<
>

Tall tales from Cape Town and Jozi

Kasteel Poort, where the Pipe Track along Table Mountain culminates. (No, that's not the author of this article up there.) Getty Images

December 31
Hardly anyone out and about in Cape Town. Walk up Table Mountain on the gentlest trail route, the Pipe Track, which goes around the mountain. Still has breathtaking views of the sea and the Twelve Apostles. Called Pipe Track because along it run pipes that were built in the 19th century to carry water from Disa Gorge in the mountain's back table to various parts of Cape Town.

Drink cold, sweet water from a fresh stream. Look at the cable car in the distance. Admire the adventurers who don't need the cable car to get to the top. Watch enviously as parasailers fly like birds in the clear blue sky.

January 1
Two hikers - one of them a tour guide and an expert climber - fall from just below the upper cable car station of Table Mountain. The same spot I looked at yesterday. Hundreds of visitors wait as the cable car goes on a rescue mission. Read that friendly looking Table Mountain can at times be deadlier than even Mt Everest. Major cause of fatalities is underestimating weather changes , travelling without protection from cold, and without water or route maps. Realise I went up without all three. Feel a cough settling in.

January 2
India have barred fans from watching and media from filming their nets. Security at Newlands says it is the team management's instructions. Remember defending this team in England on a BBC lunchtime talk show on the sidelines of a tour game in Derby against the same charges. Such bans on watching net sessions come about in these countries only when India are in town. Either the team takes the love it gets for granted or fans of Indian cricket are too intrusive when allowed to watch the nets. As is usually the case, the truth is a mix of both.

January 3
Evan Flint has been doing Newlands pitches for close to a decade now. Loves talking about Travis, his Staffordshire terrier. Often brings him to the ground. Faf du Plessis has asked for a certain pitch, which is difficult to deliver thanks to the long drought in Cape Town. Flint uses bore-hole water to grow grass on the pitch. His first duty today: fix the Indian flag. India's patriotic support staff points out that the flag is inverted: green is on top, saffron bottom.

"Delirious with fever. Try to be like organically minded Capetonians and not take paracetamol, and let it subside naturally. Unable to sleep, google about fever"

January 4
India choose to not train on the day before the big Test. Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach, is driven in for a press conference more than one hour after the scheduled time. Local media lets him know what they think. The Indian media, which has seen worse, are blase.

Faf du Plessis says this is the most difficult selection he has had to make as captain. Turns out later it is a fiery spell from Dale Steyn in the nets the day before that has made it difficult. Original plan might have been to go with three seamers - Steyn not among them - but things could change.

Delirious with fever. Try to be like organically minded Capetonians and not take paracetamol and let it subside naturally. Unable to sleep, google about fever. Learn that if fever stays, it could be fatal or damage brain cells. Pop a couple, unwilling to lose life or, more importantly, brain cells on eve of big Test.

January 5
India make shock selection of Rohit Sharma over Ajinkya Rahane. Were forced, it will emerge later, to pick Jasprit Bumrah ahead of Ishant Sharma, who hasn't fully recovered from an illness. Fulfill promise of playing Hardik Pandya after grooming him for the last year. On a green pitch, Bhuvneshwar Kumar gives India the perfect start, but AB de Villiers counterattacks stunningly to help South Africa to 286. India lose three before stumps, shots born of discomfort against bounce. Did they miss some extra training days?

Watch not from press box but viewing gallery outside commentary boxes. Disconcerting cold wind but better than being behind glass. Miss presence of Robin Jackman, who would sit here between commentary stints, smoking, solving crossword after crossword.

January 6
Pandya delivers on promise with bat, scoring 93 after India are reduced to 92 for 7. Ridiculed because of silly comparisons with Kapil Dev, Pandya is more like MS Dhoni the Test batsman. Walks down wicket to cut seam, doesn't mind wearing a few, finds a way. South Africa still strong with 77-run first-innings lead.

Have my West Indies hat snatched away by Michael Holding. Not proud of the regional team anymore.

Wind him up with: "But Mikey, they are the defending World T20 champions."

"I am talking flippin' cricket."

January 7
Rains all day but not the kind that will fill water tanks in the drought-hit city. Annoying drizzle that doesn't allow any play. Spend time talking cricket with Daryll Cullinan. Tell him how Newlands allows people to whom the ground meant a lot to have their ashes spread on outfield. Says he wants his ashes spread on the pitch of his school ground.

Learn how Makhaya Ntini developed his jump away from the stumps in his delivery stride. Used to bowl in tackies as a youngster because he couldn't afford cricket boots. Had to avoid landing on hard pitch.

January 8
With moisture trapped underneath, the Newlands pitch becomes unplayable again, after having flattened out on day two. South Africa are bowled out for 130 but India fail to chase 208. Lots of hope as innings begins, but on this pitch, really difficult. Paying price for mistakes on day one. So much build-up, so much anticipation - they don't give themselves the best chance to compete.

January 9
Cape Town could be the first big city in the world to run dry. Households are allowed 87 litres of water per person per day. Showers restricted to two minutes. Collect overflow of showers in buckets to flush toilets with. Advised to not flush after peeing. "If it's yellow, let it mellow." Forget washing cars or watering lawns, although the rich suburbs are full of manicured green gardens.

"Watch from the viewing gallery outside commentary boxes. Miss presence of Robin Jackman, who would sit here between commentary stints, smoking, solving crossword after crossword"

Go past fresh-water stream every day on my way to Newlands. People drive there with containers and fill them up with water. Some cheeky restaurants refuse to serve tap water in the name of conservation. I'm forced to buy bottled water in a city known for its tap water.

Day zero has been advanced from April 29 to April 22. When day zero arrives, tankers will bring water to neighbourhoods and people will have to fill their containers. Much like coloured townships had to do during apartheid.

January 10
Fly to Johannesburg. Seated in row ahead of Sunil Gavaskar. First question: did the team train yesterday? Cullinan also believes India should have used the day by batting on the same surface. Must be some truth to this old-world wisdom, no matter how fashionable it is to mock it. For the record, those who didn't play in the XI did train the day after the Test but not on the match pitch.

Both on wrong flight and should have gone to OR Tambo, me to catch the Gautrain to Centurion, Mr Gavaskar to fetch Mrs Gavaskar, who is flying in the same day. "Anyway, as Mr Dalmiya used to say, that is the that," he says.

January 11
Gautrain from Rosebank to Centurion, venue of the second Test. Comfortable, and cuts down travel time by half over the road trip, yet not crowded. Possible reason: cuts cost only to 25%; an Uber costs about R240, Gautrain R55 one way.

No chewing gum allowed in trains. Inspector forces people to throw gum in bin in case they have taken it past the entrance undetected. India needs chewing-tobacco inspectors. Everywhere.

January 12
"It's funny how things change in a matter of weeks, or just about five days. Before the first Test no one thought that he should be in the XI, and now suddenly people are looking at the other option."

Virat Kohli's words about Rahane's exclusion and the clamour for his inclusion on the eve of the second Test. If the media knew Rahane wasn't playing the first Test, there would have been a definite outcry. If Kohli is talking about the team management and support group, you wonder if anybody challenges him with contradictory views at all.

January 13
Centurion. Possibly the best cricket-viewing experience. People don't go up into the stands here. They are at street level. Grass banks, decks, pool, it has everything for a comfortable day of cricket. Definitely the best press box in the world, right behind the bowler's arm. So low that sometimes it feels a bouncer could reach you. Okay, maybe on the bounce, but still.

Not on this pitch, though. It is definitely slower and lower than the usual Centurion pitches. South Africa win the toss but lose the advantage with two run-outs in the final session. R Ashwin bowls 31 overs in the day for under three an over and three wickets. South Africa fume behind doors.

January 14
Lungi Ngidi. Son of domestic workers. Is on Test debut, and runs out Cheteshwar Pujara even before getting to bowl. When he does bowl, he has Kagiso Rabada at the other end. Were rivals in school cricket. Once, Rabada helped St Stithians bowl Ngidi's Hilton out for 90, but Ngidi had them 90 for 8 with one player in hospital and another fearing a broken arm. Now the two of them, young, confident black men in an apartheid-ravaged country, are bowling for South Africa in tandem. One is the No. 1 Test bowler in the world, the other looks like a veteran of Test cricket already. Ngidi nearly gets Kohli lbw with the first ball of a new spell after others have spent whole spells trying to beat his outside edge.

"I have to ask you something. It's not cricket." Sunil Gavaskar in the corridor outside the media centre. "You were eating papaya in the morning. Did you eat the seeds too?"

January 15
Famous Highveld electric storm. Haven't ever been to a match in Centurion without a storm hitting. The lightning is spectacular. As we wait, "I Love Pretoria Girls" by Desmond and the Tutus plays on the PA. When asked why they love Pretoria girls, the band once said: "They have got your back in sticky situations."

In a sticky situation of 3 for 2, de Villiers has got South Africa's back once again as he takes them to 90 for 2 at stumps.

January 16
"I have to ask you something. It's not cricket." Sunil Gavaskar in the corridor outside the media centre. "You were eating papaya in the morning. Did you eat the seeds too?"

"No," I say, amazed he observed such a thing from his commentary box. Then again, he is known for making these small observations.

"I was told I could eat them, but now someone has told me it might be unhealthy."

Go to Google again, and relieve his mind, telling him he is fine.

India are not fine, losing three wickets, including Kohli's, by stumps.

January 17
Kohli is hurt, badly hurt, at having lost this Test and with it the series. Press conference unseemly, but at the end of the day, he is not captain for his press conferences. Good to see he is hurt, though. So hurt he is ready to sledge you should you question his selections and convictions. For too long India have been blase about away defeats.

January 18
Ad van Heerden. Miss South Africa. Present at the launch of the Pink ODI, to be played on February 10 at the Wanderers, to raise funds and awareness to fight breast cancer. Is a doctor and was a lieutenant at the Military 2 Hospital in Cape Town. Also an ultramarathoner, where she runs 89km. India match perfect for her to get involved in cricket: her dad loves Indian food and has built four tandoors at home, and when her dress tore on the day of the Miss World pageant, she borrowed one from her friend and Miss India, now Miss World, Manushi Chhillar.

January 19
Catch Tu Nokwe perform at The Orbit in Braamfontein. Learnt music when her father would take her and her sisters along when he performed with his swing jazz band at weddings. Her mother was a soprano. Nokwe acted in Shaka Zulu, the TV series and movie on the famous Zulu king. Sings, plays guitar. Her music is contemporary African, with jazz and funk influences. Used to teach music to township kids before moving to London. To listen to her renditions of apartheid songs - songs with secret meanings that only slaves could understand - is to be transported to the country South Africa once was.

January 20
Back to Johannesburg for good. They love making fun of Cape Town's water situation. Funnily enough, four years ago, during the India cricket tour, Johannesburg had a drought and day zero was not too far away. Then it rained out of the blue. Was told of an African belief that it rains when great men die. If it doesn't rain, the dead man was probably not great. It rained every day for five days back then. An ODI was washed out. The night before the rain began, Nelson Mandela died.

January 21
Go up the fascinating Ponte City in Berea. Tallest residential building in Africa, built in 1975. Originally constructed for wealthy white people but became home to liberal travellers who were against apartheid. Am told black women rented flats here and in other buildings around, but would pretend to be maids to avoid police. Homosexuals were accepted. Mixed-race babies were common. The place fell into the hands of criminals in the 1980s and was reduced to a slum. Garbage piled up in the hollow central core. Gangs operated from the building. Law enforcement could not enter, and used to fly past in helicopters to keep an eye on things. Legend has it that the windows with black curtains had gangsters behind them, red ones prostitutes, and white ones families.

When the building was reclaimed in the early 2000s, hoping to get it ready in time for the football World Cup, they discovered, among other things, dead bodies in the garbage. The place was called Suicide City at one point because of how many people jumped off. Then "Coca Cola building", because of the sign advertising the soft drink on top. The sign now is for Vodacom, and Ponte City is also known as the Vodacom Building. Running joke: the Vodacom signal is weakest here.

"Legend has it that the windows with black curtains had gangsters behind them, red ones prostitutes, and white ones families"

Is now a proper residential building with strict rules. Fingerprint recognition at entry gates. No visitors apart from registered residents post 7pm. Wary of letting things get out of hand again.

January 22
Gumtree. A classifieds wall in Hillbrow, one of Johannesburg's "grey" areas - a reference to the mix of black and white. People of this inner-city neighbourhood paste flyers with their requirements on the wall. And then on top of older ones. Most of them are for rooms to let. Balconies to let too, which have been enclosed to become rooms, like in Bombay flats.

January 23
Pitch for the third Test, at the Wanderers, is hard, green, and has cracks. If India were to stick a requirement for a pitch on Gumtree, it would be for something like this. It brings their pace bowlers into play big time. Of course it is challenging, but Kohli and India look forward to the challenge. Also talk about how they have never lost at Wanderers. "Something about this ground," Kohli says.

January 24
India bring Rahane back, and make the bold move of batting first despite the pressure their batsmen are under. They bat with courage and skill to end up with 187, which is definitely above par. South Africa rue two dropped catches that allow Kohli's otherwise excellent knock to go past 50. Cheteshwar Pujara goes 53 balls without opening his account but ends up with a highly valuable fifty.

Hugh Masekela died yesterday. Father of South African jazz. Known for anti-apartheid songs. "Bra" Hugh's music plays on the PA during breaks. Rains in the evening. Must have been a great man.

January 25
Hashim Amla goes one better than Pujara and Kohli: plays with the control of Pujara and strike rate of Kohli. His 61 keeps South Africa on the path to a lead but then they collapse to give up the advantage and end with just a seven-run advantage. Quality of pitch now being questioned. Not fair to label just Nagpur and Pune extreme.

January 26
M Vijay is hit five times in one session but fights through for 25 runs. Kohli is rapped on the gloves. In the evening, Dean Elgar is hit four times, the fourth one causing a suspension of play. South Africa caught between a rock and a hard place. Can save Test if they don't show keenness to continue, but if the match is abandoned, the Wanderers could lose all fixtures for one year. Leave matters in match referee's hands. Play set to resume next day. Only fair because India have already braved dangerous pitch and are now sensing a rare Test win. Time to pause and think of skill required to negotiate high-speed bowling on good surfaces, let alone this one, with exaggerated bounce and seam movement.

January 27
After Amla and Elgar bring back memories of India's last Test at the Wanderers, when South Africa nearly chased down 458, India rush back into the game, inducing a collapse of 9 for 53. Elgar fights bravely and carries his bat with 86 runs. Kohli's belief in his team and his methods is vindicated, but after the euphoria, there is a feeling of missed opportunities. What if Rahane had played earlier? What if Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India's second-best batsman and best bowler in the series, had not been dropped for the second Test? What if India have prepared better? What if they had got their slip catching in order? We will never know.