I was once asked to join a panel of judges at the Mejuffrou Rosyntjie (raisin) beauty competition in Upington. The event was part of the Upington Skou (show) which included a fun run the following morning. So successful a judge was I that, in later years, I went on to judge two further beauty competitions with an agricultural theme, Mejuffrou Aartappel (potato) and Mejuffrou Mielie (maize).
I have also cut various ribbons with assorted dignitaries, fired many starting guns and, twice, sunk my feet into wet, soft concrete at the opening of a running club’s brand new clubhouse.
But all these highlights pale into insignificance compared to the very recent honour I was given, when I was asked to ring the bell to start play at the commencement of the 4th cricket test between South Africa and England at the famous Wanderers cricket ground.
We are talking about a singular honour, and a very public one at that. To my discredit, I only recently learnt that test matches are often started by the ringing of a bell. Once the two captains have completed the toss and the anthems have been sung, the batsmen pad up and the umpires lead the players onto the field. Most importantly, play can only start once the bell is rung. So, no surprise, the eyes of the cricketing world are on the official bell ringer.
Now, I have delivered hundreds of speeches in my life and I have lined up on the starting line of some seriously important races. However, I cannot think of too many occasions when I have been more nervous. So, I studied bell ringing at cricket matches with zeal, and I soon realised there is an art to it.
Normally, about 3 or 4 peals of the bell are sufficient. But each ring must be in 'the Goldilocks zone'; not too loud and also not too soft. I did think of trying to sneak into the Wanderers grounds for a practice ring or two, but the security at the famous ground is too tight and I would have looked very silly being escorted from the stadium by burly security guards. I just hoped I would get it right on the morning.
I also fretted a lot that my cricket credentials might be considered a little thin and that, surely, this honour should go to a former cricketing great. But when I read the list of those who had gone before me, I couldn’t spot a cricketing great anywhere on the list.
Sporting greats, yes, but not cricketers. Olympic swimming gold medallist, Cameron van den Burg, and rugby legend, Joost van der Westhuizen, were two names I instantly recognised. I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t even the first Comrades winner invited to ring the bell. I was following in the illustrious footsteps of 2016 winner Charne Bosman and she, I was told, rang the bell like an expert.
Thinking that perhaps my experience in the field would help, I cast my mind back over some cricketing highlights in my life. And, sure enough, from my earliest days my cricketing C.V. was filled with highlights. For instance, while attending a prominent public school in Kent in the UK in the 1960s, I earned the admiration of my team mates for tying the longest necklace of mixed buttercups and daisies ever strung together in a schoolboy game.
Every summer, our large, grassy cricket field was always smothered in thousands of these flowers and one of the ways to keep amused while fielding far from the action, or waiting to bat at number 11, was to pick these pretty flowers and tie them together by the stems to create a necklace or a tiara. (It was the era of the hippies and we often sang Scott Mackenzie’s 1967 classic “San Francisco” to kill the boredom of fielding out at the boundary. “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair….”)
Years later, I played in the great Kevin Mckenzie’s benefit game of cricket, where two mixed teams of cricketers and sporting celebrities clashed on a field somewhere in the West Rand. I remember rugby star Naas Botha whacking runs all around the field, proving that once a ball player always a ball player. And who can forget heavyweight boxing champion, Kallie Knoetze, being struck on the head by the ball, but simply shrugging the blow off.
Comedian Eddie Ekstein opened the bowling, describing himself as a ferocious strike bowler. But the greatest honour fell to me because, when I went out to bat, I was wearing Graeme Pollocks box! I can think of no greater personal cricketing highlight than to wear the box of South Africa’s greatest batsman.
I lashed Vince van der Bijl for two astonishing runs. (It would have been 3, but Graeme’s box was too tight and it restricted my running.) Vince’s next ball left a bruise on my inner thigh that took a week to fade, and he then removed two of my stumps with his third ball.
Then, on holiday in the Maldives, I top scored in an International match between the SA holiday makers and the Sri Lankan waiters played on a coral pitch in the centre of Kuredu Island. I scored 12 before being given out to a very dodgy L.B.W. decision. The Sri Lankan waiters did not lose a single wicket (In our defence, in order to make up a team of 11, we'd included two Swiss guests and a Chinese barman, who were mystified by the game).
Again, I was invited to play for the late Jonathan Rand’s Jumping Dust Eleven against the Kruger Park game rangers at a tense game on the cricket pitch in Skukuza Village. Showing his faith in me, actor Jonathan asked me to bat at number 10, where I was well on my way to a century (well, okay, I had scored 1) when I ran out of batting partners.
I was not asked to bowl. The next day heavy rains fell in the parched South of the Kruger park and the park rangers attributed this to my spectacular rain dance while running around the field trying to catch the ball while fielding.
So perhaps, after all, I wasn’t such bad choice for the task of ringing the bell this season. I can report I think I got it right, thanks to my bell ringing partner, the lovely Esha Mansingh. I’m hoping any day now to crack an invitation to Lord’s, the home of cricket, to ring the bell at that hallowed ground. I wonder how long I'll have to wait?
If you'd like to get an up-close look at the Comrades Down Run course, join me on my Route Tour on the Friday before the Comrades is run. You're welcome to join me even if you aren't a runner.
Or, if you prefer to share war stories after the event, join me at our renowned Comrades After Party.
THE '86 AND '88
CONQUERING THE UP
TACKLING A DOWN RUN
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