Confidence key in test series

Times Media


THE crisis of confidence cricket is suffering in India was writ large on the front page of the Times of India on Friday when Kapil Dev dared to have a go at Sachin Tendulkar.

Yes, that Kapil Dev. Yes, that Sachin Tendulkar. Neither plays for India anymore, but they remain powerful reminders of what Indian cricket strove to become and then – for a time too short to satisfy many here – became.

It is SA’s good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to make the most of signs of disunity on the Indian side of the fence.

They have already won the one-day and Twenty20 series. Can anything stop them from sweeping India by claiming the test rubber, which starts in Mohali on Thursday?

Of course, but squabbles like this won’t help India prevent that from happening.

The Times story, which originally appeared in the Khaleej Times, quoted Kapil as saying Tendulkar “did not know how to make double hundreds, triple hundreds and 400, although he had the ability to scale such peaks”.

Tendulkar “didn’t do justice to his talent – I always thought he could have done much more than what he did”. He “should have spent more time with Vivian Richards than some of the Bombay guys who played just neat and straight cricket”.

Had Kapil had more involvement with Tendulkar, he said, he would have “told him, ‘go enjoy yourself – play like Virender Sehwag; you will be a much better cricketer”.

Before Tendulkar’s retirement not quite two years ago, such heresy would not have been spoken in India. That it has been is an indication of how concerned Indians are about their relationship with a game they thought loved them as much as they love it.

Kapil became a giant of that game in an era when India were treated and behaved like the North Korea of cricket – a sealed world within the world. He was also a star, which is not the same thing as a giant, and enjoyed the trappings of both.

Tendulkar played 200 tests and Kapil 131, and their careers overlapped for 32 of those matches as the latter’s comet faded and the former’s cleared itself for take-off.

Kapil was a vision of what Indian cricket could be, but Tendulkar was central to fulfilling that dream and helping it last from November 2009 to August 2011 – 21 months when India were the top ranked team.

Those days are gone and India have awoken to masala tea gone cold. The milk in that tea will curdle if SA win the test series.

The visitors will have to overcome an Indian team who are being urged by anyone with an opinion to return to their North Korean tendencies.

SA should expect the driest pitches and to have semi-serious discussions over how many seamers India will pick: any?

Although the visitors have come a long way against spin, making a success of facing an almost ceaseless ooze of the slow stuff would remain a challenge for them.

But in their five weeks in India they have acquired and built something that goes beyond the skill and temperament needed to face whatever style of bowling or to wonder whether the views of a former player about another could have an impact on the current lot.

What is this thing? It’s a C-word: confidence. SA have found a reliable supply of it. Kapil had it as, when Tendulkar played, did India.


No short cuts for SA on odd day at Brabourne

Times Media


TEMBA Bavuma made an odd sight as he stood in the players’ pavilion after the first day of SA’s tour match against a Board President’s XI in Mumbai on Friday.

Bavuma, his floppy hat plonked on his head, held a plate loaded with three post-match pies, which made his food almost as tall as he isn’t. But that wasn’t what snared onlookers’ attention.

What did was his shorts, into which he had shoved a large ice pack to cover his groin and the top of his left thigh. The bulge was as conspicuous as Bavuma himself is reserved, and it did not go unnoticed.

It was that kind of day at the Brabourne stadium – odd. For one thing, it would be a mistake to think of Friday’s events as part of a contest what with 13 players involved on each side. And with only Saturday’s play left there is no chance of it turning into something that could be won and lost.

But SA’s bowlers – nine of them – made the most of it and toiled for more than five-and-a-half hours in the 35-degree heat to dismiss their opponents for 296.

The zip Dale Steyn showed meant more than his three wickets, and while Morne Morkel did not take any in his five overs he also did not concede a single run. And he did not seem in any discomfort from his quadriceps problem.

Vernon Philander, too, bowled with pace and purpose for his two scalps.

But most of the focus was on SA’s three spinners. All performed credibly, although Simon Harmer’s 3/41 stuck out above Dane Piedt’s 1/88 and Imran Tahir’s 1/16.

