Oh, to be in wet old mid-summer England

2012-06-16 00:00

WHAT folly it has been to exchange the bright winter sun of the Highveld for the cold wet heart of an English summer.

It has been so wet for so long in England that people are rearranging their calendars according to the weather forecasts. Last Sunday, my grandson’s cricket match was cancelled early in the morning because the weathermen had heavy rain coming in at noon. Despite glowering clouds it rained no more than five minutes all day.

In retrospect, this was a blessing because it enabled us all to watch the extraordinary men’s single final at Roland Garros without the uneasy feeling that we should have been elsewhere.

The boy himself had made 84 the previous day and had the consolation of spending the day in a state of reflective happiness so everyone was content.

There have been so many memorable tennis matches in these past few years of what is surely a golden age of men’s tennis that one could not say that this was the greatest match of all, but surely the stakes have never been higher.

It has not happened before that one player stood on the brink of a record number of French Open titles while his opponent had within his grasp the holding of the grand slam of tennis. This unique situation polarised not only those privileged to have been there but also watchers all over the world. It gave the match a flavour and tension different from any other since John McEnroe surrendered a two set lead to Ivan Lendl at the same venue and failed to join the pantheon of legends that won all four slams over their careers.

Not surprisingly the tension got to both players at different times and when play was called off on Sunday, Rafael Nadal had been badly rattled by Novak Djokovic’s comeback in the murky gloom of a wet evening. He was extremely fortunate to have been able to bully the officials into calling off play for the day when the momentum of the match was running firmly in favour of his opponent.

Djokovic quite reasonably pointed out to the match referee that conditions were no worse than they had been for the past hour which was exactly the same point that Nadal had sarcastically made in his anger that play had been allowed to continue for so long. A tougher referee may well have insisted that the match carry on in which case the result would almost certainly have been different. As it was play was perfectly possible 20 minutes after it had been called off for the day.

When the game resumed on Monday, Djokovic had mislaid the fire that had ignited his comeback when all had seemed lost the previous day. He immediately surrendered his fourth set advantage by losing his opening serve and despite some astonishing tennis from both players the result was never then in real doubt.

Nadal has won his seventh French Open, but Wimbledon awaits in less that two weeks and it is almost inconceivable that two of them will not be at it again in that final. It is a salivating prospect.

Federer, of course, will need to be overcome which may be problematic given that Wimbledon will probably be one of his last two realistic hopes of snatching another slam to add to the 16 in his cupboard.

My own feeling, however, is that Federer can no longer muster the physical effort required to defeat either of his great rivals. I think the great man’s day is nearly done.

One of the joys of being in England now is that one can see at first hand the struggles of the English press to reconcile themselves to a rugby defeat by the Springboks. There was a real feeling here that the Boks were there for the taking by the team so carefully put together by Stuart Lancaster who continues, for now, to surf a wave of unbroken goodwill.

The English press have little admiration for the style of rugby played by South Africa. It is described as brutal, pedestrian and unimaginative, which is ironic given the less brutal, more pedestrian and more unimaginative rugby played by England.

Oh, to be in England.

Heineke Meyer’s intolerance of poor discipline was soon evident on the field at King’s Park. Francois Hougaard was immediately replaced after he foolishly took a tap penalty in front of the posts. After Nick Mallett’s justified and widely-reported comment that the Du Plessis brothers were “a five-penalty package”, they both played with better self-control in Durban.

The last-gasp try scored by England has given their rugby scribes hope that a slightly more adventurous approach in Johannesburg will yield a different result. The possibility that calmer Highveld conditions will assist Morné Steyn’s goal-kicking and that a further week together should contribute to a more cohesive Bok performance seems to have eluded most of England’s supporters. Ellis Park has been a difficult venue for visiting teams and I cannot see this English team being an exception.

All the Springbok debutants had satisfactory games in Durban and the team should play with increased confidence in Johannesburg. England are never an easy team to beat, but I for one look forward to another comfortable read of the newspapers tomorrow morning.

Apart from the poor weather, it is difficult to believe that it is almost mid-summer here in England. The media is full of football interspersed with a little rugby. Cricket is certainly the poor cousin of this summer’s sports.

There is some sense of anticipation over the Proteas’ visit, but by then all the talk will be about the Olympics. It seems daft that the most competitive cricket series of the past two years should be sandwiched into an English summer so full of counterattractions both on and off the fields and even dafter that an Anglo-South African series in any summer is restricted to just three Test matches.

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