Proteas enter the lion's den
The customs officer at Perth airport was a large, well-tanned man with burly shoulders and a handlebar moustache. Sniffer dogs were doing their business in an orderly fashion on leads held by unsmiling and unspeaking handlers.
As usual, certainly for those not used to arriving in Australia, the atmosphere was a little tense and intimidating.
Even the most innocent begin to doubt themselves.
Never mind narcotics or even a couple of boxes of cigarettes over the strictly maintained excise limits, the possibility of having inadvertently dropped an apple core into your hand luggage during the flight leaves you with the prospect of instant deportation — after 10 years in solitary confinement, that is.
They love a bunch of South Africans in the arrivals terminal at Perth, they are a well-known ‘target”.
There are so many living in the city that cliques have formed and, while the majority of resident Perthites have welcomed the new brigade affectionately termed the ‘Boat People” (because they all own one, not because they arrived on one), there are some who resent the tiniest hint of Afrikaans in a public place.
‘You got biltong?” demands a burly man whose name tag and slightly confused accent indicate that he is, originally, of Greek descent but, like almost everyone living in Australia, very determined to follow the obligation to be a dinkum Aussie.
If the importation of fresh fruit might be penalised by 10 years of incarceration, preserved meat, it seems, would earn an instant death penalty. It’s only afterwards that you realise that biltong is a uniquely South African target and therefore a particularly soft one.
Tiny particles, which may exist on the soles of takkies and golf shoes, are also the subject of close inspection. ‘No need to worry about these, sir,” you offer as you guiltily admit to bringing a pair into the country. ‘I cleaned them myself before I packed.”
‘Oh really,” says sneering Mr Constantou. ‘Do you mean ‘you’, or do you mean your ‘boy’?”
Later that evening you can’t help wonder whether he would have been the first person to have a beer with you if he had wandered into your hotel.
Indeed, the first person to buy you one. But you don’t get to see him again so the viciousness and inappropriateness of his comments sit like indigestion after a bad curry. And try as you might, you can’t help it festering.
A land of unpleasant, aggressive xenophobes lacking education? Far, far from it.
No place like Perth
Perth, famously the most isolated ‘civilised” city on earth, boasts theatres, literary centres, arts and culture festivals and galleries to compare with anywhere else in the world and the University of Western Australia’s reputation compares equally well.
Sydney and Melbourne are among the most cosmopolitan, fascinating cities on earth. And you will be hard-pressed to find a better meal or bottle of wine, too, never mind France, Italy or — Cape Town.
The ‘social” side of touring Australia can easily be compared with the professional equivalent.
The 95% hospitality success rate is virtually unprecedented in any other country and, for that, anybody who ever returns remains grateful and excited. It’s the other 5% that gets you — at the most unexpected times.
For the sake of a trivial example, the same doorman on a player’s hotel floor, who has provided any number of services for a week before a Test match, and developed a genuine personal relationship, when asked for something minor on the morning of the Test, replies: ‘Sure mate and I hope you get fucking killed out there today.”
Ironically, the same relationship applies between the players. At least as far as the Australian players are concerned.
Matthew Hayden, for example, a committed Christian, is just as happy to question the sexual practices of your mother and sister as he is to have a beer with you straight after the day’s play.
Hayden says he sees and feels no conflict.
Early indications are good
In the past South African players have not been able to cope with the ‘Aussieness” of a tour Down Under. This time, things may be different. Maybe.
The danger lies with the volatility of Dale Steyn and the naivety of Morne Morkel.
If they can be kept on track by mental coach Jeremy Snape and the influence of senior players such as Neil McKenzie, and the experience of Jacques Kallis is used rather than submerged, then the Proteas will have crossed the halfway barrier before they have even bowled or faced a ball.
Early indications are good. Hashim Amla said he would be ‘flattered” if the Australians taunted him with references to his beard and ‘terrorist” visage. ‘I’ll be flattered,” he said before departure for Perth.
‘If they have to resort to that it means they’re either in serious trouble or they rate me as a serious threat. If it’s racial then the ICC [International Cricket Council] have structures to deal with that. Honestly, they can say what they like, it won’t affect me.”
McKenzie is similarly unflappable although Smith, despite his age, really has seen it all before. Kallis is the original ice man while Ashwell Prince is rarely persuaded out of his concentration bubble.
AB de Villiers will, no doubt, be targeted for special verbal attention while the two men directly behind him in the batting order, Mark Boucher and Paul Harris, will welcome it and give it back with interest.
But the Aussies know where South Africa’s greatest strength lies and will do everything they can to destabilise it.
Ricky Ponting was quick to point out that neither Steyn nor Morkel had played Test cricket in Australia before—he wasn’t referring to their knowledge of pitch conditions.
Both men will field on the boundary and will encounter verbal abuse previously unimagined, let alone encountered.
And there will be more in the middle, too.
How the two young fast bowlers cope with it may play just as big a role in determining the series outcome as any other criteria.
Australia is an amazing country to tour. Beautiful, dazzling and seductive, it can also be like the female spider that kills and eats her unsuspecting mate shortly after the most amazing copulation.