The best job in the world

2009-01-26 00:00

Chalk it down to the imaginings of a young dreamer. There we were, on the banks at Kingsmead in Durban, watching Springbok opener Jackie McGlew, chin out and head down, grind his way to a nine-hour century against the touring 1957/58 Australian cricketers.

There was plenty of time for idle chat — the Pietermaritzburg batsman was setting the world record for the slowest century in Test history — and my old man was with a couple of grown-ups as I lurked on the outskirts. One, finally, was bored enough to turn to me.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Eleven,” I squeaked brightly.

“And what are you going to do when you grow up?”

“I’m going to be a professional cricketer,” was my firm response.

I remember the guffaw this brought from the throng. Backs were again turned and I went back to my romantic musings.

Of course, it was absurd. Professional cricket was played in England and the money game, pioneered by Barry Richards in South Africa, was still a decade away in this country.

Yet, and but for the dropping of a teeny-weeny preposition, I might have predicted my future. I fell hopelessly short of playing the game decently at any level, never mind professionally, but I did become a professional AT cricket (and, for that matter, AT rugby). I was paid to go to watch cricket and rugby. I was paid for my hobby.

I made a living — the shopper in the family will snort at that extravagant claim — out of cricket and rugby. I couldn’t play the bloody games, but I had licence to tell those who were infinitely more talented how they should. I still admire the cheek of it.

(As someone wisely observed, critics are like eunuchs in a brothel; they have seen it done, they know how it’s done but they can’t do it themselves).

A few months after I joined The Natal Witness in 1974, Richard Steyn arrived as the editor. A tall, imposing figure, he had played cricket for Western Province and captained Natal at rugby, and that didn’t half keep the sports department — well, both of us — honest.

He was also, I believe, just a little envious.

“We have to take our annual leave to do what you do for work,” he once huffed.

The job also provided front-row seats to the best of action on the field and the news-making press conferences off it. You were in the frontline of sporting action and controversy, but without the danger.

And with the work came indelible memories, remarkable wins, nightmarish defeats and rich experiences.

It all started painfully with the touring 1974 British Lions thrashing the badly selected, old-fashioned and poorly coached Springboks, while the South African cricketers, with comfortably the strongest team in the world, had been rushed from the world stage by the sporting boycott, and there they would stay for 20 years.

In 1990 it all changed in the most dramatic fashion. Ian McIntosh’s Natal rugby team won the Currie Cup for the first time, in their centenary year and by dumping Naas Botha’s Northern Transvaal at Loftus.

We were on a roll and the first half of that decade produced a kaleidoscope of warm memories.

The most vivid times were on Ali Bacher’s Magical Mystery tour of India at the end of 1991 when South Africa made an extraordinary return to international cricket. The 10-day tour was arranged overnight and the press party flew with the South African squad to an army base near Calcutta.

The response from the local population was extraordinary as hundreds of thousands of excited, cheering Indians lined the streets as we drove through the sprawling city. We were the pariahs of the world — as white South Africans — yet, bewilderingly, we were greeted as returning heroes.

Even Mother Teresa met us in her home. She talked to the South African captain Clive Rice and he was clearly moved even if his public response was flippant.

“She said we should bat first if we won the toss,” he replied when asked what Mother Teresa had said.

She also spoke to the South African journalists and she had said that “facing the press is more difficult than bathing a leper”.

This whirl around India was quickly followed by the Cricket World Cup in Australia in 1992 and I planned a budget tour, sharing a room with a fellow from the Durban-based Capital Radio to cut the costs. On the eve of the World Cup, he went walkabout and was replaced by a young, attractive radio reporter who was making her way in a new career.

For some obscure reason, but one which seemed perfectly clear to my wife, she chose not to share the hotel costs with me and, with my budget under serious threat, I downgraded to a single room with no meals.

My former Witness colleague and close friend Peter Robinson, covering the World Cup for the Star, provided food parcels in the form of bread rolls to supplement the coffee in the hotel room and I hit the jackpot in Brisbane where I spent four days next door to a Jewish couple who kindly left heaps of bacon on the tray in the hotel passageway.

