December 12 2009
England’s cricketers are on their travels again and this winter they are out in South Africa for a series of four test matches – including the big Christmas game beginning in Durban on Boxing Day – and five one-day internationals. Regular followers of the sport will know that making predictions where England are concerned can be a hazardous business. Last February, it seemed reasonable to believe that they would beat the West Indies in the Caribbean, yet they were humiliatingly dismissed for 51 in their second innings in Jamaica and failed to win a test. But returning to these shores they thumped the same West Indians 2-nil in the chilly English spring and then exceeded expectations by reclaiming the Ashes.
One thing you can say with confidence about the South African tour is that the cricket will be tough. The Springboks pride themselves on their abrasive attitude, much like the Australians, though seasoned professionals reckon they are less fun than the old enemy and less partial to a beer with their opponents afterwards. The South African captain Graeme Smith is a combative character who is accused of having too much to say for his own good. Shane Warne, the very opposite of a dour Afrikaner, used to love mocking Smith and questioning his captaincy skills. On one occasion he claimed that Smith had embarrassed himself so often that “you could put an egg on his face and it would be fried in about two minutes”.
Smith didn’t see the funny side and he’s not best pleased with England’s skipper Andrew Strauss, either. In an ICC Champions Trophy match in September, Strauss refused to allow Smith a runner – meaning another player who comes on to the field to run between the wickets when a batsman is injured – after Smith had complained of cramp. Strauss felt the South African’s problem was a fitness issue rather than an injury, and the umpires backed him up, but Smith has vowed to “remind” Strauss of his behaviour when the sides meet again.
For their part, England will be hoping that their best batsman or, to be more accurate, their best South African-born batsman, stays fit. He also has “previous” with Smith. On England’s 2005 tour of South Africa, Kevin Pietersen, ignoring the taunts of the local spectators, hit three magnificent one-day 100s but Smith still chided him for leaving the land of his birth to pursue a career in the UK. The 29-year-old responded in his autobiography Crossing the Boundary by calling Smith “an absolute muppet” and everyone is looking forward to a resumption of hostilities in the coming weeks.
If the England players feel the need to boost their testosterone levels, they should take the advice of the former South African opener Gary Kirsten, who coaches the Indian team. In defiance of accepted notions that sexual abstinence is the best way to keep athletes wired and ready to roll, Kirsten has suggested that as far as cricketers are concerned the more sex they enjoy before a game the happier they’ll be and the better they’ll perform. Kirsten’s views have caused much chuckling, not least because he himself was a notoriously slow, not to say dull, batsman whose efforts in the middle hardly suggested a man who had spent the previous night consumed with passion. But maybe we misjudged him and he was just worn out after too much romantic foreplay. His observations certainly interested England’s cheeky off-spinner Graeme Swann, who wanted to know if the fun had to be confined to fellow members of the squad or whether the Wags could join in too.
It’s difficult to imagine the stern-faced Smith instructing his players to make love rather than do press-ups, but England will need more than just a heightened libido if they are to beat the South Africans who, last December, became the first team in 16 years to win a series down under. Given England’s past inconsistencies, I wouldn’t want to risk my shirt on them. But on a point of value I feel the South Africans are too short at a niggardly 1-2 in places and, in the hope that they play both sexy and successful cricket, I’m backing Strauss’s men to come out on top at 4-1 with William Hill.