Even so, Harmer left the field at stumps muttering darkly to himself having come in as nightwatchman with 13 balls left in the day’s play – when Stiaan van Zyl fell to fine catch at short third man – and been caught behind five balls before the close.

That means SA will resume on 46/2. As a scoreline, it looks like Bavuma’s shorts. But that didn’t make the pies taste bad, and SA will look to put things right on Saturday.

Mumbai match myth to millions

Times Media


“NO picture, no cricket,” Ravu Saini said with a dismissive wave of his hand as he threaded his taxi through the eyes of the needles in Mumbai’s mad morning traffic on Thursday.

Saini had been told SA will begin a two-day game against a Board President’s XI here on Friday, a match that will not be broadcast on television.

The cabbie and his passengers did not share much language but they got his drift – if a match is out of the sight of the millions who watch cricket solely on television it is also out of mind.

If the folks on the back seat spoke as much Hindi as Saini spoke English they might have understood him to say: “Not on TV? Pah! Doesn’t exist.”

SA are probably happy with that. They’ve spent a couple of days lurking under the radar in Goa getting their minds off the cricket but no doubt contemplating what had gone so right in the Twenty20 and one-day series, both of which they won convincingly.

Now, with the test series less than a week away, it’s time for the visitors to look up from their navels. This they did on Thursday in a morning training session at the venue for Friday’s match, the grand and gracious Brabourne stadium.

The sun rose on Thursday on a Mumbai that looked as if some giant had poured an enormous lassi over its head. Turns out it was only haze, and once that burnt off a sweaty sultriness seeped into the day.

But the Saffers kept at it, and somewhere past 1pm Dane Vilas was the odd man in – the only one left batting in the nets.

His training done, Vilas strolled back to a pavilion adorned with sweeping nautical lines whose deep verandahs creak with dark wood, wicker chairs, bridge tables, and memories.

The Brabourne is the home of the Cricket Club of India, no less, and “rooms” with a view of the cricket are still provided. It was in these well-appointed chambers that West Indies’ Frank Worrell, a leader whose like cricket has and will not see again, would recline in his dressing gown and snooze until a tap on the toe told him it was time to pad up.

Keith Miller called the place “the most complete ground in the world”. Brian Lara described it as “perfect to host a good cricket match”. Not just any cricket match, mind.

But if the Brabourne stirred Stiaan van Zyl on Wednesday, it did not show. Instead, he played the press with as dead a bat as a dead bat itself might wield.

“The boys are confident after playing well in the one-day internationals and Twenty20s but test cricket is a different ball game,” he said.

If Van Zyl’s aim was to suffocate the Indians’ anger – and thereby deny them reasons to play properly for a change – he succeeded like a wet sleeping bag flung onto a dying camp fire.

Perhaps Friday’s game is no place for passion. Perhaps it is all about ticking boxes ahead of the start of the test series in Mohali on Thursday. Perhaps Saini is right and it really is all about nothing.

Or perhaps not: JP Duminy will not play because his hand injury. For South Africans, that’s not a pretty picture.

SA going, going, Goa …

Times Media


YOU need to go a long way in India to find the place where football is more popular than cricket, and SA’s test squad have been there this week.

That place is Goa, the beachy, peachy state on the west coast famous for its Portuguese inspired architecture and food – and, yes, the fact that football is a bigger game than cricket there.

It is the smallest of India’s 29 states in terms of area but among the richest because of its roaring tourist trade.

How cool does the world think Goa is? Cool enough to call a particular blend of plinky, plonky electronic music “Goa trance”.

If you need to indulge in something calming to be able to tell the plinks from the plonks, Goa’s army of friendly neighbourhood tuk-tuk-drivers-cum-ganja-dealers will be happy to oblige.

After spending time in this idyll, SA’s players will know all that already. Not that we are suggesting they inhaled. Just the opposite: they had earned the chance to exhale by reeling off five wins in seven completed matches on tour.

That meant victory in the Twenty20 and one-day series, and in handsome style. SA have played confident, calm, exciting, expressive, thinking, thoughtful cricket and deserve all the credit that comes their way.

