Trials, treks and front-row seats to South Africa's triumphs

Aiden Markram at the toss with Mark Nicholas ICC via Getty Images

October 16, Delhi, 4.20am
Air India 112 landed from London an hour and 15 minutes ago. After a dash to the ITC Maurya Hotel, I am in room 1530 with a tailor. There is bad if unsurprising news: off the back of me emailing some iffy measurements last month, the suit that is the ICC commentators' uniform for the tournament doesn't fit. He promptly measures most of me again, while his translator explains that the cutting rooms are an hour away but not to worry, they will be back at 8.30 with alterations and elegance assured. I find this difficult to believe, on both counts.

They are in the lobby by 9.15am, apologising for being late. Your turn not to worry my friend, I say, great effort, and thank you. Dinesh Karthik is sitting patiently outside in a Toyota Landcruiser, insisting that we will make the 11.00am flight to Dharamshala. Good. We do. Easy.

Well, ten minutes before IndiGo Airlines close check-in, but the suspicion lingers that in the presence of Dinesh they'd have opened it again. The flight is then delayed. For four hours. Before it is cancelled. Problem. The IndiGo man works feverishly to get us on a late-afternoon flight to Chandigarh and book drivers for the 5.5 hour road trip into the mountains.

"We" are us two lads in the Landcruiser plus Shaun Pollock, Matthew Hayden, Sanjay Manjrekar, Kass Naidoo and Anjum Chopra, the former India captain, whose quick wit and bossy demeanour are a great bonus for us pilgrims. It is past five o'clock, so she suggests we drop the idea of the run to Dharamsala: 'tis a dark and stormy night on a dodgy road. Everyone is tired. I'm knackered. Hayden knows the boss at the Hyatt in Chandigarh, who is splendidly excited when we arrive and cannot do enough for us. Superb hotel.

October 17, Chandigarh, early
At 4.40am the iPhone alarm bursts through the sleeping pill. At 5.20am, in four SUVs, we head off and then, after just an hour, inexplicably stop at a roadside dhaba. Someone fancied a mug of chai. After that it's acceleration, deceleration, roadworks, rickshaws, kids, cows, dogs, tuk-tuks, a Mercedes, and zillions of side-saddle ridden jalopies on a road well known in India for its vagaries. Some of our number nod off, others (me and Haydos) listen to The Rolling Stones on the back of "Angry", the new single, which is terrific. New album, Hackney Diamonds is out on October 20.

October 17, Dharamshala, 10.30am
It's pissing down. Play delayed by two hours. Temba Bavuma wins the toss and puts Netherlands in to bat. South Africa don't bowl very well, and 243 is scoreboard pressure. Having lost to Netherlands at Adelaide Oval in last year's T20 World Cup, South Africa don't bat very well either. The pressure is too much and they lose here too.

That's some win double for the boys in orange. Put simply, the Dutch outplay South Africa in every one of cricket's disciplines. Odd really, because the Proteas have just won five on the bounce, four of them against Australia. They looked short an attack dog and less likely now than six and a half hours ago to win the Cup. We shall see.

Here is a stat: the South Africans have the wood over every one of their opponents in bilateral ODI cricket. But no World Cup biscuit. Hayden - and history - tells us that contrary to his guess, South Africa have the Aussies covered by 55 wins to 50. Upon which, our thoughts turn back to the '99 semi-final at Edgbaston. Ouch. Even watching that final over now, it seems impossible. Bavuma needs to convince his team to park it and move on. In four days they play England, who just got done by Afghanistan. You never can tell, say us old folks.

October 18, 6.30am
After five hours' kip, I'm up to walk the Triund trail. Well, a short length of it. This was a firm instruction from Michael Atherton, who did the whole shebang last weekend and sent a glamour picture of himself, Hillary-like, atop a mountain. Even at the lower level, in the forest, the views are spectacular. The monkeys are remarkably sedate, and occasionally a moped zips by with a cheery wave from a rider who seems to be saying "Really? This is quite a climb y'know." Indeed, but I can't tell Athers I didn't. So I did, less than halfway but for a couple of hours anyway, and loved it.

After which, Pollock, Chopra and I head for the throwback that is the local airport and jump on board the South Africa team charter to Mumbai. The two days and some since arriving back in India for the first time in a while have not been without incident! On the flight, the South African players recover their sense of humour with a pack of cards and the battle for tricks.

October 19, Pune. The toss
I ask India's captain if his wonderfully free-spirited batting illustrates just how much he is enjoying the tournament. He basically said yes, and referred to his determination to play as he did in his youth, before the traffic moved in.

India beat Bangladesh comfortably. Rohit Sharma makes 60-odd with almost contemptuous ease. Virat Kohli matches him in strokeplay and cruises past him in numbers, to a zinger of a hundred. The sea of blue in the stands goes nuts. Jasprit Bumrah had earlier bowled searing yorkers and the Indian fielders were cutting-edge sharp. The home team are strong favourites, of course, but wary of New Zealand, one imagines. They play each other on Sunday.

A full and ecstatic house at the terrific MCA stadium has a night out, Kohli makes sure of that. At a wild guess, 80% of those fans in blue had "Virat" printed on the back of their branded India team shirts. The Ronaldo of cricket.

