TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth
ST George’s Park is the home of South African cricket, the ground where, in March 1889, England needed only two days to win the first test played on South African soil.
Some say not a lot about the crookedly cobbled together, borderline ramshackle old place has changed in the ensuing 127 years.
Others argue that’s what makes a proper cricket ground, a sense of place and continuity. Not vast expanses of featureless concrete and hostile crowds, or a brooding mountain in lieu of anything resembling atmosphere.
Perhaps like other great places – New York, the Taj Mahal, the Sahara – you either love St George’s Park or you can’t stand it.
This reporter hereby declares, in the interests of full disclosure, his bias: St George’s Park is the most lovable, the most atmospheric, the most disposed to offering rivetting contests, the most fun, of all the cricket grounds in all the world.
And he will not suffer the foolishness of any arguments on the subject, so don’t bother.
But, love it or hate it, we can all agree that, like the rest of Port Elizabeth, St George’s Park has an unnaturally intimate relationship with what can seem like all the wind in all the world.
It blew on Saturday, and how: 80 kilometres an hour, the locals say. And from over the Grandstand – that’s the westerly, the hot, drying stuff that emerges from the hinterland and strips moisture from the pitch.
What the surface might look like by the time the first test between South Africa and Sri Lanka starts on Monday is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t sound pretty for fast bowlers.
Kyle Abbott has bowled fewer deliveries in first-class cricket at St George’s Park than at Kingsmead, City Oval in Pietermaritzburg, the Rose Bowl in Southampton, Newlands, the Wanderers or Springbok Park.
So he wasn’t about to hazard a guess about the likely state of the pitch. But that didn’t stop him from sketching a detailed enough blueprint for how to bowl well in PE.
“It’s got a different feel to some of the pitches around South Africa but we always feel like we’re in the game here as fast bowlers because we get to bowl wicket to wicket,” Abbott said on Friday.
“That brings a few different dismissals into the game. We attack the stumps and the pads a lot.
“It’s not as quick and bouncy as other places. Sometimes on bouncy tracks you get caught out a bit in the channel and you’re only really looking for the nick.
“But on a wicket like this we’re bringing in lbw, bowled, caught at midwicket – some scrappy dismissals sometimes.
“It’s also a nice ground to build pressure as bowlers; it’s not a very fast-scoring ground.”
Abbott seemed less certain about his place in the team.
“I don’t think anything’s secure,” he said. “We’ve still got to perform. But, I suppose, as long as the team’s winning those selections became easier.”
Given that Abbott has played in only nine of South Africa’s 29 tests since he made his debut against Pakistan in Centurion almost four years ago – and that despite taking 9/68 in the match – and that he featured in consecutive tests for the first time on the Australian tour last month, his reluctance to get too far ahead of himself is understandable.
“It’s going into uncharted waters a bit, but it’s an opportunity to play and it’s nice that it’s at home.”
Something else that earned Abbott’s approval was the presence of captain Faf du Plessis, who on Wednesday lost his appeal against a ball-tampering conviction in Australia but not badly enough to earn a ban for the first test.
“Faf’s been brilliant, in Oz and in the T20s in the last couple of years,” Abbott said of the man who has led South Africa to victory in nine of their last 11 tests and one-day internationals and lost only once.
“Hopefully we can win a few more series under him.”
Were the South Africans relieved that Du Plessis had escaped a ban or were they disappointed that he had not been cleared of what is, essentially, cheating?
“I’m not too sure, I thought everything was done after Australia,” Abbott said. “I find the whole subject … There’s quite a bit of grey area. We’re just happy that he’s playing.”
Du Plessis’ illegal use of sugary sweets to help the ball keep it’s shine was the issue in Australia.
What methods might the South Africans employ at St George’s Park?
“I think we’ve got some Frogs left over from Australia,” Abbott joked.
Actually, the good women of the Westering Methodist Church – who run a kiosk under the Grandstand – make superb cinnamon-and-sugar pancakes …