Fanie and the Bushfire - Australia v South Africa @ Sydney 1993-4

FANIE AND THE BUSHFIRE

 

Australia v South Africa, Second Test

played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, January 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1994.

 

I was sick of cricket. Yes, as inconceivable as it was for me to be sick of a game that I had been absolutely besotted with since my Dad gave me my first bat on my second birthday, I was really sick of cricket.

 

The previous summer, I had attempted to make my way in Brisbane grade cricket circles with the Eastern Suburbs club. The Under-16 side I landed in presented me with an attitude to cricket that didn’t suit me, a team who didn’t like me and a coach who wouldn’t select me; I didn’t take a wicket all season. This season, I had begun training with the club, but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t considered good enough for even the sixth grade side. If grades had have been lettered rather than numbered, that would have been ‘F’ Grade. ‘F’ for failure.

 

So that was it. Having completed high school and, consequently, begun the period of life in which young men question everything they have ever done, I gave up cricket. Playing it; watching it; living it. I had descended from being a cricket fan who filled in every column of every Test scoresheet in the ABC Cricket Book to someone who would turn on the television on a November afternoon and wonder what had happened to the “The Midday Show”!

 

There was, however, one event in the cricket world that was holding my interest; the South Africans were coming. The South Africans had always held something of a mysterious quality for me; primarily because I had never seen them play! My father had told me many stories about their incredible team of the sixties, particularly Graeme Pollock. I don’t think that Dad enjoyed anything more than describing Pollock’s pull shot to me. He’d stand in the loungeroom, adopt a left-handed stance and hoik an imaginary ball over an imaginary sqaure leg with an imaginary three pound bat. And he’d always finish the shot in the classic photo position with the bent right leg high in the air while up on the toes of the left foot.

 

Finally, I was going to see my own South African Test side. They had already been to Australia in 1992 when they made the semi-finals of the World Cup. But that was only one-day cricket; hardly cricket at all. This was the proper thing.

 

The captain of the Springboks, or Proteas as they would become known, was Kepler Wessels, who had been my favourite player for Australia in the mid 1980s. In the first Test that I ever went to, I watched Wessels make 173 against the West Indians. The mightiest pace attack ever was brought undone by this plucky Australian, and, back then, he most certainly was Australian.

 

Other stars for this new South African team were Andrew Hudson, who had made a huge century on debut against the West Indies; Jonty Rhodes, who had cemented his reputation as the world’s best fieldsman with a superhuman diving run out during the previous World Cup; and Allan Donald, possibly the fastest bowler in the world.

 

During the one dayers played before the Test series, however, there was a new player who caught my attention. Fanie de Villiers was opening the bowling for South Africa and was drawing praise from the television commentators for his magnificent throws from the boundary; it was later learned that he was a former javelin thrower. In our family, however, the first thing that my Dad noticed was his surname. Was it possible that ‘de Villiers’ was an Afrikaaner variation on ‘Viles’? The theory gained momentum when Mum noticed that he possessed the classic ‘Viles’ nose; protruding just a bit more than normal with a noticeable hook just below eye level. Yep, we decided, Fanie was our missing Afrikaaner relative!

 

On Boxing Day, 1993, the Test series was supposed to begin in Melbourne. ‘Supposed to begin’ because only two hours of play were possible on the first two days of the match, which gave a good batch of ammunition to those who like to make fun of Melbourne weather. So, it was on to Sydney, a venue where Australia had not lost a Test match for fifteen years, to properly begin the resumption of Test cricket between Australia and South Africa after a 24-year wait.

 

In late December, I made my way down to my birth city of Newcastle for a holiday. I had skipped “Schoolies Week”, a week in November in which those who have just completed high school experience large amounts of sex, drugs and alcohol on the premise that that constitutes fun, and opted instead for a proper holiday spending my days and nights wandering around Newcastle and Sydney while using my grandparents’ place as a free hotel.

