Leading Edge: ’Tis the season to play cricket, rugby, football …

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

ON May 24, 1997, Errol Stewart came off the bench to score the last of what used to be called the Natal Sharks’ six tries in the Super 12 semi-final at Eden Park.

But that wasn’t enough to beat the Auckland Blues, who were leading 55-29 with 82 minutes on the clock when John Allen was enveloped into a ruck 15 metres into the Blues’ half.

Kevin Putt presided at the base, had a look to his left and passed right.

Henry Honiball hoisted high, but neither wide nor handsome. The ball skewed to the left of the uprights and into the in-goal area, and descended into the hands of Eroni Clarke – who shovelled it back towards the tryline.

Then a flash of blonde ambition, having roared into view from beyond halfway, pounced with a headlong dive and rose to accept the congratulations of teammates who knew that at least they were going down with a fight.

Yes, this is a cricket story. Because 27 days earlier the tryscorer, Stewart, had fashioned an important 25 batting at No. 9 to help Natal beat Western Province by two wickets with 10 balls to spare in the third and deciding leg of the final of the one-day competition.

In 1995 Stewart had joined the small club of players who had helped teams win the rugby and cricket versions of the Currie Cup in the same year.

But ’97 was the year, as his Wikipedia page puts it neatly, he “tucked away his rugby jersey for the final time”, perhaps harried by shuttling back and forth for often coinciding training sessions at Kings Park and Kingsmead.

Even then, 19 years ago, the gap between the distinct entities we knew as the cricket season and the rugby season was shrinking.

Now it no longer exists, and the term “season” has come to denote a particular tournament rather than a period of time.

Which brings us to Kingsmead this weekend, where South Africa and New Zealand are playing, of all things, a cricket test. Yes, in August.

Most of the bastardisation in modern sport can be blamed on the efforts of the organisations who claim to be those codes’ custodians to make money.

Too often, those efforts are fuelled by greed. But not in this instance.

This is the fault of cricket’s wonky way of drawing up the international fixtures, which tries to balance the contradiction between ensuring an equitable distribution of fixtures between all national teams and the obsession with milking every last drop of broadcast and sponsorship revenue from the game.

In practice that means scheduling more than a fair share of games for India, England and Australia, and good luck to everyone else.

So, here we are, staring out at a patchy Kingsmead outfield. The pitch, at least, is playing properly.

Is this progress? Perhaps: clearly, it is possible to play cricket in winter in Durban and it should happen more often.

But some things haven’t changed.

“We’re playing a test in August because it’s not supposed to rain,” one stalwart joked as the drizzle dribbled down.

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