Big Penno's South Africa

1 March 2019

The rising U12 Lion's recently toured Cape Town ...

Day 7 and beyond - SACS, Thursday 21st February, 2019

"Our blood is green."

 Stuart Anderson,  Former SACS Junior Headmaster

If a week is a long time in politics, on tour it is an eternity.  Each day counts as a year and over these 7 years together we have evolved into a solid unit.  We have realised that in order to thrive in South Africa, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.

The Rand has dropped that this is not a holiday.  It's a tour.  Holidays are relaxing.  A tour is the ultimate test of endurance.  Look after your teammates and leave no man behind.  Battle-hardened and unscarred, Barmy Army status is still probably a week or so away for us, but we're taking to this South Africa malarky like a herd of wildebeest to water. 

And this is just the parents.  We no longer need to stand upwind of each other.  Conversations about stool consistency have become standard breakfast fare.  More than four hours sleep a night is considered a lie in. 

As kids these days say, the group chat is lit.  A couple of us are now nearing fluency in Afrikaans, ja!  The spectrum of suntans goes from painfully red, through white to some pretty cool shades of brown.  It is a sad but truthful observation that we are far more Rainbow Nation than our hosts. 

The Team Dealer had the foresight to research local street value of Imodium and Dioralyte and, safe in the knowledge he'd have a captive market, packed enough tablets to plug the buttholes of a batallion.  The team playlist is coming along nicely, although I doubt it will ever grace Spotify.  We have not one but two Team Photographers.  Even the Local Team Representative (JoBro's Auntie) has put in a guest appearance.

Our immersion is so complete we even have - what a gem - a team wine.  Fat Bastard.  You couldn't make it up.  Our bottle rate per innings (BRPI - yes, it is an ECB-recognised metric) of 6 an innings is coming along at a nice clip.  Plenty of room for improvement, particularly given how we've shown we can see out the overs.  Second livers are sprouting to absorb the extra intake.  A few wonder whether Fat Bastard will sponsor us.  Others worry whether we'll run out.  The hardcore are checking price and availability back home.

Ah, but our boys!  How they've evolved since they were dropped as innocent cubs into this harsh and unforgiving land.  No longer cubs but lions.  And no longer individuals but the pack.  The Pack (© Tom Jones, 2019).  Together Stronger.  Darwin is looking down and marvelling at this unexpected twist to the next stage of evolution.  Attenborough is lined up to narrate the tour video.

After a few wins under their belts, these long, hard, scorching South African wickets are less intimidating.  They are realising any bowling full or short will be punished mercilessly.  The giant farm boys we have faced are slightly less fearsome.  It is the only time in their lives when our lads will say, 'Size doesn't matter,' without fear of repercussions.  Their predator instincts are sharpening.

They're starting to look the same, sound the same and - not quite as appealing - smell the same.  Grannies cross the road when they hear them.  Afrikaaners automatically assume The Pack is an Afrikaaner Pack.  Vendors at traffic lights reach for deodorant to sell the boys.  Their voices are deep and broken as if there's been a sudden outbreak of puberty on the bus. 

Aside from those with the blood of the Irish, after so much time in the sun they're even the same colour - a colour which Farrow & Ball will name Ranj in their upcoming 2019/20 collection.  Everyone's bigger, taller, stronger.  They're taking well to the South African diet of protein, protein and…more protein.  The absence of any green matter makes prospect of one poo a week a distinct possibility. 

From the sidelines we can no longer tell our boys apart.  Gait becomes the only differentiating factor.  One boy lopes, another slopes.  Together they prowl.

And so, dear Reader, the scene is set for the Day 7 game.  It's the Big One.  History is only 60 overs away.

  The game to which we have been looking forward to with such trepidation is against SACS (South African College School) in Newlands.  Newlands is our kind of town and it feels like a restoration to our rightful habitat.

Your Correspondent could blend in here quite easily.  Sort of like a St John's Wood by-the-sea.  Newlands Stadium down the road, sushi for lunch, cooler climate, no massive forest fires, not much traffic, mums who wear the right kind of yoga pants, discreet backrooms in bars where you can enjoy a pink wine post school run and oak trees everywhere.

The school itself is in a spectacular setting.  Utterly jaw-dropping.  Plateaux of sports fields drop down from Table Mountain and Devil's Peak which dominate the view.  Everything is green or white.  Founded in 1829, SACS is the oldest school in our host nation.  The sensation is more that Newlands was created round this school rather than the other way round, such is its importance.  You can imagine Smuts inviting Churchill for cigars and champagne (no Fat Bastard in the good old days of yesteryear) to while away an afternoon over a game of cricket and reminisce about the time the former arrested the latter.  There is immense pride in the school's legacy and ethos.  The school motto - Spectemur Agendo - Let us be judged by our actions - lends it a very English public school feel. 

