High summer. Sunny morning follows sunny morning until we think warm days will never cease. Roads shimmer. Trees wilt. Swallows carve the air. The beaches are thick with squealing children. The Port Hills are the colour of a lion's pelt. Bush fires flare. There's cricket on the telly. It's summer as summer ought to be, summer as we remember it. And it's the start of the rugby season.
OPINION: "I just can't wait," says Tony "T J" Johnson on Sky TV, the grin stretching twice around his head. He hasn't had to wait long. The last rugby season ended only a couple of weeks ago. During their fortnight off the players have been shuffled like a pack of cards. Crusaders have become Blues, Blues have cheered up and become Hurricanes, and Highlanders have come down from the hills to be Chiefs.
The modern rugby player shows the same loyalty to his native soil as Lord Haw Haw. And the clubs aren't clubs. They're franchises, like McDonald's. Cricket, meanwhile, is the traditional Kiwi burger bar being pushed off its own turf by rugby's corporate ruthlessness.
On Saturday, the cricket kicked off at 2pm and was effectively over by half past. Finn opened the bowling for England, Watling the batting for New Zealand. Finn is 6 foot 7. His chin is blue. Watling looked 5 foot 6 and on the cusp of puberty. The first three balls grazed his beardless cheek. The fourth grazed his bat and was caught. "Right from the start of this over," said the English commentator, "you wouldn't have predicted this wouldn't have happened." Despite the softening negatives his meaning was clear: Come back when you can play.
The Black Caps lost three wickets in 10 overs and scored no runs.
"They should try to be a bit more aggressive," said Simon "Doully" Doull, "and when I say aggressive I mean aggressive in looking for singles." As straws go it was barely clutchable.
There's a lot of dead time in a cricket match. This tempts the commentator to say something when he's got nothing to say.
Craig "Maccers" McMillan succumbs to the temptation.
"Not enough runs with the bat, that's where the trouble has lied with New Zealand." He wasn't lying. But neither was he doing anything but state the obvious.
The best of the analysts is Ian "Smithy" Smith. He has the rare habit of thinking first and speaking second. When Maccers suggested the Kiwis should hit some boundaries, Smithy offered him the length of the ad break to work out how and then tell the viewers. After the ad break Maccers discovered the virtue of silence.
England have a new star called Root. The commentators' self-restraint has been impressive. By four o'clock they were discussing the opening batsmen for the coming test series. Should the Kiwis go back to old failures or should they find new ones? Doully favoured the latter, "but I'm rarely in agreeance with the selectors".
What he didn't mention was that sending a young player in against Finn would probably be a detriance to his career.
Rugby commentary is harder because things move faster. Grant "Nisbo" Nisbett has been doing it since Noah was a sailor. He permits himself the odd lament for the good old days when you were allowed to stamp on a man's head, but he rarely descends into blather. During breaks in play he hands over to Jeff "Goldie" Wilson who always does.
Whenever Goldie scored a try for the All Blacks he would leap from the turf with eyes opened to twice their normal breadth, as if he'd just watched his mother entering a space ship arm in arm with Joe Root. His commentary is the verbal equivalent of those eyes. "He's very, very big and he's very, very fast," gabbles Goldie, "and that was very, very fantastic."
But vapid hyperbole is only the beginning. His redundancies make Maccers look incisive. "It's been hotly contested," said Goldie at halftime, "both teams trying to put some points on the board." Add a knack for inadvertent bathos – "this will be discussed for a long time over the next few days" – and when he's on top form he can rival Edith Sitwell: "Chris Noakes, probably about 70kg dripping wet bottom line."
When I woke up the rugby was over and Joe Root was hitting the winning runs for England. The England captain accepted the trophy like the Queen receiving a posy that didn't greatly impress her. There remained only one thing to say and Brendon McCullum said it. "Gradulations to you guys," he said. "Gradulations."
And there's still a lot of summer to go.
- The Dominion Post