It’s so great you could kiss it

2008-07-04 00:00

THE touring South African cricket squad arrived at Lord’s on Thursday to practise ahead of this week’s first Test match against England. For many in the group, it was their first visit to the most famous cricket ground in the world and after completing their slick training routines at the Nursery End, the players wandered across to the middle, just looking around, taking in the view, lapping up the atmosphere.

They stood gazing ahead at the pavilion, the rusty old red-brick wedding cake, with the Allen, the Tavern and the marquee-style Mound Stands to their left, the Warner and Grand Stands to their right and behind them, the Compton Stand, the Edrich Stand and the futuristic spaceship of a Media Centre; for a brief moment, a freeze frame in the frenetic, blurred, moneyed, shallow world of modern sport, one or two of the players appeared genuinely moved.

Why not?

These young men have travelled a long way, from places like Strandfontein and Pinelands, Warmbaths and Durban, Vereeniging and King William’s Town; from all across South Africa, through backyard cricket with eager fathers, through dazzling sunny primary school days in pristine white kit on scorched brown fields, through high school, age-group squads, provincial sides and on to the national team until now, on a warm July morning in the middle of London, they had finally reached “headquarters”.

A wise old man, well past his seventies, still in his dark blue blazer, who played a bit in his day, was watching them from one of the high stools in the Long Room of the pavilion. “Always been decent youngsters, the South Africans,” he murmured, “just as competitive and brave as the Australians, but not so rough and brash.”

The awe-struck admiration and reverential rumination will have ceased long before five minutes to eleven next Thursday morning when, following the custom at Lord’s, the start of the day’s play will be heralded by the ringing of the brass bell hanging outside the members bar below the visiting team’s balcony.

In that moment, pumped full of nerves and adrenaline, Graeme Smith will gather his players in an arm-locked huddle and urge them to emulate the feat of each of the three previous South African touring teams to England since readmission and win at Lord’s — and then to go one step further than any of the 1994, 1998 or 2003 sides, and win the series.

There are three reasons why the captain’s wish may be granted.

The first is the capacity of SA’s four-gun battery of fast bowlers to knock over England’s fragile order. If Steyn and Ntini don’t get them, Morkel and Nel surely will. Spin bowlers attract excessive publicity, but recent history suggests it’s the “quicks” that win Tests.

Second, Jacques Kallis has something to prove. Stung by criticism that he missed more often than he hit in the hit-and-miss Indian Premier League, SA’s master batsman has already eased to a big century in the warm-up match against Somerset, and seems set to thrive.

Third, AB de Villiers is emerging as an upbeat, positive and highly significant catalyst within the heart of the team, not only as a fast-scoring middle order batsman who regularly brings renewed momentum to the innings, but also as one of the world’s most talented fielders, a buzzing, clapping dynamo at point.

Quietly, impressively, this SA team has won eight and drawn one of their last 13 Test series, earning respect and a strong second place in the world Test rankings. With the minimum of fuss, coach Mickey Arthur has moulded an organised and effective unit that almost always threatens and very, very rarely rolls over.

Even without the recuperating Flintoff, England deserve respect. Having lost only two home series in the past nine seasons, they have named an unchanged side for the sixth successive Test and yet, aside from Pietersen, they remain a thrill-free zone, a team that struggles to quicken the pulse or raise the spirits.

The tourists continue their preparations against Middlesex at Uxbridge this weekend and, on Tuesday, the players will watch Phantom of the Opera in the West End.

This time next week, all going well, they will be centre stage themselves.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SATV sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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