Two out of three ain’t bad, especially for a team like SA in an environment like India. But add the test series – which starts in Chandigarh next Thursday – to their list of successes and this would become their best performance in history.

Anyone who wants to smuggle the weasel word “arguably” in front of that assertion had better have a bloody good counter argument to offer.

Here’s hoping not too much of that kind of discussion has been part of what SA’s players have been talking about for the past few days.

Before the tour, which at 72 days long will be SA’s longest to India, team management spoke of the importance of giving the players opportunities to remember that there is a world beyond the boundary.

“Somewhere in between we are planning a two or three-day trip to Goa, which is probably going to be more lighthearted and get guys to take their minds of cricket,” manager Mohammed Moosajee said the day the T20 squad left SA.

“We need to get creative about how we manage the guys. The problem with India is that its not easy to get away, especially with our players who are well recognised there. You can take a trip to the Taj Mahal but the problem is you are going to get mobbed.”

So, for now, SA would do themselves a power of good to put aside concerns over the leg problem that kept Morne Morkel out of the fifth one-day international on Sunday and the hand injury that ruled JP Duminy out of the last two one-day internationals.

They should also not fret too much about the fact that Hashim Amla, the test team captain and the rock on which SA build their innings, has averages 18.14 after seven innings on tour.

After all, these things have been true since the fifth ODI. And that didn’t turn out badly, did it?

The black hole that is Faf du Plessis

Times Media


QUINTON de Kock and AB de Villiers are the shimmering stars of SA’s batting line-up and Hashim Amla will regain that status as soon as he puts his temporary troubles in India behind him.

But stars can only shine at their brightest if there is a black hole nearby enough to absorb all competing light and far enough removed not to get in the way of all that shimmering.

In SA’s line-up, Faf du Plessis is that black hole; the place where the opposition’s energy goes to die and where the time and space equation is softly, slowly tilted in SA’s favour.

His record in the one-day series in India that SA won in epic style in Mumbai on Sunday, when they totalled 438/4 and won by 214 runs, proves the point.

Du Plessis was the constant in the first three games, passing 50 every time and sharing two half-century stands and a century partnership.

In the fourth match he was sawn off for 17 by a poor decision – and slapped with a fine when he, foolishly, pointed out the umpire’s error.

But on Sunday, when Du Plessis scored one of the three centuries that glittered in SA’s firmament, his role in the champagne super nova that the innings became was incandescently illuminated.

Quinton de Kock in full flow is a frightening picture of what happens when the push of orthodoxy meets the shove of ambition. AB de Villiers is a flurry with no fury, all sweetness and no noticeable science, a mad miracle at the crease.

This we know, and we knew it again on Sunday when they scored their second and third hundreds of the series.

And then there was Faf.

“He didn’t get enough credit for his knock,” De Villiers said. “He came in in a very difficult situation in the middle of the innings where India’s spinners started dominating.

“He controlled the innings exceptionally well and allowed myself and Quinton to just free up – we scored at better than a run-a-ball – and that was because of Faf’s stability at the other end.”

The intense heat and humidity in Mumbai on Sunday was no friend to anyone who was out in the middle: MS Dhoni spent most of his time behind the stumps wearing sunglasses, Virat Kohli munched on what looked like a chocolate bar to keep his energy up while he patrolled the field, and De Kock swapped his batting helmet for a cap.

“Faf was getting really tired and to show that kind of determination to be the anchor for our batting line-up was incredible,” De Villiers said. “The knock he played was the most important of the three.”

High praise but every word of it deserved. Du Plessis doubled up with cramp after almost every ball he faced during the latter stages of his innings before, his job done, he retired hurt.

And well he might have. De Kock was out there for two hours and De Villiers for seven minutes more than an hour-and-a-half. Du Plessis? Two minutes short of three hours.

And he held it together for all that time to score the century that his captain acknowledged was the tipping point of SA’s triumph.

Then again, three hours is nothing in the life of a black hole.

Where the Spanish Civil War still rages

Sunday Times Lifestyle


MARCH 28, 1939 is lodged like a bullet in the brain at No. 7 Calle de Echegaray, deep in Madrid’s el Barrio de Las Letras – the literary district.

If you’re from around there, you call this collection of cobbled capillaries Huertas. It is a place of tapas bars next to tapas bars next to yet more tapas bars, a tangle of tango tableaux, and more tourists than you could cook in a paella pan the size of a bullring.

Many of them will roam the lanes like Cervantes and Hemingway did 300 years apart, and ramble down the hill to visit Velazquez, Goya, Titian, Rembrandt, Caravaggio in the Prado.

Above these storied streets, in apartamentos that wear their balconies like moustaches, Madrilenos sing and swear and live lives that seem to have escaped literature to glow in the amber light of Spain’s never-ending summer evenings.

None of that matters at No. 7 Calle de Echegaray, where a painted sign above the door reads: La Venencia.

A venencia is a long-stemmed ladle fitted with a cylindrical cup that is plunged through the bunghole of a barrel to fetch a draught of what Jerez, some 460km southwest of Madrid, is famous for: sherry as dry in the mouth as the sand on which bulls’ blood is spilled for sport.

A venenciador lifts the implement above the head using one hand and, in a single motion as fluid as the unspilled cargo, fills a glass held in the other hand. Performed by an experienced practitioner, the wine leaps into the glass with languid certainty. Attempted by an amateur, it ends up everywhere except in the glass.

Again, at No. 7 Calle de Echegaray, none of that matters. What does matter is the Republic and Franco and March 28, 1939: the cursed day Madrid fell to the fascists.

Prosaically, La Venencia is a bar. But, in the hearts and minds of those who frequent the place, the Spanish Civil War – and the horror and hardship of the dictatorship that followed and endured for 36 years – rages still.

During Franco’s siege of the city, which lasted for all three years of the war, Madrilenos whose blood ran Republican red gathered here to drink and discuss and transport themselves into a better frame of mind. Hemingway himself was a frequent visitor – getting drunk with the locals was a less arduous and dangerous, and more convivial, way of finding out what was going on at the front than actually going to the front.

Not a lot has changed at La Venencia since those difficult days. Taking photographs is not allowed (that’s the easiest way to expose yourself to the Fascists, comrade!), tips are not accepted (all the better to prevent comrades from being exploited by the bosses!), glasses are held exclusively by their stems (only uncivilised Fascists cup their hand under the bowl!), and only sherry (besides water) is served.

It comes in five varieties – Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado and Palo Cortado – each in its unlabelled bottle nestling in a small bath of ice and water having been decanted from nearby casks.

La Venencia’s walls and ceiling have been stained the colour of tobacco by decades of exactly that burning into the night from between the lips of the furtive and the fearful, and the wooden bar counter is dark with secrets and ancient with cracks. The floor is the same trampled timber it’s always been.

Stand at the bar and order a drink and the barman or woman will chalk it up – yes, using a stub of chalk –  opposite you on the counter. With your drink comes a tapa, often a small plate of bright green Madrid olives.

Music? Don’t be silly. And don’t expect the staff to be friendly. There’s a war on, don’t you know.

But this time capsule is not all about denial. Like Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Pablo Iglesias in Spain has proved that the politics of the Left – the real left, not the corporatised crap spouted and implemented by people like Tony Blair – is not dead. By December 20, as leader of Podemos, Iglesias could well be elected Spain’s Prime Minister.

Many of those propping up the bar at La Venencia would be happy with that. Others, betrayed too many times by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – which is difficult to distinguish from the ruling rightist Peoples’ Party in bureaucratic bumbling and corrupt capering – will struggle to put faith in the idea that the pony-tailed, hipster-bearded, slight-shouldered, smiling-eyed Iglesias will be different.

For them, too much has changed in a world that once rallied to faraway causes because that was the right thing to do; not because they had played enough video games in their middle class misery to see sexiness in beheading unfortunates in orange overalls on a beach somewhere.

Historians list 13 South Africans among the legions who travelled to Spain to fight Franco. Among them was Cape Town-born, Indian-raised, English-educated Reginald Saxton, a young doctor who pioneered new blood transfusion methods on the battlefield. The Fascist forces included a misguided Catholic named Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell; better known as Roy Campbell, one of South Africa’s most revered poets.

At La Venencia they will raise a glass to Saxton and perhaps to Iglesias. But Campbell can go to hell, even if it doesn’t exist.

De Kock, Du Plessis, De Villiers destroy India

Times Media


HAVING scored 99-and-a-half runs at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai on Sunday, Quinton de Kock paused mid-pitch to brandish the bat he had used to take him so close to a century.

Then he punched the air. Then he punched the air again. Only then did he complete the required single.

“Even now, I don’t know what I did,” De Kock said in a television interview during the innings break. “I didn’t mean to do it but it happened.”

When Faf du Plessis tried a similar trick, leaping high and throwing an air punch to celebrate his impending century, his legs cramped and he had to limp to his hundred. What a difference an age gap of nine years makes.

When AB de Villiers scampered a helter-skelter two to reach his hundred, he smacked his chest with his bat and roared, “Come on!” as if he was tightly wrapped in black leather and vamping it up in a Berlin bondage club. The stands, pumped full of Indians, roared back: “ABD! ABD! ABD!”

And those were only a few of the pantheon of memories that will stick in South Africans’ hearts and minds from the fifth one-day international against India.

You can do that kind of thing if you’re special. And De Kock, Du Plessis and De Villiers were extra special on Sunday. So much so that the result – SA won by 214 runs to inflict India’s second-worst loss in terms of runs in their 891 ODIs and to clinch their first bilateral series in the format in India 3-2 – was a subplot to the more immediate, more compelling drama.

Similarly, the facts that De Kock, Du Plessis and De Villiers scored 109, 133 and 119 were no more no less than that. Even SA’s total of 438/4 – spot the magic number – was just another detail in a picture that kept getting bigger.

De Kock took 74 of his runs in boundaries and reached three figures off 78 balls; his only century in the format off fewer than 100 deliveries.

Du Plessis was poleaxed by cramp repeatedly. Once, as he lay flat on his back on the pitch, MS Dhoni came from behind the stumps to help stretch his hamstrings.

Up in the commentary box, Graeme Smith laughed his head off and asked, “Are there snipers on the roof?”

De Villiers launched two sixes in an over three times. He surged past 50 off 34 balls and 100 off 59. He did that De Villiers thing he does and made the impossible possible.

But he did not impress De Kock: “It’s becoming a normal thing now for AB. He doesn’t even celebrate anymore. It’s just bat up and thank you.”

De Kock and Du Plessis added 154 before Du Plessis and De Villiers put on 164. They were parted when Du Plessis finally retired hurt. But he went with a bang.

“I’ve got nothing left,” Du Plessis said to his captain as his muscles convulsed.

“You can still hit sixes,” came an unmoved De Villiers’ reply.

So Du Plessis stood and delivered four sixes and two fours off the last 10 balls he faced.

Then De Villiers took over in a stand of 79 in which Farhaan Behardien had the opportunity to score just 16.

India were dismissed for 224 in 36 overs with Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn snorting fire and claiming seven wickets between them in a reply that oozed along awkwardly like a wake held before the dying man was dead.

What of India’s performance? India who?

By the numbers:

438/4 – SA’s total, the highest scored against India in all their 891 ODIs.

6 – The number of times SA have reached 400 in an ODI. No team has done so more.

4 – How many times SA have reached 400 in an ODI this year.

2 – How many times three batsmen have scored centuries in an ODI innings. SA own both instances of the feat – on Sunday and when Hashim Amla (153*), Rilee Rossouw (128) and AB de Villiers (149) ran riot against West Indies at the Wanderers on January 18.

1 – How many times 400 has been reached at Wankhede stadium. 

8 – How often De Villiers has scored a century in 75 or fewer deliveries, a world record.

5 – Quinton de Kock’s number of ODI centuries against India. He has eight in total.

0 – The number of times De Kock has scored an ODI half-century against India without going on to reach a century.

33 – How many runs Faf du Plessis scored off the last 10 balls he faced – hitting four sixes and two fours – before retiring hurt with cramp.

12 – Mohit Sharma’s economy rate, the worst by an Indian bowler in an ODI.