In 1994, South Africa’s cricketers returned to Lord’s for a historic 356-run win over England and a series of stuffy press conferences as the host captain Michael Atherton tried to explain why he had tampered with the ball.

But the best was still to come when the All Blacks were beaten in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park. The New Zealanders blamed the food, but it was the potent mix of Kitch Christie, Francois Pienaar, Joel Stransky and the towering presence of Nelson Mandela which brought them down.

The blackest moments came with the 1999 runout of Allan Donald which cost South Africa the Cricket World Cup and in the 2007 Super 14 rugby final when two New Zealand officials followed Lord Nelson’s example and turned a blind eye to deny the Sharks the Super 14 trophy.

Those dark days are burnt into the psyche, but they are in black and white; the highlights are remembered in rich technicolour. How many people can say that about a day at the office, about a job that can be done for fun and not just to earn a crust?

It remains a source of great wonder that newspaper editors are not constantly fighting off young journalists seeking to make a living out of watching, talking and writing about the game.

It has been a wonderful journey — even in economy class — and one I would travel again and again and again.

Nocturnal wanderings

The years in sports writing have thrown up the most bizarre moments.

One of the more unexpected came in 1983 while I was writing Vince van der Bijl’s biography Cricket in the Shadows.

The lumbering South African cricketer stood at over two metres tall, weighed about 110 kilograms — when he was on his grape diet — and looked like a balding lock forward rather than a fast bowler.

He had travelled down from Johannesburg and was staying with us while he attended a large function in the city where he was guest speaker.

Now Van der Bijl had picked up a nasty family habit of sleepwalking after a couple of drinks.

On this night my wife, Sharon, and I had gone off to bed and left Van der Bijl to find his own way home and his own bed.

In the early hours of the morning we awoke to find this naked giant at the foot of our bed.

“What do you want, Vince?” I asked.

“Shut up, Bish, and move over,” he replied and jumped into bed. It was no time for a debate and, after Big Vince had neatly rearranged the blankets over the three of us, he settled into a deep sleep, while his accommodating hosts giggled their way through the night.

The end came shortly before dawn when Van der Bijl threw an arm (and a leg) over me and I responded with a loud bellow. With a casual and conciliatory, “Sorry, folks, just one my turns,” Big Vince, flapping gently in the morning breeze, departed our bedroom, leaving us to wonder, as we have ever since, what might have happened had he climbed in at the other side of the bed.

Graeme Pollock, the South African batting genius, also suffered from Van der Bijl’s nocturnal wanderings. The two were sharing a room during a South African game in Cape Town when Pollock awoke to see Van der Bijl dramatically marking his territory ominously close to his Springbok blazer which was hanging on the back of a chair. This is a dream, Pollock thought, and went back to sleep.

In the morning Van der Bijl was already padding about the room when Pollock awoke.

“Vince, can you just take a look at my jacket over there?”

“Bloody hell, Graeme,” responded Van der Bijl, “it’s all wet.”

Drug scandal hits ‘the Witness’

Piers Morgan claimed that journalism “is a wonderful profession, full of drunken, cocaine-sniffing, unethical people”.

As an editor of two British tabloids, News of the World and the Daily Mirror, he should know but it is not a description which fits the little ol’ Witness.

Still, we did have our minor drug scandal. Back in the eighties, an inept and disgruntled news reporter was asked to leave the paper. She left a mountain of chocolate cookies in the tearoom at lunch time as her farewell gift.

They were awful, but journalists traditionally eat anything that is free and by mid-afternoon many were feeling the effects. Some enjoyed the experience. Reporter Chris Bateman, grinning foolishly, went out on a job with my wife, who was chief photographer at the time.

“If I didn’t know any better, I would say I was high,” he whispered during an interview.

Others were less fortunate. Two women reporters ended up in hospital suffering from heart palpitations.

I had one cookie and retired home to bed, believing the spider bite I had received had resulted in blood poisoning.

The cookies lasted into the evening, but somehow the floating night staff still brought out the paper.

The Daily News gleefully seized on the story the next day and made a meal of it. The reporter, well, she is probably still dining out on her tale of green revenge but she was lucky — the police came within a whisker of charging her.

• John Bishop will continue to write for The Witness as rugby correspondent.

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