followed his coach's advice by batting until lunch, eventually being bowled by Kumble for 163 late in the day.
Fog delayed the start of play on the third morning and by the time India eventually batted they were - and this is charitably put - pretty grumpy. "They were complaining that we were ruining the game and [Virender] Sehwag wanted to prove a point," says Hall. "He just hit us everywhere."
Hall's nearly 600-minute innings ensured the draw Jennings and Smith had been plumping for, although at Eden Gardens they were rolled by Harbhajan, who took 7 for 87 to give the Indians a relatively straightforward victory in the second Test.
Hall played in the first Test of the South African summer against England in Port Elizabeth but by the second found himself in that all-too-familiar netherworld of running messages and towels onto the square. He also missed Tests three and four but sneaked in for match five as South Africa chased the series. Pretty much the story of his career.
Nowadays Hall is the chief coach at Spencer Club in Earlsfield, south-west London. The club has 1100 junior members and 75 coaches and Hall needs to supervise it all. With the light fading and the days getting shorter, his busiest time of the year is coming to an end. The onerous commute from outside of Milton Keynes won't happen as often and there will be time to turn memory's pages and look back through the summers.
Once, Hall was a makeshift opener in a Test South Africa only ever wanted to draw. Instead he batted five sessions and almost single-handedly earned his side an improbable draw. If you didn't already know this to be true, you'd never believe it as fiction.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg