They departed under the cover of darkness, an embattled team that wanted nothing more than to return home. Tempers had been frayed by the “chicken” headlines in the morning newspapers, but by 11pm, when they boarded the coach to the airport, the smiles were back on most faces. Mark Boucher wasn’t one of those grinning, his face still a dark mask, and the Sri Lankan journalist who insinuated that Boucher was a bully can count himself lucky now that plenty of air miles separate him from South Africa’s stand-in captain.
On Thursday night, with the decision to leave having been taken, most of the players could be seen in the coffee shop or downstairs in the pub. Ashwell Prince was one of those around the pool table, and he and Shane Jabbar, the physio, played out a tightly contested game against yours truly and Gordon Templeton, the media manager.
It’s uncanny how those who excel at one sport that requires terrific hand-eye co-ordination are usually proficient at several others. Prince’s pool was not too different from his batting – calculated, composed and devoid of any flash. There was still time though for Makhaya Ntini to come by and deliver a mini-sledge before walking upstairs where he held court in the coffee shop with Loots Bosman and Thandi Tshabalala.
Both Tshabalala and Bosman were lucky to make this tour, with injuries keeping out stalwarts like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Justin Kemp. Given the paucity of their spin reserves, Tshabalala will surely get his chance some day soon, but for the 29-year-old Bosman, the missed opportunity here could be all the difference between a place in the 25-man World Cup squad and the relative anonymity of first-class cricket.
Ntini is very much the leader and mentor, and he sets a wonderful example in terms of his behaviour with the fans. The waiter who serves him curried oxtail for dinner is treated to a flexed-bicep pose and a massive grin, while every single autograph-hunter and photograph-seeker is obliged. According to a senior South African journalist, the sense of perspective comes from an upbringing that was harsher than most of us can imagine.
As a junior player, he was given a 10-Rand allowance to get through the day. With cab fare to and from the township costing a total of four Rand, he often preferred to go hungry during the day just so that he could have a proper dinner. “He’s the proudest man you’ll ever meet,” said the journalist, “so there was no question of asking someone for food.”
Both Bosman and Tshabalala follow Ntini around dutifully, and certainly don’t mind the reflected glory that comes their way as groups of shy young women and cricket-crazy young boys come up for a handshake and a signature or two. Tshabalala also used the time off to invest in a video-camera and could be seen prowling the lobby for footage spiced with his own comments.
As the time goes to leave, Ntini – nicknamed George – says his goodbyes to hotel staff and journalists alike, having previously entertained them by jiving his way through to the elevators. He also has time to joke about the travel plans, saying: “First, we go six hours that way [pointing east to where he imagines Hong Kong is], and then we fly many hours this way [west] before we get home.”
Asked what his plans were when he got back to East London, he said: “Straight into provincial cricket.” And what of the two matches against Zimbabwe in mid-September? Would he and the big boys contemplate putting their feet up and giving others are chance? “Are you kidding?” he says with a laugh. “We need matches, brother, we need matches.”
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo