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TRCH Robin Hood

Stags Do Cape Town

8 February 16 words: Adam Taylor
"It is always nice to bump into friendly faces abroad and a host of Notts CCC players were in South Africa representing the national team"
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It's no Trent Bridge, but it'll do a job... 

 

Watching cricket abroad is a rare pleasure. For those so inclined, the Internet age of affordable flights, and accommodation options tailorable to most budgets, means it has never been easier to indulge. Even so, writing this piece in the freezing depths of winter, it still seems incongruous that, on a foreign field somewhere in Britain's sun-soaked former Empire, a match is taking place in that everlasting summer which cocoons the modern England cricketer.

When planning my own trip to Cape Town back in August, a number of viable alternatives to the direct(ish) flight from London were available. Flying Birmingham to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Doha, Doha to Johannesburg and (finally) Johannesburg to Cape Town may conjure up images of one of Indiana Jones’s epic aeroplane journeys across the globe, yet the cost savings achieved made the 26-hour marathon worthwhile. Thankfully, nor was there any need to sit on a crate of distressed chickens or disembark the plane onto a mountain in a rubber dinghy.

New Year’s Eve accommodation proved to be a greater challenge. Fortunately friends were able to step in and provide shelter for the night, just as sketchy contingency plans were being drawn up based around a back-catalogue of Ray Mears DVDs. By a quirk of fate the end of year celebrations turned into an impromptu engagement party (congratulations again Simone and Jacob) and inadvertently helped realise a lifetime’s ambition. There are very few opportunities in life to behave like Ian Botham on a rest day but, thanks to the strength of the pound against the rand, a trip to the local off licence to clear out the entire stock of South African champagne came pretty close.

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Cape Town Three 

 

After a day of recovery it was on to the main purpose of the trip: five whole days of Test match cricket. The picturesque setting of Newlands Cricket Ground offers a quite stunning backdrop to events unfolding on the pitch. Overlooked by Table Mountain, the stadium benefits from a serene beauty with which few venues the world over can compete. As backdrops go, it probably just shades it over the Wheatcroft Incinerator, the concrete monolith that towers over Meadow Lane.

It is always nice to bump into friendly faces abroad and a host of Notts CCC players were in South Africa representing the national team. Stuart Broad is a stalwart of the present side and needs little introduction as England’s third highest Test wicket taker of all time. At the other end of the spectrum, Samit Patel was always likely to be on drinks-carrying duty on South African wickets which traditionally do not offer much for the spinner. In between these two extremes however were a couple of local lads seeking to carve a niche for themselves on the world stage.

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Al: Ex-Hales? 

 

Alex Hales is the latest in a long line of batsmen to audition as Captain Alastair Cook’s opening partner. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, England have experimented with Nick Compton, Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Sam Robson, Jonathan Trott, Adam Lyth and Moeen Ali, none of whom have looked particularly convincing. The prospect of Hales opening the batting is particularly exciting, the hope being that a Marcus Trescothick-shaped hole can finally be filled by a batsman of similar aggression and intent, should the temptation be resisted to waft the bat around off-stump.

Meanwhile, the decision to drop Ian Bell – surprising, given the England hierarchy’s tendency to allow long-serving players ‘one more tour’ – presented further opportunity to Notts’ one-day skipper James Taylor, seeking to establish himself in the middle order and emerge from the shadows of his illustrious predecessors. Taylor comes across as an all-round ‘good egg’ and brings none of the unwanted baggage associated with Kevin Pietersen to the dressing room, handy as there is presumably less to throw out of the window (so the story goes…).
 
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When the pitch is a little too flat and the beer a little too cheap... 

 

It’s not only the prospect of good weather that makes watching England overseas so appealing. Unlike Test cricket in the UK, ticket pricing abroad tends to be very reasonable. Entry to watch this game from the open grass bank was a snip at only R140 (about £6). This is not an isolated case: during the tour to the West Indies earlier last year for example, match tickets for the first four days could be obtained from the Grenada National Stadium for around £17 in total, a sharp contrast with the prices paid on the all-in package tours where tickets tend to be pegged at a comparable level to UK pricing. The upshot is a different culture amongst home spectators, with locals tending to dip in and out of the match depending on the state of the game, as well as a noticeable increase in the number of young families in attendance.

Travelling spectators tend to fall into one of three categories. First you have the older generation, sometimes appearing in their county member’s blazers and often ferried to and from the ground by tour parties in air-conditioned minibuses, particularly the case on the sub-continent.  Secondly you have the independent enthusiast, who will happily make their own way around the world on their own budget to fulfil their passion for live sport. Then you have the Barmy Army.

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Flying the Flag 

 

The Barmy Army were borne out of a joke in the Australian press during the 1994-95 tour down under, the gist being that anyone willing to travel halfway round the world to watch lowly England suffer humiliating defeat to the (then) mighty Aussies must, in fact, be ‘barmy’. Legend has it that the dishevelled and sunburnt collection of backpackers comprising England’s following refused to kowtow to their cricketing masters, continuing to sing, dance and have a good time despite the sporting implosion taking place on the pitch. Nothing galvanises a movement quite like a catchy label and the tag stuck, providing an identity for England Cricket’s away following for years to come.

Today the Barmy Army is big business and far from the Bohemian fairy tale at it roots. Membership of England Cricket’s ‘Unofficial Twelfth Man’ retails at £25 per year and the limited company offers a host of all-inclusive packages to watch the team play in conjunction with their travel partners. The tour t-shirts also get the till ringing in a big way and it has become something of a badge of honour amongst the typically middle-aged, middle-class professionals that seemingly make up the rank and file of the Barmy Army today to be wearing the oldest and most obscure example (generally in XXXL).

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Inside the Cape Town pavvy: you could rustle up two decent XIs from this lot... 

 

It is slightly mean to be overly critical of ‘The Barmies’. The company does some credible charity work and the trumpet player (sadly missing in Cape Town) is top quality. However it is apparent that they are regarded as something of an idiot cousin by many travelling fans falling into the other two groups. The joke at the root of the Barmy Army movement has gotten old and its only real purpose today is for selling the t-Shirts. 

The match itself will be remembered for the fireworks of the second morning, with England all-rounder Ben Stokes blasting 258 from 198 balls (including eleven sixes) in a remarkable knock, ably assisted by Jonny Bairstow’s 150 not out in setting an imposing first innings total. Sadly the pitch and conditions offered little to the bowlers until the final day, giving South Africa the opportunity to bat slowly and steadily at less than three runs an over for the thick end of three days and kill any realistic possibility of an England victory.

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Bairstow: pooped (and papped) after his 150* 

 

Cricket fans are renowned for their ability to make their own fun and the snail’s pace of the game did not detract from the overall entertainment. Test venues abroad do not suffer over-officious stewarding and generally treat spectators as adults, allowing you to abuse this trust as far as possible and have a thoroughly good time boozing heavily on the grass banks, free from the confines of allocated seating. This creates what is akin to a festival atmosphere to be enjoyed by all, whether you have an appreciation for the game or not (everyone enjoys a good Beer Snake). Like all festivals, however, the human body can only take so much and the final day was watched from the sanctity of the pavilion, courtesy of that traditional reserve of the English gentleman abroad: insistent blagging.

As for the Notts contingent, Alex Hales made his major contribution of the tour, scoring 60 on the first day before prodding uncertainly at a rising Morne Morkel delivery, perishing at first slip.  James Taylor disappointingly fell for a duck in the first innings before providing some much needed resistance on the final day, helping ease the jitters following a clatter of wickets in the morning as England sought to bat out the draw. Stuart Broad toiled admirably, picking up two wickets for his efforts on a snooker table of a pitch, best summed up by the fact Hales bowled three overs of what one wag in the crowd termed ‘right-arm optimistic’. Samit did an excellent job with the drinks.

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Samit on taaahlin daaahn duty

 

From a South African perspective, Hashim Amla surprisingly relinquished the captaincy immediately after the close of play on the final day, passing the baton (or is it poisoned chalice) to a clearly reluctant AB de Villiers. However it was the contribution of batsman Temba Bavuma, hitting his maiden Test-century, that was the broader, more resonant story.

It was obvious to me throughout my stay in Cape Town that South Africa remains very much a two-tier society. It is unusual to see a white face working behind the bar, cleaning your room, or fulfilling any number of lower paid occupations. This is perhaps unsurprising given the Apartheid regime ended relatively recently in 1994, although it remains disconcerting as a tourist to witness this disparity in the division of labour. Cricket South Africa applies a controversial quota system as a means of positive discrimination, obligating selectors to pick four players ‘of colour’ in their XI. The hope here is that Bavuma, now undoubtedly there on merit, can act as a positive role model for social change and inspire a new generation of sporting stars of the Rainbow Nation, much like the rugby player Bryan Habana.

Following the conclusion of the match in a draw, inevitable from around the third day, attempts were made to spend the vast quantities of rand obtained with the purchasing power of the pound. The food in Cape Town is phenomenal, with an array of exotic animals available for one’s culinary delight, to say nothing of the multitude of seafood options and accompanying fine wines. Springbok, Zebra and Kudo steaks were all consumed, lean and tasty meats whether pan-fried or barbequed the South African way on a braai. Even lavish three-course meals (plus wine) don’t break the bank, and eating out was one of the bonus treats of the trip. Either side of the food, the abiding conclusion drawn from several days of post-cricket pottering is that Cape Town is a beautiful city. Table Mountain dominates the skyline and the visual spectacle of the ‘table cloth’, where clouds roll continuously off the flat peak, is a sight to behold and one that cannot be satisfactorily captured on camera.

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Table Mountain sans cloth 

 

Pre-conceptions of the danger posed to tourists by the reported high crime rate proved unfounded, although it should be remembered that Cape Town is significantly safer than other parts of the country. Even so, signs highlighting the private armed-response services subscribed to by most commercial and residential properties help focus the mind. Indeed, Western Cape locals were friendly and accommodating, with a dry sense of humour and a surprising ability to formulate amusing chants at the cricket, in stark contrast to their Antipodean cousins over in Australia. The Hashim Amla variation of the Yaya Touré song was a particular favourite, all the more entertaining as the group of locals singing it were adorned with fake beards and (for some unknown reason) marigold gloves.

In many ways a love of Test cricket is a pursuit at odds with the pace and accelerated consumerist demands of modern life. Sitting on the grass bank in the sunshine with friends, enjoying a drink or several and watching the sporting contest play out, as generations have done previously, evokes a sense of timelessness where everyday stresses have no place and where yin and yang exist in perfect harmony. After all, in what other circumstance could you travel some 16,000 miles to witness a five day draw and not feel short-changed?

 

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