October 21, Super Saturday… somewhere
So much travelling, not sure where. Head cold is annoying, though not as annoying as the absent television channels in the hotel. Ah, Lucknow, that's where we are. "Muskurao, ab Lucknow mein he" is Hindi for "Smile, you're in Lucknow". Luck now, get it? Good. Well, I wasn't. Having not seen a ball of England's thumping defeat by South Africa in Mumbai, the heaviest ever for England in one-day cricket, I'm now not going to see a try, tackle or kick in the rugby World Cup semi-final. The duty manager said channels 475 and 483 would show the match. Nope. England lost by a point. Yup. Horrendous. Deserved better in that game, but maybe didn't deserve to win the World Cup. The Springboks will now play New Zealand, the All Blacks. It's an old rivalry and not for the soft-hearted. It is perfectly possible that the two countries meet in the cricket World Cup final too.

Regards England cricket, the party is over for now. Confidence is low and it is upon confidence that the freewheeling survives. Their selection lacks certainty and it is upon certainty that good selection depends. Sri Lanka are next for Jos Buttler, who won't be relishing the three games to come: India and Australia follow. Ye gods.

In the end, then, it was anything but a super Saturday. The head cold was worse in the morning and England were all but out of two World Cups.

On another note, a fine dinner was to be had at the Taj Mahal hotel in Lucknow with Jeff Crowe, the match referee, and Rod Tucker, the umpire. Principled men, whose take on the game, if not without agenda because we all have our seeds to sow, is forthright and level-headed. We all wondered if 50-over cricket should now be 40-over cricket. None of us wanted it dumped, however.

Lucknow is thought of as one of the food capitals of India. If you pass by, don't pass up on a tunday kebab: minced lamb, or buffalo, made with milk because the old Nawab, who had lost his teeth, asked the chefs for food he didn't have to chew, and up with the tunday kebab they came.

October 23, Mumbai
Bishan Bedi has died, aged 77. I played against him once, in Dubai, in 1980. To my knowledge it was the first floodlit cricket outside of Australia. It was an unofficial England XI against a Combined India-Pakistan XI. I was a greenhorn, gratefully accepting a last-minute offer from Keith Fletcher to fill a spot vacated by an injury to Bob Woolmer, as I remember. There were a lot of big names - Imran, Gavaskar, Snow, D'Oliviera, as examples… and Bedi.

On an Astroturf mat, on an Astroturf outfield, in a football stadium, Bedi cast his spell. Incredible it was too. The ball hung in the air as if suspended by a magic trick. I reached forward and missed. After the third attempt, he walked halfway down the pitch to say "Wait, you have to wait, because eventually the ball must arrive. The more you try to come and get it, the more it will elude you. Just wait." So I just waited, and hit a few, eventually making some runs and learning about spin bowling of a type and quality I could never have imagined.

I once asked Barry Richards which was the best innings he ever played. The 356 for South Australia at the WACA against Lillee, McKenzie, Brayshaw and Lock perhaps? Or the hundred against Australia in his second Test of only four? "The English summer of 1973," he answered, "For Hampshire against Northants in a battle for the County Championship: Bishan Bedi on a Southampton dustbowl. I managed 37 not out in the fourth innings to see us home. The hardest runs I ever made."

October 24, Mumbai, Wankhede Stadium
As I write, South Africa have made 382 for 5 against Bangladesh, scoring 144 from the final ten overs: a run more than they made over the same distance against England on Saturday. Quinton de Kock eased his way to 174 in his 150th ODI. De Kock's record is worth a moment's attention - 20 hundreds in 150 innings at an average of 46 and a strike rate of 96.76. To give this perspective, Adam Gilchrist made 16 hundreds in 279 innings at a strike rate of 97 and an average of 35.8. But Gilchrist won three World Cups. QdK is to retire from ODI's after this one. Perhaps South Africa's time is now.

October 26, Chennai
My word! Turn on the TV to see Sri Lanka have bowled out England for 156. Chris Silverwood, who was the previous England coach and fired for his efforts, is now coach of Sri Lanka. Oh, the ironies and caprices of this game.

Every time I watch the Sri Lankans play, I think back to the modern builders - Roy Dias, Sidath Wettimuny, Duleep Mendis among them, and then, of course, Arjuna and Aravinda in Lahore for the 1996 triumph, when Tony Greig could barely contain himself.

Watching England play such timid cricket is a shock. This is hero-to-zero stuff in the blink of an eye. I can't pick an obvious reason - though, even on paper, the bowling is pretty ordinary - but it's certainly a bad month for good batters. The return of Ben Stokes has not gone to plan, but then not much has. And there has been indecision surrounding Harry Brook, who most of us would have in the side for every game in every format.

October 27, Pakistan vs South Africa
The M Chidambaram Stadium is a belter and the place where MS Dhoni and his Chennai Super Kings have had so much success. A good crowd is in but the cricket lurches from exhilarating to excruciating in periods of play that depart from common sense (about which someone once said, "The trouble with common sense is that it's not very common"). Babar Azam wins the toss and chooses to bat, so South Africa will have to chase for a change. Of their last eight ODIs, South Africa have won seven batting first and were beaten by Netherlands when batting second at Dharamsala. Is there a little gremlin tapping away on South African shoulders? We shall see later.

Well, there might be. In the chase for 271, it is a nipper for a while, first when Heinrich Klaasen is caught at third man, and then when David Miller nicks one behind. After which, it becomes a nerve-shredder with South Africa nine down and 11 still needed. That well-known batting pair Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi edge their horrified team-mates over the line.

Shattered Pakistan players fall to their knees; others, equally consumed by shock, simply stare into space. Precious little has gone their way, not least a desperate imploring for an lbw against Shamsi. They are possibly out of the tournament, which is a big miss for those who delight in young talent and the thrill of unpredictability. Some things are not meant to be…

As for me? It's the 5.10am flight to Kolkata tomorrow. Good night. And good luck South Africa.