More worryingly, SACS take their cricket seriously and have a reputation for producing world-class sportsmen.  Nerves are steeled for what we know will be the toughest game of the tour.

Captain Penno and Vice-Captain, 'Enry, step out into the centre, lose the toss and are asked to field.  'Come on boys,' issues out of the Stuart Anderson Pavilion where the spectators are treated to yet another warm South African welcome under the gaze of Percy Montgomery.

'Enry opens the bowling from the Water Polo Stadium End and keeps things tight.  It's a lovely wicket with a fast outfield and we keep the run rate down to about 4 an over.  Nothing is getting through Duggy's safe pair of hands.  Some great fielding from Sully and Ali at Fine Leg are keeping the score down nicely.  There is a strong wind blowing which makes bowling from the SA Pavilion End a bit more of a challenge.  In the 4th over Penno drops a caught and bowled.  Two more dropped catches follow in fairly quick succession.  Difficult catches, yes.  But on a good day we know these catches are those that win matches. 

As the run rate increases, after 8 overs it's time for our first change.  What has becomes clear is that one batsman, Cean, is turning the screws and making all their runs whilst the other is not having quite as much joy.  Also, most of the runs are coming when we bowl from the SA Pavilion End.  Sebby and APS enter the attack and the touchline chat turns to the need to break this partnership.  Sebby's bowling beautifully, efficiently - great line, length and a bit of swing.   APS steams in but we have reached the point of the game where Cean is comfortably in, at the comfortable end and really opens up. 

At drinks SACS are 85-0.  The touchline chat for quite a few overs is about bringing on the leggies and as if by osmosis Amar Ali and Jai enter the attack after drinks.  Jai is his usual disciplined, parsimonious self and tightens things up.  But it is clear that the introduction of a north-west London leggy is a game-changer.  Where once the batsmen looked comfortable, they are now in a world of pain.  Whereas minutes before Cean's dad looked the calmest of expectant fathers, he is now thinking that the birth of his boy's century is getting complicated.  Every ball looks like it could take a wicket.  Every shot the batsman plays looks like it could be caught in Cow Corner.  It's gone from a superb technical batting display to something a tad, dare I say it, agricultural.

The last 10 overs witnesses the logical conclusion to the leg spin strategy with the introduction of Hoggy with Amar Ali to form the Spinners' Union.  And it doesn't take long to bear fruit with a splendid runout from JoBro.  First blood at last.  Zac's in the stumping zone and it's time for a bit of stump-sledging.  After 10 attempts, Hoggy's ball is swept into the stumps by Zac and the umpire's finger is raised.  The crowd break out into verses of 'Hoggy, Hoggy, Hoggy.  Oi!  Oi!  Oi!'  Two overs later another wicket falls, again to Hoggy.  In the penultimate ball of the game, the wicket we want, finally falls to the Hoggy-Zac complex for a splendid 92 and that's innings over.  There is a great moment of sportsmanship when all the boys shake hands with Cean and congratulate him on his knock.  The highlight of the innings is Hoggy's 3-28.  166 to win.  A huge total to chase.

Jai and Zac step out to open our batting and we're looking comfortable.  Jai nurdles it down to Fine Leg to get off the mark but towards the end of the over the pitch deceives him and from a slower ball pops it into the air for a catch at Square Leg.  At the other end Zac is looking solid, patient - the glue holding the partnership with Duggy together.  Until a wonder catch sees Duggy's wicket fall.

  In steps Hoggy, he of the expressive body language, and it only takes him 2 balls to drive four runs to the boundary.  The opposition scurry around in the bushes to find the lost ball and it feels good to see the medicine dished out.  More of the same follows and the crowd break out into 'Who Let the Hog Out?  Who?  Who?'  The run rate is increasing but when Zac falls for 11 we know have an uphill battle.  The pressure's on the batsmen.

The boundary chat now moves on to the weather.  It's cold and no one had the wherewithal to bring along a jumper.   South Africa?  Jumper?  Oxymoron.  When the sun dips behind the mountains there is a brief, delusional discussion of whether bad light will stop play.  The wind has died down.  Aside from the whiff of the brae, it now feels like we're in Regent's Park rather than Newlands.  But will these English conditions favour us? 