 

My then girlfriend was also holidaying near Newcastle, which helped fill in a few of the aforementioned days and nights. I was out with her one afternoon when she told me about the huge fire which had broken out very near to where she was staying. The fire brigade were struggling to control it and they feared that it would spread very rapidly. The news that night confirmed that massive bushfires were breaking out all across New South Wales. The constant dry weather combined with not insignificant winds and temperatures in the mid-thirties was a deadly cocktail that did the fire fighters no favours. The first days of 1994 saw the bushfires reach the outer suburbs of Sydney. By the time the Test match began on January 2, Sydney was burning.

 

I missed the beginning of the first day of play in the Sydney Test; no problems there – I was sick of cricket, remember? But I got home to see that Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne had taken four wickets. One of the things I loved about cricket at the S.C.G. was that the pitch favoured spin. Bob Holland, Peter Taylor, Peter Sleep, even Allan Border had all reaped the benefits of bowling on a pitch that rewarded spin bowling. I was at the S.C.G. when Warne made his Test debut two years earlier. He looked ok then; he looked absolutely brilliant now. Nobody I had ever seen was turning the ball as much as he was, and no leg-spinner had anything like his accuracy. He finished the innings later that day with 7 for 56; not his best bowling figures, but probably still his best bowling performance.

 

Warne had bowled South African off-spinner Pat Symcox around his legs with a ball that had pitched maybe two feet outside the leg stump. Warne had been trying this method of attack against Symcox for a couple of overs with the big Natalian covering the spin with his pads. It was later learned that after Symcox had padded away the ball prior to his dismissal, Symcox, a great character himself, had patronisingly called back down the pitch, “You won’t get me ‘round there, boy!”

 

The second day was the sort of day that makes people wonder about the mental condition of your average cricketer. Playing a sport that requires wearing trousers while at the edge of a bushfire zone makes very little sense! Australia replied to South Africa’s 169 with a very slow 292. Michael Slater, who had been ravaging bowling attacks since his debut on the England tour the previous June, played an innings of immense concentration for 92. The lazy pace of Australia’s innings matched how everybody in New South Wales was feeling.

 

And the South African bowlers worked hard; none more than Fanie de Villiers. He had scored a dogged 18 in the first innings, a performance which went unnoticed amidst Warne’s masterclass; with the ball, his 36 overs yielded 4 for 80 including the wickets of Allan Border and Damien Martyn, the only Australians apart from Slater to pass 20.

 

Fanie’s was a distinctive bowling action. His approach was on a slight angle to the crease and his arms would loosely hang by his sides as he ran. His body was not quite upright, but certainly not bent over to any degree. His delivery stride saw him explode into action, his left arm jerking across his body rather than reaching for the sky and his right arm pulling sharply behind his side as he snapped into a perfectly side-on position. As he released the ball, his shirt, which he appeared to prefer about half a size too big, would be propelled forward into his back and shoulders almost as fast as the ball. Fanie would get a small amount of swing and cut, but mostly it was just bowling as fast as he could to a spot on the pitch. And he always looked like he loved to bowl.

 

Now there was a forgotten concept! In the jumble of theories about technique and line and length and economy rates and strike plans, I think that I had forgotten how much fun it was to just run in and bowl. So, that evening, I took a tennis ball to a netball court in the park across the road from my grandparents’ house and I just bowled. Oh sure, I tried to hit the netball post at the far end of the court, but basically I just bowled.

 

The fires really had taken hold of outer Sydney by January 5; a situation I was paying close attention to as I was going through Sydney to stay with a friend of my mother’s in the Blue Mountains (west of Sydney) the following day. By this stage, Newcastle was safe from the inferno. Perhaps God was taking mercy on the city hit by an earthquake just four years previously; it makes sense to share the natural disasters around.

 

I only saw the tail end of the fourth day of play. South Africa had scored 239 with Shane Warne taking another five wickets to give him twelve for the match! The Spingboks had recovered from 5 for 110, still 13 runs behind, when Jonty Rhodes left his mark on the match. Rhodes, batting at number six, made 76 not out in three and a quarter hours with only wicket-keeper Dave Richardson and the bowlers for support. Sir Donald Bradman later described Jonty’s innings as one of the best he’d ever seen at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

 

Australia began their chase for the 116 runs for victory late on that fourth day. De Villiers removed Slater early, but Mark Taylor and David Boon were scoring freely enough, taking the total to 50 without too much trouble. Fanie came back into the attack and had Boon caught at short leg, but I was never much of a Boon fan; there was no reason to panic yet. The next ball was to night-watchman Tim May; Fanie pitched it up and got a little bit of in-swing to rap May on the pad. The umpire upheld the appeal and Fanie was on a hat-trick. It didn’t eventuate, but I was certainly pleased that Fanie was doing well for himself in the late stages of the match.

