Cape Town - South Africa’s first exposure this season to one of the country’s smaller cricketing centres will be a decent examination of future potential to that landscape when they tackle England in the first of three Twenty20 internationals at Buffalo Park, East London, on Wednesday evening (18:00).
The ground has a capacity of around 15 000 and embattled Cricket South Africa’s bosses will be hoping for something suitably close to a full house in the supposedly most popular modern format - it is the Proteas’ first visit to the Eastern Cape city since October 2018 when they beat neighbours Zimbabwe by 34 runs, also in the T20 arena.
That was only the second T20 international ever staged at Buffalo Park - the first was a defeat to New Zealand in December 2012 - so Wednesday’s clash with England will represent the first visit of one of cricket’s “big three” commercial-clout powers to the venue in the most abbreviated of the white-ball formats.
The Proteas have previously also played 20 one-day internationals at the ground, with a record of 14 wins, four reverses and two abandonments.
East London has only ever staged one Test match, back in October 2002 when Bangladesh were hammered by an innings and 107 runs.
Although the remainder of the T20 series against the English occurs back at established Test centres Kingsmead (Friday) and SuperSport Park (Sunday), Australia’s dual white-ball visit shortly afterwards sees a few other lesser venues get a solid slice of the action.
Boland Park in Paarl - which has responded well for the Proteas previously, and got solid gates for champions Paarl Rocks in this season’s Mzansi Super League - gets the first ODI, and the other two matches in the 50-overs portion are in Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom respectively.
Healthy public responses at any of those centres could well persuade CSA to contemplate not only a more consistent allocation of limited-overs internationals to the proverbial “platteland”, but also cajole them into reallocating more in the way of Test activity, even, to lower-capacity stadiums with the potential for some sort of improved atmosphere as a result.
The presence of England’s noisy “Barmy Army” of travelling support during the recent four-Test series here - all played at the more established major centres for the format - served as a bit of a smokescreen for worryingly limited local support at times for the Proteas.
While controversy raged over the generous (excessive, many passionately argued) allocation of tickets to English supporters for the prime New Year Test at Newlands, which clearly thwarted the intentions of plentiful SA fans over the first few days’ play, the fact remained that when obvious gaps in the stands did occur toward the business end of that engrossing match, Proteas fans hardly turned out in droves anyway.
A return to work after the Festive Season would have applied in many cases, but it was still a little sobering - and perhaps indicative of the extent to which CSA’s often tawdry problems have affected spectator loyalty? - that with many still in holiday mode on day five, Capetonian-based backing for Faf du Plessis’s team was minimal despite the earnest quest to save the Test with eight wickets in hand at the start of the day’s play.
The next few weeks, then, offer less fashionable centres a tantalising opportunity to put forward afresh their cases for broader recognition as hosts of the national team.
Will the people respond?
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