And they do.  Eamonn has obviously been watching closely and is finding the boundaries.  Their bowling becomes a lot looser.  Hoggy hits our first 6 and hearts start racing.  We're catching up but is it too little too late?  The opposition are rattled and a little bit of gamesmanship enters their game.  A harsher critic would draw a comparison with the malign influence of the Premier League.  Hoggy's 50 follows - a splendid knock and Eamonn brings up the hundred shortly afterwards.  We need about 10 an over to win.  Doable but a big ask.  The opposition know this and bring their opening bowlers back into the attack.

Hoggy falls to a splendid catch followed shortly by Sebby who is run out.  He knew he had to run hard as he's done all tour.  Eamonn goes for a very respectable 27.  The game is slipping away like the sun behind the mountains but the boys are taking the risks they need to take in order to come close to victory.  Penno is caught followed shortly by Amar Ali, both to another couple of wonder catches.  Sully comes in, defends well but is caught.  Which leaves JoBro and APS as our last 2 batsmen.

One of the tour highlights is that we've never been bowled out.  We've seen out 40 overs which in these conditions is an achievement of which to be immensely proud.  Herein follows the moment of the series.  JoBro.  Last ball of the innings.  The slip cordon is summoned into play.  We cannot win.  But why worry about victory when we have style.  Style in buckets.  The ball comes into JoBro and he attempts a scoop.  Pardon me, Mr Correspondent.  Is that a typo?  Yes, a scoop.  He's bowled.  Go out in style.  We'll be buying him drinks at the bar for many years to come.  APS is not out.  119 all out, a loss by 46 runs.

Sport and hindsight go hand-in-hand.  Ifs and buts have allowed sports channels to broadcast 24-hours a day.  If only we'd put the leggies on earlier, put someone at Cow Corner.  But had we taken those catches, dismissed Cean sooner, had those wonder catches dropped, the result would have been far, far closer.  But we didn't.  It is a learning experience and a once in a lifetime one at that. 

Cricket is also, to borrow from another sport, a funny old game.  One parent's tears of joy are another's tears of disappointment.  The team can lose but an individual performance can atone for that loss.  It was Hoggy's day - 3 wickets and a 50.  Hoggy, we salute you!  Who Let the Hog Out!

There was more to this than cricket.  Although the sport was was the soundtrack, the backdrop to the tour, the boys had the opportunity to experience so much more.  Table Mountain, the Township, a tour of Robben Island by a former convict, penguins, golf, team dinner, being a team…I hope they appreciate how lucky they are. 

However, one thing is certain.  The Pack can walk away from that game with their heads held high.  In my heart of hearts the opposition knew they had a bit of luck on their side that day.  Not withstanding a few moments of gamesmanship, for most of the game we held their respect.  Indeed, gamesmanship is a form of flattery that shows we were in the contest.  The presence of not one but two SACS headmasters further attests to this.  Well played, boys!

Epilogue - London, 27th February, 2019

As I write this at my desk, I put my hands up that I have become ever so slightly carried away with the mundane task of writing a match report.  I realise my aim has transformed into that of capturing the essence of the tour, not a ball-by-ball analysis of one particular match.  Scope creep has taken over.  Words have run away from me, but I hope they're neither wides, byes or no-balls.

Back to reality means countless loads of washing, cooking, cleaning, school runs. The tedium of the London grind.  I miss Sara, Ranj, Ads and Neal for all they did for us.  I miss the pavilion banter.  I miss my Fat Bastards.  I miss long tables for dinner and just handing Daniel the wine list knowing a wise choice would be made.  I even miss the Bus. 

The only evidence left of South Africa is the warm weather we've brought back with us, excruciating jet lag and the grade 4 sunburn.  Did it really happen or was it all a dream?  I guess all memories fade, I just hope this one takes longer than usual.

The last time I visited South Africa was over 20 years ago.  Back then I was amazed at how the house of the new South African nation could be built on the untested foundations of Forgiveness.  'What madness', thought this cocky youth.  A miraculous experiment, but doomed to fail.  It is reassuring that 20 years later, these foundations have faced and borne their challenges admirably.  As indeed they are facing and bearing them on a day-to-day basis.  They have proved far more enduring and robust than my cynical 18-year old self would ever have thought.  Long may the house stand.  It is still a land of reconciliation not redistribution; truth rather than lies; creeping equality.  Above all, it is a land, sadly like my cricket writing skills, to which my words will never do justice.

There's an old South African wives' tale about a pride of lions who roam Newlands on the third Thursday of every February.  I can confirm it's no myth.  I was there and The Pack was an awesome sight to behold.  It's a memory I'll treasure until my dying day.

Big Penno Out.