To remember the last Port Elizabeth Test would seem to be to go back three decades. South Africa lost to West Indies by 128 runs but it was not the 1980s.
The hosts came back to win the next two matches and the series in the summer of 2007. Since then, St George’s Park has not seen men in whites.
The return of the longest format is being hailed as a homecoming, especially because the ground is the oldest in South Africa and where the first Test was played. Now the No.1 team in the world will return to it.
“It’s important that we play Test cricket here because of the history,” Rory Kleinveldt, who will turn out for South Africa in place of the injured Vernon Philander, said.
Despite its age, St George’s has only hosted 23 Tests and 11 after readmission because of its status as a second-tier ground. That reputation was not earned because the facilities are considered sub-standard (which they are not) or because its pitch is known to be as slow as the traffic outside. Rather, it is because of hierarchy determined by capacity and crowds at other venues.
The Wanderers, Newlands and SuperSport Park are all guaranteed Tests every summer. Durban’s Kingsmead will miss out on a Test for the first time since readmission this summer. Because most of South Africa’s series are three Tests and most summers only involve five Tests with six on rare occasions, Port Elizabeth has to wait its turn.
“The way it has gone, Test matches have become fewer on the calendar and we usually allocate the big teams to big stadiums,” Jacques Faul, acting CSA CEO, told ESPNcricinfo. “But we do like to have Test cricket at St George’s as there is a special spectator experience.”
The obvious difference between St George’s Park and other grounds is the band. The brass instrumentals occupy a section of the Grandstand and entertain throughout the match. Their repertoire includes golden oldies like Ben E King’s Stand by Me and Eddie Grant’s Gimme Hope Joanna which are oft repeated but they add modern tunes annually. Adele’s Someone Like You is a recent example.
They have also taken to creating bespoke songs for their favourite players. “JP jou lekker ding,” (JP, you good thing) was invented two seasons ago for an ODI. This time, they could come up with tunes for the two P’s – Alviro Petersen and Robin Peterson. Both are local lads and neither have played a Test in the city before.
“I was born in Port Elizabeth and I always wanted to play a Test here,” Petersen, the batsman said while Peterson, the bowler, said it would be “special,” to play a match in his home town.
Both will have large family and friend contingents in attendance. “It’s always nice to play in front of people you know,” Petersen said. They will be able to get close to the pair too, closer than fans elsewhere because there is no moat separating the stands from the field in some parts of St George’s.
Like any ground, it also has its quirks. Among the best in Port Elizabeth are the Westering Methodist Church’s ladies group burgers and the pancakes. Both will be in abundance as the city ends their international cricket involvement this summer.
They hosted the deciding Twenty20 against New Zealand last month to become the only venue other than the Wanderers to host more than one T20 match as part of a series and not an event like the World T20.
That will change soon as T20s are now spread all over the country but something like that obscure fact that could help Port Elizabeth build an identity for itself. Unlike South Africa’s big four stadiums, Port Elizabeth is still looking for a reason why it cannot be ignored when it comes to international cricket.
Port Elizabeth were the hosts of South Africa’s first Boxing Day Test in 1992 when they played India. The last Test played there was also a Boxing Day one, when CSA decided to experiment with the venue of the festive season fixture.
But Eastern Cape residents need not despair. The recent rotation of limited-overs matches to grounds including Boland Park in Paarl, Buffalo Park in East London and Senwes Park in Potchefstroom shows CSA’s commitment to move the game around.
Test cricket may be infrequent here but it will be back. “If we have a Boxing Day Test against India we’d want to play it in Durban because of the fan base there but if we played against, maybe England, we could look at a venue like St George’s,” Faul said. It is just a case of when it will be back.