It was Sunday night in Jozi in the type of pub in which the ”No Smoking” signs seem to turn a deeper shade of mustard gas with each devious gentle expulsion of spent tobacco.
The half-price pizza special was long over. Worse, the kitchen was closed. So the hungry worked on their thirst instead.
Some chat-ups were as fresh as the froth on a just-cracked beer, others sputtered along uncertainly and a few were cleared for take-off to a back seat nearby. A geezer with glazed grey eyes and hair like tired string made a sad lump of humanity at the far edge of the counter. He drank slowly, silently alone.
The floor was dull with stickiness, reminding the owners of the feet that trod it that they were in a real bar.
Someone sacrificed a coin to the juke box … click … I see a bad moon a-rising …
The door swung open and a familiar pair of eyes perched atop a tall frame peered over square spectacles into the irresistible scene. Daniel Vettori and his boys had come out for a drink.
Perhaps they were trying to forget the thrashing they had been dealt hours earlier at the Wanderers, where South Africa won the first Test by 358 runs. That margin is both South Africa’s biggest victory and New Zealand’s heaviest loss.
In the process the visitors lost Shane Bond, the bowler who transforms their defence into an attack, to a torn stomach muscle.
At the time of writing, towering medium pacer Jacob Oram was doubtful, with a hamstring injury. Which was, as one pressbox wag put it, a bummer.
Stephen Fleming had been to hospital for scans in the wake of the battering he took from South Africa’s bowlers. Only bruising, said the quack.
Michael Papps — whose nickname must surely be Smear — had spent much of the match in a dazed dance with a virus.
A day earlier, team manager Lindsay Crocker, a delightfully deadpan character steeped in crustiness, described the unfortunate Papps’s condition thus: ”He was on a drip in the first session, he was asleep in the second session and he was in danger of having to pad up in the third.”
Verily, the New Zealanders had much to forget. And they would have been forgiven for declining to think ahead to the second Test, which starts in Centurion on Friday.
It is difficult to fathom how the Black Caps might raise themselves from the floor of the canyon in time to deliver a significantly better performance.
With Bond back home there is little chance of their bowlers making an impact. If Oram is also out, that chance is smaller still. And if Fleming’s batting is hampered by soreness and Papps is still seeing stars, the hopes that New Zealand would have pinned on their batting to keep their heads above water will be seriously dented.
Yes, the Kiwis deserved a drink. Or were they on the town to celebrate Lou Vincent’s 29th birthday?
Whichever, they settled themselves around a table at the window. Soon they were sniffed out by women, who no doubt insisted they hadn’t a clue what Ross Taylor might look like or what he does for a living.
Unlike Australian sportsmen, who seem genetically predispositioned to morph into unruly louts when they leave the shores of their chronically nannied state and come to our freer country to beat the pants off our teams, the New Zealanders minded their own business in relaxed fashion.
They sipped their drinks with good manners, chatted among themselves and to their new friends — and generally behaved like adults in search of a dose of R&R to ease the cares of their day jobs.
It has to be wondered whether their conversation touched on Graeme Smith’s puzzling reaction to having captained the team that achieved South Africa’s most emphatic win.
Smith seemed anything but an elated leader. Instead he whinged, like a prize Pom, about the state of the pitch — a surface, mind, that the South Africans had read accurately.
In fact, Smith made it plain that he was less than chuffed with most of the pitches he and his team had played on in South Africa for the last two years.
It was an odd outburst, particularly for a man who is wise beyond his years and who understands the effect of strong words.
Few would predict anything less than a South African triumph at Centurion. For two reasons, it is the home ground of Dale Steyn, the fast bowler who claimed his first 10-wicket haul in the first Test, as well as Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner who has breathed variety into a previously stale attack.
Those are but details of the big picture, which is that South Africa are a better team than New Zealand.
If they prove that truth again in the course of the next five, four or even three days, it is to be hoped that Smith will celebrate the fact. Fancy a drink, Graeme?