Cape Town – If attendances at two of the most time-honoured South African Test venues can remain so dire for an enthralling, drama-laden Australian series visit, what price next season’s noticeably less attractive roster?
That is an issue Cricket South Africa officials need to – and almost certainly will – address very carefully over the next few months, in the wake of almost unrelentingly embarrassing gates at both the Durban and Port Elizabeth Tests thus far.
CSA, already hard-pressed on other fronts as they wrestle the major financial fallout from the 2017/18 cancellation of and ongoing future uncertainty around their intended T20 Global League, will still do well out of the successive visits of fellow heavyweight foes India and Australia this summer.
The coffers aren’t solely reliant on gate receipts, of course, and there were also some healthy ones countrywide for the limited-overs portion of India’s tour … as well as continued robust support for the traditional Newlands “New Year” Test despite it starting a few days later than the most ideal prime time for reasons dictated by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
Even the famous Capetonian ground, however, may face certain challenges in pulling significant numbers of fans in for the now-autumnal third clash with Australia, which will also – albeit only partially – clash on day three (the Saturday) with a 17:15 kick-off to the Super Rugby match across the railway line between the Stormers and Reds.
But it is also virtually a fait accompli that Newlands will very comfortably eclipse both Kingsmead and St George’s Park for attendance.
That won’t be hard … which is just one reason why I believe CSA’s bosses and bean counters simply must, more urgently and seriously, rethink their Test venue allocations, with both Durban and Port Elizabeth, frankly, potentially getting the boot.
Kingsmead and St George’s Park form part of the rich tapestry of Test match history in South Africa, and any move to remove them from the roster should not be taken lightly; the former has staged 43 Tests since 1923 and the latter 29 stretching considerably further back, to the maiden SA-hosted Test against England in March 1889.
They did once lure large crowds, although that is overwhelmingly the preserve of eras long past and the current trend in gates at the two grounds only seems to slip ever-downwards.
How galling that a knock like that played by AB de Villiers – Graeme Smith branded it one of the great Test innings – in the PE Test was watched in the flesh by a crowd probably struggling to reach two thousand at very best, whatever the “official” crowd figures may say.
The time has come, I believe, both from a revenue and atmosphere-conscious perspective, to pull the plug on both, at least for the time being, and focus more on either enhancing or developing from scratch a Test culture at smaller, more homely grounds still close enough to major centres to draw spectators from there as well.
Remember that the more diminutive the venue, the more you can at very least create the illusion – or even the real McCoy – of a “vibe”, which in turn can become constructively infectious.
It need not mean the complete abandonment of either ground, endearing in their own ways, as international hosts: perhaps a stronger spotlight could be placed on them for Proteas limited-overs fixtures, from both a vigorous marketing and tally-of-fixtures perspective.
Top of my own mind as feasible Test alternatives are grounds like Potchefstroom’s Senwes Park (which has already hosted a pair of Tests, though 15 years apart, against minnows Bangladesh) and two virgin venues for Test cricket: Willowmoore Park in Benoni and Paarl’s Boland Park.
All have previously shown an ability to pack them in at certain times for limited-overs internationals, aided by fair proximity to metropolises like Johannesburg, Pretoria or Cape Town.
Senwes Park can call on a decent “Potch” student population, for instance, and is 123km from Johannesburg and 179km from Pretoria, whilst the Benoni ground – the track hasn’t always been the worst for pace bowling – is effectively in a suburb of Jo’burg.
I have long, unashamedly banged the drum for Boland Park, too … though with a puzzled afterthought that nobody is really listening!
Packed to its admittedly modest rafters, it has buzzed wonderfully for a few ODIs, is refreshingly located in an area NOT slap-bang in the midst of affluent, predominantly white suburbia – most of SA’s premier grounds are – and would subscribe to the sound commercial theory of “fishing where the fish are”.
The Western Cape remains the healthiest region for crowd support in a major cricket and rugby sense, and Paarl – only 60km or so up the N1 from Cape Town – is no different at all for its sporting passion, across its various communities.
Boland Park may be a bit ramshackle in appearance (the same applies in some respects to the Benoni ground) but I am utterly adamant that it would pull in significantly more spectators for a decent enough Test match on paper than either Kingsmead or St George’s Park these days, especially if at a stage of the season like now, with main, often withering winelands summer heat gone.
It also got a bit more than a lick of paint (the floodlights were upgraded, into the bargain) before the ill-fated, intended first version of the T20 Global League was canned, making it that bit closer to candidacy as a first-time Test host, by my book.
CSA faces a huge challenge in mustering mass enthusiasm next season, when there is no visit here from any of the other top-tier nations (India, England, Australia): instead the incoming sides will be Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Both the Zimbabweans and increasingly subsiding Sri Lankans have been here pretty recently, which hardly helps, and even Pakistan – though always bank on them for bringing some gifted individuals – historically struggle in Test combat on our shores.
If ding-dong combat between South Africa and Australia can be played out before swathes of empty seats in Durban and PE – and that despite a multitude of fiery controversies that should only enhance, not impede, box-office attraction – then imagine how next season may look if the same centres get the nod for more Test matches, against less alluring opponents.
Even if it doesn’t work out on a long-term basis, it is time for change.
Things could hardly get worse than the lamentably soulless feel of Kingsmead and St George’s Park.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing