Four Tests in five weeks, in a beautiful country, one that is an overnight flight away, with pressures on its currency which mean it is wonderfully cheap for Brits to visit at present. As they say: what’s not to like?
I was lucky enough to lead the small advance party who went out a few days before Christmas to view the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. About half of those tourists were already aficionados on the subject, the remainder being more casually interested. Such was the quality of our guided tour and the talks by Doug Rattray (son of the late David) and Alistair Wilson, several of the remainder returned to Durban saying they were sufficiently enthused to carry out further research into the Zulu Wars.
Christmas Day, with the first day of the series a mere 24 hours away, we saw our party grow to 140 cricket lovers. The great Mike Procter really was a special guest at our festive lunch, sharing tales of his career at Gloucestershire and experiences as a Test Match referee; also inspiring quite a few with the wonderful work his Cricket Foundation is doing at an underprivileged school near Durban. Mike was instrumental, later in the tour, in Howzat travellers having two terrific days of horseracing at Greyville (Durban) and Turffontein (Johannesburg) when those Test matches finished early – due to the poor batting of his successors in the South African side.
A solid England win at the famous Kingsmead ground, albeit against a home side lacking Vernon Philanderer, and with Dale Steyn not finishing the game through injury, set the seal on a first week that both tourists and tour leaders felt was the best they had experienced thus far. 0-1.
The caravan moved across country to the beautiful, the amazing, the gorgeous, the fabulous ‘mother city’ – Cape Town, where there is something for everything. This visit included incredible double hundred’s for Ben Stokes and Hashim Amla, and emotional centuries for both Temba Bavuma and Jonny Bairstow. Seeing the Yorkshireman gaze towards the heavens, in tribute to his late father, as brought up his maiden Test century had even some of our harder cases searching for a hanky. That his mother and sister were sharing Howzat Travel accommodation during the first two Tests, and had befriended several of our group, made the moment all the more touching.
A bland pitch still contrived to provide an exciting finish, England’s batting being the one which crumbled dangerously this time, on the final afternoon at Newlands. A draw was the result. Still 0-1. Some thought it the loveliest setting for any ground in the world; other recent tourists argued the merits of Galle and Grenada.
Others debated whether the Stokes/Bairstow partnership was the best session of Test cricket they had ever seen. Those present at Trent Bridge, the morning after the Howzat 10th anniversary event, suggested it would be hard to beat Stuart Broad so dramatically skittling the Aussies. Witnessing cricket like this, and engaging in such delightful discussions, are at the core of what makes these tours such fun.
Those heading home were sent off in good spirits after an end of tour function at the classy Kelvin Grove Club, while others prepared for whichever of our excursion options they had chosen to occupy the week between the 2nd and 3rd tests.
My group went up to Victoria Falls and Chobe game reserve. The change of location, scenery and pace were welcomed by all, so too a reminder of the beauty and potential of Zimbabwe, once it returns to an era of happier governance.
Then to Johannesburg, the Gold Reef city, centre of African commercial life, Soweto, and the large Wanderers ground. A typically bouncy pitch saw Joe Root at his classy best. Stuart Broad produced one of those match-winning spells he now seems to specialise in. The arrival on the big stage of a 20 year-old quick brought up from a not far from the ‘bullring’ – Kagiso Rabada – was a delight to witness, many in our ranks being sensitive to what his achievements mean in the wider context of South African cricket.
Another South African collapse on the 3rd afternoon had regular Howzat tourists comparing notes about how different this felt from exactly two years earlier in Sydney – when it was England folding like the proverbial cheap suit. 0-2 to England, and the series in the bag.
A word in praise of Paul Farbrace, the pleasant and articulate gentleman who is England’s assistant coach. He gave a compelling talk to the group one evening in Sandton, having previously done so to our ‘early bird’ tourists in Durban.
To the north next, towards Pretoria, and the pleasant ground at Centurion, where the remarkable Rabada this time took 13 wickets, thus putting England’s – relative – progress into context. 1-2 to the visitors felt about right.
Graeme Pollock, voted South Africa’s cricketer of the 20th century, was the special guest who spoke to us during the final Test. His fellow countryman, Des Newton, coaxed sharp recollections and funny stories from the great man.
It was a wonderful tour; it was my pleasure to play a small part in it.