Now is the winter of contextless cricket

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

ROMANTICS will be easy to spot at Kingsmead on Friday when SA take on New Zealand in the first of two T20s. They’ll be the ones searching the rafters for ghosts of the World Cup semi-final. All they will find are mynahs.

Auckland’s Eden Park was nuclear-tipped with emotion on March 24, when Grant Elliott hit Dale Steyn for six to clinch a contest so impassioned it reduced the losers to tears and asked so much of the winners they were no match for Australia in the final in Melbourne five days later.

It was a match for the ages, a game that soared above the limitations of the format and even the class, talent and skill of all involved. The fact that, it emerged later, the suits had cynically strong-armed the selection of SA’s team only added to the richness of the epic.

What chance Friday’s affair, or the second T20 in Centurion next Sunday, or any of the one-day internationals the teams will play in Centurion, Potchefstroom and Kingsmead from August 19 to 26 – that’s right, sportslovers, in the dead of winter – will shimmer with a modicum of that magic?

None.

In Auckland, teams who had a reputation for playing above as well as below themselves, who had never reached a World Cup final, who four years previously had clashed aggressively in the quarter-finals, dared to rage as hard as their hearts, minds and souls would allow. Shakespeare should have been in the press box.

The c-word was all over that match. Not that c-word. This one: context. Which will not be the case during New Zealand’s tour.

Or, as a senior official said, “What is its relevance within the overall international cricket calendar and who, outside of SA and New Zealand, cares about it? Even in SA some will be wondering how it fits.”

Suits cannot be seen to poo-poo the product, so he declined to be named. But it is true that, as he said, “Cricket SA (CSA) are simply forced to do their best in a broken international structure”.

As are New Zealand Cricket, who confirmed the tour’s pointlessness by telling World Cup heroes Brendon McCullum and Tim Southee not to bother. Trent Boult and Corey Anderson are recovering from stress fractures, while Daniel Vettori and Kyle Mills have retired.

Good thing Ross Taylor is still in the mix. At least, he was until Friday – when he was ruled out with a groin injury.

Tony Irish, the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA), took aim at the bigger target: “FICA has for years been expressing concerns about the growing lack of context in bilateral international cricket, namely more and more ad-hoc series which lack real sporting narrative.

“This is a problem which has to be addressed collectively at International Cricket Council (ICC) level. The ICC could, for example, introduce a genuine test league and a genuine one-day league in which every game played around the world would count for points in such leagues.

“If something like this isn’t doesn’t happen we will continue to see more and more series lacking in real international appeal.”

SA’s recent tour to Bangladesh suffered from something similar. Three years ago, the Bangladeshis say, they told CSA the monsoon was not a good time to try to play cricket in their country. A year ago, they said so again. CSA’s response, again according to the Bangladeshis, was that if the tour did not take place this July it could not be accommodated for the foreseeable future.

The folly of all that was awkwardly obvious when six out of a planned 10 days of test cricket were washed out. But CSA cannot be faulted, what with their dance card brimful of engagements until April – or almost in time for the next monsoon.

Rain should not disrupt New Zealand’s visit. But that won’t make it a parade.

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