Spirituality may be just one of SA’s secret World Cup sauces
Team show their human side on a lazy, drizzly Sunday in Bristol, reason to believe SA are in a good place
It’s hard to hide someone the size of Ottis Gibson, but none of the reporters at Jason Holder’s press conference in Bristol on Sunday noticed SA’s coach looming in the back row of seats.
Until, that is, Holder had fielded his last question and was about to rise and leave.
But first he cocked a thumb in greeting and said with a smile: “Mr Gibson? All good?”
Gibson nodded in agreement, and asked: “How’s the golf?”
“Golf is very good,” Holder, a notorious links junkie, said as he broke into a gentle, almost bashful chuckle.
It was a moment of mutual respect between men who go back. Besides the fact that both are from Barbados, Gibson was West Indies’ coach for the first 19 games of Holder’s international career.
There was something reassuringly human about their exchange, evidence that there are real, live people under the madness even of something as crazy a World Cup throws into their lives.
And there was more where that came from. The press conference was staged in the indoor nets at Bristol County Ground, and there was a stream of gracious acknowledgement between Gibson and passing West Indies players and coaches.
Minutes earlier the umpires had pulled the plug on the warm-up match between the teams. Only 12.4 overs had been bowled in more than six hours between bouts of rain so fine it was difficult to see with the naked eye.
Hashim Amla scored 51 not out and Quinton de Kock was unbeaten on 37, and both looked in cracking form. They also played in SA’s other warm-up, against Sri Lanka in Cardiff on Friday, and in all Gibson had seen 14 of his 15 players in action across the two games.
The exception is Dale Steyn, who was among the handful of South Africans who, denied time on the field, had taken to the indoor nets instead.
David Miller batted in one net, Aiden Markram in the other. Along with Steyn, among the bowlers were Justin Ontong, Dale Benkenstein and Claude Henderson, most of them wielding sidearms.
Not Steyn. He chugged in off eight paces and let loose at the pace of a decent club seamer but was nothing like what the finest fast bowler of the age generated before a succession of serious injuries put a dent in his immortality.
Steyn is on his way back from a shoulder problem, and whether he will mark out a run-up when England and SA get the World Cup proper going at the Oval on Thursday remains unknown.
Seeing him there, close enough to exchange howzits, with nary a media manager in sight, was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“All in one piece, Dale?”
“Ja, I’ll be fine.”
A minute or two later Amla made his way to the podium, and the players in the nets had to pause their training – the sound of leather on willow is a wonderful thing unless you’re in the same space trying to record a voice for broadcast.
“Which of the young players do you think will be making headlines in this World Cup,” Amla was asked.
Amla didn’t get much of a chance to think about his answer before Steyn piped up from the nets: “Dale!”
More humanity, and more reason to believe SA are in a good place to launch their challenge.
Amla had delivered a fine innings, tilting at the bowlers at odd angles and producing strokes of lilting harmony. At the other end, De Kock crash-banged with ripping elegance.
But getting Amla to claim credit is not unlike trying to get Steyn not to take the mickey. So it wasn’t that he batted well, rather that he “managed to get the bat in the way of a few of them and the outfield did the rest”.
Holder had been more generous: “The two batsmen played very well. And the wicket played very well as well.”
The famously private Amla isn’t always the most forthcoming of press conference victims, but he was as fluent behind the microphones on Sunday as he had been in front of his stumps. He looked at peace, which was a significant achievement considering the questions over his place in the squad before the tournament, and his father’s serious illness.
“I know there was a bit of speculation but I had a few other, more important things at the time to have my mind occupied with,” he said about all that.
Might Ramadan, which is currently under way – but which Amla isn’t observing because he is playing – have something to do with his state of mind?
“It really helps with my conditioning,” Amla said. “It’s probably the best month of the year for me. Physically, yes, you do feel thirsty and hungry. But, for me, it’s a great mental exercise. Most importantly, it’s a great spiritual exercise.”
Spirituality is slippery stuff. What is it, exactly? And can it help a cricket team prepare to face not only the home side in a major tournament but also the top-ranked XI in the world?
Probably. At the least, it can’t hurt. Especially if those tuned into that level of being are as perceptive and sensitive to what really matters as Amla.
An in-form Amla would be a pillar of a successful World Cup for SA. But he offers his teammates, particularly those who haven’t been around the block as many times as he has, so much more than runs.
“Some things you don’t try and force,” he said. “It happens naturally in our environment. Whether you’ve played a few years or you’ve just come into the team, I don’t think it really matters. The communication between everybody is really good.
“It’s not something I’m consciously thinking about – I think it happens anyway. You’ve got a lot of experience in the playing 15 as well as in the coaching staff. So that osmosis of information and knowledge is going to happen naturally. We’re really fortunate that we have that type of attitude in the team.”
Amazing, isn’t it, what you can learn from a lazy, drizzly Sunday in Bristol?