South African captain Hashim Amla was grinding down the England attack on day three of the Test match in Cape Town and I had been with him for every ball.
On the couch. Necking beer. Chowing litchis. Indulging in every tangential cricketing superstition known to toffs in an attempt to save the Test after England had declared their first innings on 629-6. The calves and quadriceps were burning with lactic acid from what seemed like an eternal game of Nelson’s torture: raising both feet off the ground for any score vaguely resembling “Nelson” – 111, cricket’s ill-fated number – whether it was 11-1 or 222-3. Putting your feet up had never hurt so much.
Then the call came in from my man Trump: “Where are you?” he asked. “On the couch. By the ocean,” I yawned. Trump wasn’t impressed. He is a solid geezer and has his own hair, and so doesn’t look like a diarrhetic fox had crawled on to his head and defecated himself to death like his namesake, United States Republican presidential hopeful Donald. So he deserved, at least, my attention between overs.
Trump wanted me to work. I mumbled an attempted forward defensive block to his overture. It sounded like I’d been hit in the box by a Kagiso Rabada nutcracker.
The first week of January is a hazardous time for any journalist: that halfway point between the holidays and the beginning of work proper, as signalled by the ANC’s January 8 statement.
It’s that time when the half of the country that has returned to work is doing almost nothing because the other half is still on leave, gloating with Facebook posts about beaches, mid-morning beers and the traditional New Year’s Day Test match at Newlands. There is little to do aside from clear emails and stave off boredom by getting into trouble.
I hadn’t read or watched the news much for weeks. Had moved even less. Interviewed no one. The flecks of last week’s crab curry incinerating holes in a vest unchanged since Christmas was the biggest story I could report on. I was stumped. In the digital age, a character notes in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity, we are led to believe that the answer to every question is the internet, where “[i]ts competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of our existence”.
So I went online. Logged on to social media, searching for a story like Stiaan van Zyl haplessly trying to buy a run at the top of the South African batting order.
Real estate agent Penny Sparrow was doing a Henny Penny impersonation on Facebook, shrieking about the sky falling on democratic South Africa because “monkeys” (black people) had gone for a swim on New Year’s Day. Her subsequent apology was like being kicked in the face after being dragged off a “whites only” beach by an apartheid copper in the 1980s. Something about having black work colleagues, even a “wonderful Indian girl” who had filled in for her, and being okay with black people shagging in bushes.
Meanwhile, Standard Bank economist Chris Hart observed on Twitter that poor blacks in South Africa possess an increasing sense of entitlement and a growing “hatred towards minorities”. White privilege’s crusader, Gareth Cliff, was also on Twitter, suggesting that critics of those using social media to spew racist bile just don’t understand freedom of speech.
Ahistorical ignorance and notions of white superiority abounded. People were pissed off. Political parties geared into campaign season with choice condemnations and stage-managed visits to police stations to lay crimen injuria charges against the bigots.
Amla had, meanwhile, departed on 201. His innings – arguably the gutsiest by a South African captain, considering his woeful form over 2015 and the incessant calls for his axing as captain – was as serene as it was single-minded. A natural stroke-maker, he had inhibited himself, leaving anything outside his off-stump that may have induced an edge – an atypical South African batsman playing the most typical of South African innings: one grounded in conservatism.
Temba Bavuma stroked his way to an undefeated 102 and history, becoming the first black African to score a Test century for South Africa. Black excellence had contributed to a Test match saved. Yet Amla would resign afterwards.
Cricket, with all its vagaries and challenges, is supposed to be like life. On most days, in South Africa, what happens on the ground makes more sense than everything off it.