 

In his next over, Fanie got a ball to cut across Taylor. It clipped the edge of the bat and ‘keeper Richardson completed the catch. Now Australia had a problem. Getting Boon and May was all very well and good, but the dismissal of Taylor gave me the first suspicion that something might be happening here. Fanie had four wickets in each innings and was heading for ten in the match. Allan Border and Mark Waugh batted out the rest of the day.

 

On the evening of January 5, I had a decision to make. Every other time I had visited my family in Newcastle, I had also made a trip down to the Test match. In fact, this was the first time that I had ever considered not going. On the one hand, the match probably wouldn’t take long and I would definitely get to see a result. On the other hand, despite Fanie’s heroics the previous evening, my faith in cricket hadn’t really been restored yet and there were a number of other things that I wanted to do in the city. In the end, I decided that cricket wasn’t going to rule my life and I would sleep in and catch a late morning train down to Sydney.

 

The train trip from Newcastle to Sydney during the middle of the day takes around two hours. I boarded around 11 o’clock, the same time that play at the S.C.G. was commencing. During the trip, I listened to music and planned my day with barely a thought given to the cricket. It may have crossed my mind at one point that the match would most likely have finished.

 

It wasn’t until Gosford station when I half-overheard a radio outside the train where some deep-voiced announcer was rambling on, “We’ll have more great music after the break as well as mumble-ca’s thrilling victory in the cricket. More after this.”

 

Hang on, did he say South Africa’s thrilling victory in the cricket? Had it really happened? How come that was the bit of the sentence that I didn’t hear? I thought about this logically for a minute; if Australia had won, would they be describing it as a ‘thrilling’ victory? Well, it was possible if they had lost more wickets and then put on a big late order partnership. Maybe Australia did win after all. How about I ask someone.

 

“Excuse me, sir, do you know who won the cricket?”

 

“I think South Africa won, mate.”

 

Phew! He only thinks South Africa won; that means he could be completely wrong!

 

I enjoyed my day wandering around Sydney, watching the buskers at Circular Quay, walking through the Domain, checking out the bookstores and music shops in Pitt Street. About four o’clock, I wandered into a bookstore and headed straight for the sports section; I was always on the lookout for a cheap Wisden Almanack or some such. There was another man there looking through a cricket book. I hadn’t thought too much about the cricket that afternoon, but there was no harm in asking, was there?

 

“Excuse me, sir, do you know what happened in the cricket?”

 

“Nah.”

 

He seemed almost offended that I had asked him the question. Rude bugger!

 

“Well, would you mind telling me what you are doing within ten feet of a cricket book if your life is not completely and utterly dependent on the result of a Test Match, you phony?!”

 

No, I never actually said that, but I had become so used to the bond between cricket book lovers that the idea of meeting someone browsing through a cricket book who didn’t automatically want to strike up a conversation about the relative merits of Border and Harvey was totally foreign.

 

I arrived at my mother’s friend’s house in Springwood in the Blue Mountains that evening and finally was able to see the news. South Africa had indeed won the Test by just five runs. Allan Donald had taken three wickets including the prize scalp of Border who shouldered arms to a belief-defying inswinger. Hansie Cronje, who had taken over as South African captain following an injury to Wessels, had brilliantly run out Shane Warne. And then there was Fanie. From the moment I heard the radio at Gosford station, I knew that if South Africa had won, Fanie would have been in there somewhere. He had taken two further wickets to give him his ten for the match and steal the Player of the Match award from Shane Warne.

 

The final ball of the match saw Fanie approaching the wicket in his now familiar way to bowl to Glenn McGrath. The ball was a little short of a length and McGrath played it in the air back down the pitch; Fanie straightened his follow-through and took the ball in two hands. He then sunk to his knees and raised his arms in triumph. He had bowled unchanged all morning and now, as far as I was concerned, had won the Test for South Africa.

