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James Rowe: Devon Under 15 South Africa Tour February 2019

I was lucky enough to be selected to tour South Africa on the Devon Cricket Development Tour Under 15s. We left Birmingham Airport on Thursday 7th February and arrived in Skukusa 24 hours later via Dubai and Johannesburg. It was great having a stop over in Dubai as for a mere £20 we could sample the local cuisine – 20 chicken nuggets!   

Skukusa airport serves the Kruger National Park and we immediately had a brilliant wildlife experience when two young elephants started a fight right in front of our bus on the way to our hotel.

Our base for the 6 day stay in Skukuza was the Protea Hotel. While situated just outside of the game reserve, only a big fence separated hotel guests from some serious animals. Even this formidable barrier wasn’t enough to keep out monkeys and wild dogs who helped keep up our fitness levels by chasing us back to our rooms every night. 

The journey to Skukusa Cricket Club, which hosted our matches, took about 20 minutes but were always punctuated by herds of elephants, giraffe, zebra and impala wandering across the road. The ground itself seemed home to a family of warthogs and according to the locals, was no stranger to the odd lion wandering across the outfield.

Our first game was a 50 over match against a Johan Rudolf Academy XI. I was ‘lucky’ enough to be asked to open the bowling in 40 degree heat with matching humidity. Fortunately, I bowled well enough pinning their opener with a full toss that evaded any padding. Not only did it hurt but he was adjudged LBW by a very wise umpire and he had to limp off much to the amusement of his teammates. I had a couple of chances spilled in my opening spell – one sharp, one a sitter – so, all in all, I was happy with my day’s work. The team performed well as a unit and it was good to open the tour with a victory.

The next day was a rest day, which meant playing golf at Skukusa Golf Club, next door to the cricket club. While this was great fun, all kinds of wild animals frequent the course and surrounding area and so I tried to google what to do if a lion rocks up looking for some lunch. I didn’t find the answer to that one but I was comforted by the fact that I am thinner and quicker than some of my teammates. I soon learned to stay out of water hazards as hippos can get a bit stroppy if bombarded by golf balls. That evening we went on a game drive and saw a number of wild animals close up. 

Suitably rested, we once again travelled to Skukusa CC to take on Nelspruit Hoerskool in a two day match, my first ever such experience. My performance in the previous match impressed the captain so much he decided to use me sparingly in a game monopolised by the spinners.  

The Captain had an equally high opinion of my batting and sent me in at number eleven under instructions to occupy the crease – whatever that means. Believe me, it was far too hot to block out or to run between the wickets, so I batted responsibly and tried to hit everything to the boundary. This worked, once. Ultimately, I was out for 5, my highest score in county cricket by a considerable margin – in fact, my only innings in county cricket up to that date.

The match, officially entitled ‘Battle of Kruger’, turned out to be an absolute nail biter. To cut a long story short, we had to bat out a large proportion of the final day to secure a draw. The tension was almost as unbearable as the heat with our last pair at the wicket needing to bat out the final over facing a hostile Afrikaner with no regard for the health and well being of us Devon lads. 

Everything was going quite smoothly until ‘our’ umpire, tour coach Nigel Ashplant called ‘no ball’ on the 6th ball of the over, the final ball of the day. Unbelievably impartial and typically British. Rory Medlock then faced up to the extra ball which rapped him on the pads. The LBW appeal was the loudest ever heard in the Kruger Park, but fortunately politely turned down by the imperturbable Mr Ashplant. So we escaped with a draw and retained the Battle of Kruger Trophy being the holders from the previous year.

Our time in the Kruger provided an unforgettable experience. The cricket was competitive; but being so close to some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals was simply amazing – even if eating a barbeque only metres away from marauding hyenas was scarier than facing Sonny Baker with a headache. Our hosts were incredibly generous and also taught us much about life in the Kruger, particularly the horrors of rhino poaching. Our accommodation was fantastic too as we were staying in a high quality hotel with every modern convenience.

Moving to Cape Town provided something of a contrast. To begin with, our smart accommodation was exchanged for a hostel in District Six complete with its own security guard. District Six is a former inner city residential area in Cape Town where 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed by the apartheid regime. I wouldn’t say I felt unsafe, but I put on my pads and helmet and tucked my bat under my arm to go down to breakfast. 

The temperature in Cape Town was much more amenable and I was looking forward to some longer bowling spells without having to combat the oppressive heat. Unfortunately, the pitches were docile and my own form dipped a little. Hence our excellent spin attack took on most of the bowling duties, backed up by the seamers from time to time. 

Once again, the matches provided new experiences. At Bergvliet High School, I played under floodlights for the first time. Playing a two day game at Western Province Cricket Club was an incredible experience with their pavilion complex containing an indoor cricket school, swimming pool, squash courts and excellent bar and catering facilities. This was, without doubt, the best ground I have ever played at – except the Rec’!     

WPCC Under 14s proved too strong for us and we were staring defeat in the face from about the lunch interval on the second day. With 12 overs to go and once again me as last man in, I joined Charlie Presswell at the crease, who had mounted a spirited rearguard action. As my defence is about as reliable as Huddersfield Town’s, we decided that Mrs May had a better chance of negotiating Brexit, than we had of getting through the overs. Hence I went on the attack and quickly hit a couple of boundaries. When I’d reached 11, I judiciously tried to hit a straight one over square leg – my favourite non shot – and was dismissed clean bowled. Thus ended Devon’s resistance. Although always lagging behind our strong opponents, we did not disgrace ourselves and came close to pulling off an unlikely draw.

Rest days were spent exploring various parts of the Cape region, including the penguin colony at Boulder Bay and the iconic Table Mountain. 

The final match of the tour was played at the Vineyard Oval just down the road from Newlands Test ground and across the road from the hotel where my parents, sisters and brother Justin were staying. Justin had represented Devon on this tour in 2003 and it was great to continue the family tradition. 

Our opponents were Western Province Under 15s against whom our playing record is played 17, lost 17: hence we were under no illusions as to the size of the task.  

Western Province batted first and were going along quite nicely at 10 per over, when our captain, Jasper Presswell summoned me from the out field in an attempt to stem the flow. I thought I was bowling reasonably well until their batsman smashed a straight, decent, well-pitched delivery back over my head and into the sight screen for 6! This didn’t do much for my morale; and the skipper decided my talents were best suited chasing the outcome of other people’s deliveries. Just when it looked like WPCC would post a record one day score at Under 15 level, Ethan Carlisle produced a quite brilliant spell of left arm seam bowling to take a ‘five for’ and reduce our target from gigantic to merely huge.   

With defeat and an early finish seemingly inevitable, the batsmen put up an heroic fight and got within 9 runs of victory before losing our final wicket in the last over. Another defeat, but we could hold our heads up high. 

We finished off the day sharing a traditional South African barbeque known as a braai with our opponents and then headed back to District Six to pack for the long journey home.

Thinking back on the tour, it really was the experience of a life time; and I was very lucky to share it with a brilliant bunch of teammates and a supportive manager and coaches. It was also great to have family members accompanying me and I know they enjoyed it as much as I did.

An experience like this does not come cheaply and I am hugely grateful for the financial support of all my sponsors. Especially Gordon Avery, Simon Rice, Nick Evanson and Ken Jeffery from Torquay Cricket Club who showed amazing generosity.     

If there are any aspiring cricketers reading this, work hard to get into the county under 15 squad and prepare for an unbelievable adventure – and pack plenty of sun cream!

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