This is one interview I have wanted to do since his calling of the greatest Test series in my living memory, the 2005 Ashes, so to finally get it done is certainly something I am pretty thrilled about.
To some Mark Nicholas' connection with South Africa may have started only when he began working for SuperSport and this was once his time with Channel 9 had finished a couple of seasons ago. But the truth is it goes back a fair bit beyond that and it is something he holds close to his heart.
“I came as captain of an English Schools side in the late 1970s straight after I left school in 1978. We started in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and played in Bulawayo and Salisbury and then we came down to SA and played in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. There was one thing above all else that was shown to me while I was in SA and that was the people were fantastic, the warmth of the welcome, the braais and the complete lack of suspicion was quite amazing and the places we stayed in were very welcoming. We stayed entirely in people’s homes on this particular visit.
“I am a bit of an addict for hot weather and sunshine so the country suited me and I always thought that was a country I wanted to spend more time in. After the schools tour I decided to stay on and boarded a train from Johannesburg to Durban, booked into a youth hostel and signed up for Berea Rovers Cricket Club in Durban, a club with a history of producing world class cricketers where, unfortunately, I didn’t quite get into the First XI for most of my time there. However, I was picked to play in one First XI match and it was rained out. It was an annoying occasion because the team contained Henry Fotheringham and Mike Procter. This game we were scheduled to play against Maritzburg Cricket Club who had Vince Van der Bijl, so I was understandably disappointed. The next game I was dropped, as the regular First XI player was back in the side. I wanted to return to the country some years later and managed to secure a coaching job back in Durban. This happened sometime in the 80s and it really cemented my enjoyment of the country.
“It’s the cricket season of 1989 in South Africa and I was in conversation with two stalwarts of South African Cricket with county cricket experience and I knew both of them very well, Garth le Roux of Sussex and Western Province and Steven Jefferies of Hampshire, Lancashire and Western Province.
“Both these fine gentlemen were living in Marina da Gama in Cape Town, which was a lovely place to live. Stephen said why don’t I come down to Cape Town, hangout and play some cricket for the club they were playing for (Cape Town CC) and stay in their place because Garth, with whom he was staying at the time, was getting married and was moving down the road with his wife Tina.
“I said, 'Great but I don’t want to play as a professional, I don’t want the responsibility. I’ll just come down and chill a bit and play some cricket on weekends. I’ll come to the nets and if I get in the team then great and if I don’t that’s fine'. I did get in the team and the first match I was in we won the game. I was 41 not out and the club realised they had a problem, as a journalist had come to take details of the win.
“In those days journalists came to club games to take reports which were often published in local and national newspapers. Club cricket in those days meant a lot more than it does now.
“The journalist in question at the time said to a member of the club, ‘Now this new batsman of yours looked as if he knew what he was doing, what is his name?’ They froze because they knew they hadn’t registered me yet and I wasn’t officially allowed to play. So they said, ‘Oh, he is a visitor of Greek descent, Nikolai and he is playing a one-off game because we were suddenly one short and he was already watching the game.’ They subsequently registered me as soon as they could to not fall foul in the next game.
“A bit big headed this so I don’t mean it to be but it is quite an amusing story.
“The following weekend against Alma Marist I got 200 in the afternoon and the journalist was back. He obviously covered major club games and he said ‘This Nikolai chap is a bit handy.’ They said, ‘No, his name is Mark Nicholas and he is the captain of Hampshire.’ So it then became a bit of story because by then they had registered me and we were in the clear. Funnily enough, at the Cape Town Test (during the SA v England Test series) a guy came up to me with a book of Cape Town Cricket Club and he wanted me to sign a paragraph which described my 200 in an afternoon.
“I loved my time at the club, I loved it at the ground, the atmosphere, it was a great place to play. I wish I had actually played more there. The club had a great community feeling with decent crowds. We also had a lot of fun with some very good players and when all were fit we had 11 First Class cricketers which included Faike Minaar, Peter Kirsten, Garth le Roux, Stephen Jefferies, myself and John Hardy.
We moved onto his time at Cape Town in the early to mid-1990s where he talked about his association with the Constantia Uitsig Cricket Oval as well as his friendship with the owner for whom it’s clear he has a deep respect and admiration for and whose death left a noticeable sadness. As a ground it was regularly used by international touring sides and former international cricketers.
“My association with the Uitsig Cricket Ground in Cape Town began with a tour by the well-known playwright Tim Rice’s nomad cricket team, The Heartaches. Tim always said he started his own cricket club because no one would have him in theirs! He wasn’t the best cricketer but he was the most enthusiastic. At the time I was president of the Heartaches. Tim asked me to come on the tour and I said absolutely, especially as it had worked so well the last time I had toured with him. This was helped by the fact we are godparents to each other’s children and very good friends.
“We played a game against this Uitsig side in 1993 which was owned and run by David McCay. He had played a little bit of cricket for Western Province in the late 60s and early 70s under the tutelage of Eddie Barlow and had also been a very successful businessman. He was now running Uitsig, the hotel, three restaurants, the vineyard and his small investment business. When it came to the ground itself he looked after the pitch and nurtured the grass as if it was a baby of his own.
“In this particular game he put out a strong side against the Heartaches and on a hot day Tim decided to put them in to bat to, which I wasn’t especially happy with. Unfortunately for me, Tim always thought you had a better chance of a draw batting second because he knew his players were more likely to block out a draw then score enough runs batting first. As it was, in this 40 degree heat they got around 350 before McCay eventually declared. In our innings I was run out without facing a ball and I went nuts, threw my bat, my gloves, I swore loudly and I don’t think I impressed many people with my rather childish behaviour. What didn’t help was the fact that I had been run out by David’s 10-year-old son!
“I also think I was cross because I thought the fun had been taken out of the game and David had batted on far too long.
“Everyone was looking at me to score 170 to give us a chance to win this game and that was ridiculous. So while it was a lovely occasion overall with braai afterwards it was hard for me to fall in love with the place and David certainly didn't fall in love with me and nor I him. But what he did do in the evening over a hot roast and some good wine was give me a second chance by saying,’ If you are ever back this way give me a call.’
Nicholas would find better days with the bat in the same year in 1993 for an invitational side against a touring Yorkshire team who had a young Darren Gough in their team. He made 82 not out.
“So it came to 1995 and my first tour as a broadcaster and I was driving along the garden route from PE and I suddenly remembered the McCays and their lovely restaurant and thought I’ll give them call and maybe I’ll get a nice lunch out of this. I rang him up and he said he and his wife were in Hermanus at that time of year, why didn’t I come down to his place. I had never met Mrs Mackay and it was on this occasion that we became close friends. In fact, David became more than just a friend but family to me, a mentor, a brother, a father, a colleague, a team-mate. I adored him and the rest of his family too. His wife is a close friend to this day. David died very sadly a few years back in 2016. I thankfully saw him not long before he passed, in a hospital in Cape Town and I felt we knew we were saying goodbye to each other.
“I’ll never forget Uitsig, the beauty, the way the sun sets over the mountain. I’ll never forget that little ground with its attractive view across the vineyards; I’ll never forget the many lunches we had in the restaurant and occasional dinner at La Colombe restaurant. I’ll never forget David’s warmth, his friendship, and kindness to everybody who came to play in Uitsig, I’ll never forget his enthusiasm for big names and although he wasn’t a name dropper he did love it if a big name player came to play. I once helped him to get Jeff Thomson and Graeme Pollock to play at Uitsig. So you know, he was very special to me.
Thanks Mark Nicholas for the interview.