Leading Edge: Anyone for watching the cricket?

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth

WOULD you pay good money to watch South Africa play Sri Lanka in the test series that starts at St George’s Park on Monday?

Will you spend as much time watching the series on television as you might have done watching, for instance, India and England battle it out these last few weeks?

Central to those questions is why you watch cricket at all: to see the team you support in action, to marvel at their class of their opponents, or both?

The latter would be the best reason. But the reality is that, as South Africans, we tend to be more interested in seeing the opposition.

Which is why South Africa’s matches against England, Australia and India draw bigger crowds than those against sides like Sri Lanka.

The converse applies – people in England, Australia and India turn out in their thousands regardless of opposition.

On Monday, the Melbourne Cricket Ground would be as full as it invariably is on December 26 even if Australia were playing Australia A.

Instead, they’re up against Pakistan, which is a game worth seeing wherever and whenever it is staged. But a poll of spectators as they approach the ground – question: who are Australia’s opponents in this match? – could yield startling results.

Because the one, true answer is, “It doesn’t bloody matter, mate. We’d be here if they were playing against 11 kangaroos.”

You won’t get that reply if you ask spectators going to St George’s Park on Monday who South Africa are taking on, and not only because kangaroos are thin on the ground in this country.

The fact is that, as much as South Africans pay lip service to supporting their team, whether they bother watching them play depends to an inordinate and unhealthy level on who they are playing against.

Sometimes that dysfunction is magnified, such as when England are at Newlands. That’s the signal for the vast Western Province Cricket Club members’ enclosure to fill up. For most other matches it is as sparsely populated as a Karoo koppie, not counting the dassies.

The Sri Lankans, surely, will not lure too many bums to that yawning expanse of white seats that sag along Newlands’ southern boundary when the second test starts on January 2.

They didn’t do so, anywhere in South Africa, when they were studded with the talents of Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, and they won’t now that all three have retired.

Rangana Herath, the portly left-arm slow bowler who earned the Lankans’ only test win in South Africa at Kingsmead in 2011, is a canny cricketer who is still at it. But he is no matinee idol.

Which is, of course, the wrong way to look at this. Forget the Lankans. Why not turn up to watch AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn? Hang on, they’re injured.

But Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada are good reasons to get in the queue, or at least to get on the couch.

Will that happen? Not in the kind of numbers the suits would like.

And that’s a shame.

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