 

I sunk too; I’d missed it. My faith in cricket had been steadily eroded by a succession of nondescript matches that I had either watched or played and then when a great match comes along, I miss it. Finding out later that admission had been free for the final day did not improve my mood at all. What is more, Fanie, my Fanie, had poured his heart out and won. AND I’D MISSED IT!

 

Two days later, on the afternoon of January 8, I was due to return to Newcastle. Central Station was filled with stranded travellers. The display board was showing that services to Newcastle had been suspended indefinitely because the bushfires had blocked the line just north of the Hawkesbury River. I spoke to some of the people at the station who had been waiting there since the previous evening. I figured that I had timed my run quite well when at around 4 p.m., a fuzzy public address system announced that the fire had been cleared from the line and a train to Newcastle was now boarding.

 

I kept looking out of the train window for signs of the fires. I didn’t really know how far into the city they had come. As with most crises like this, an objective report is difficult to find. When we reached Hornsby station, the station master cleared us from the train. Another fire had crossed the line and they weren’t going to try to put any more trains through tonight.

 

What happened then was humanity at its best. The train staff gathered us all around and told us about various places that we could spend the night free of charge: the cinema across the road was opening its doors for movies and floor space; the Salvation Army hostel had several beds available; the RSL also had space for passengers to stay. I decided to go back a couple of stations to Knox Grammar School, a prestigious school in the north of Sydney whose former students, I later discovered, included former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

 

I arrived at the school and was welcomed by a school sports master who was co-ordinating the arrival of we poor nomads. They asked for my details before taking me to the dining room where Domino’s had provided quite large amounts of pizza and Coke free of charge. Across the room, frantic travellers were lining up to use the one payphone in the building to let their relatives and friends know where they were. My grandparents were expecting me home, but I was having an adventure; they could wait. I called both my grandparents in Newcastle and my parents in Brisbane a few hours later once the queue had dissipated. Mum had been worried about me but correctly assumed that I was quite enjoying myself.

 

I retired to the common room where I found a Daily Telegraph newspaper from January 7 lying on the floor. The front page showed Fanie de Villiers being chaired from the field; the back page showed him shirtless and spraying a magnum of champagne. At least seven pages were dedicated to the Test match; even one of the articles in the Entertainment section directly related to the cricket. The paper also included extensive descriptions of the bushfires; Sydney was in ruins, but, as I’d hoped, Newcastle was still safe.

 

I also read about the death of Brian Johnston, the BBC cricket commentator whose descriptions of trains and pigeons and his love of cake so joyfully coloured his descriptions of the cricket itself. He was my favourite sports commentator. I also read that my favourite pop musician, Peter Gabriel, was about to make his first tour to Australia. I immediately wrote a letter to a friend of mine back in Brisbane to talk about getting tickets. I still have that newspaper in a box in my bedroom.

 

The following morning, we were taken by bus from the college to the mouth of the Hawkesbury. This time, I saw the ash. A fireman walking through it was losing most of his boots beneath the white powder with every step. The ferries, which had been moved up from the harbour for our benefit, took us up to Gosford. Some of us looked back to the land to watch the rising smoke. Others had had enough of it. Mid-afternoon I arrived back in Newcastle (by train) and started telling my adventure to anyone who would listen.

 

In that week, I saw two significant examples of the goodness of life. The bushfires, tragic though their impact was, gave people a chance to demonstrate how generous and compassionate they could be. And Fanie? He showed me what was possible if your heart was big enough. In later years, he impressed me with both the size and the style of his charity work; his watching of a day of cricket from the top of a floodlight to raise money for deaf children in South Africa being a notable example.

 

He didn’t quite restore my faith in cricket – that would take a few years yet – but I often remember that match and what Fanie did. I won’t moralise the tale by telling you all about what I learned from that week; it’s enough to remember that things can be learned from all sorts of places and all sorts of people. Yes, even from a sport that can make you completely sick.

 

 

- Daniel Vilés

 

 

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