South Africa’s domestic season will officially be ushered in over the weekend; it’s just such a shame that so few people will be there to see it. While it remains a fertile breeding crowd for future Test talent, South Africa still struggles to sell it to the public. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Blink and you’ll have missed that South Africa’s four-day competition starts this week. It’s a tantalising prospect and heralds the official start of summer, sun and cricket season. It’s just a pity that hardly anyone will be there to see any of it.
Despite having the number one-ranked team in the world, fans generally have not shown up to watch. That goes for both domestic cricket and Test cricket. That does not mean the interest is not there. South Africa boasts impressive viewership numbers for Tests. The most recent figures showed that close to 4 million viewers tuned in per Tests for the matches against Australia earlier in the year.
The lack of crowds is often used as proof that “Test cricket is dying” and that there is no interest in the sport, but that is a complete misconception. South Africans love sport, of almost every description; they just often don’t like going to watch it. The exact reasons for this have been debated many times over. The fact that it costs a lot of money for a family and the fact that a large percentage of South Africans live in poverty are two of the most popular explanations. While the latter is completely fair and reasonable, the former is unfounded when it comes to domestic four-day cricket. Attendance is free and if you pack a picnic, it’s a perfectly cost-effective day out over the weekend.
Nobody is in doubt about just how important the competition is. It is here where South Africa’s future Test talent is unearthed and where the current crop of youngsters – like Quinton de Kock and Dane Piedt – refine their skills. It’s a great shame that so few people actually get to witness these players grow and evolve in front of their eyes. It’s likely to be even more of a struggle to get people to attend South Africa’s four day competition this year.
The scheduling of this year’s four-day competition is most odd. There are two rounds of fixtures in September/ October, before the competition breaks and returns at the exact same time as South Africa’s first Test of the summer. Given the choice, most fans will choose international cricket over domestic cricket, even if they are only watching on TV. Still, there is potential to expose more people to the talent on show, if only everyone bought into the idea.
The ECB, in a rare moment of ingenuity, have included the broadcast of two four-day games a season as part of their rights package sold off to broadcasters. Last week saw Yorkshire’s county championship winning match broadcast on TV across the country. It looked great on TV, not just because the quality of cricket was quite good, but also because the crowd was relatively bulked up, with a huge contingent of Yorkshire supporters having made the journey to Trent Bridge. This is not an uncommon sight in English county cricket. Games regularly bring in anything from 500 – 5,000 people, even if the cricket on show is awful. Of course the two countries are not entirely comparable and cricket remains a luxury in South Africa, but you’d be lucky if two men and their dogs pitched up at a South African four-day game. It’s also unlikely that South African broadcasters will buy into the idea of broadcasting first class domestic cricket.
In a utopian world, the grass banks at Newlands and Centurion would have at least a few thousand in on a weekend to watch South Africa’s current and future Test players ply their trade. With picnic baskets and plenty of beer in tow, the domestic four-day competition has all the ingredients to become embedded in South African sport-watching culture.
But that kind of culture takes time to build. It will take innovation from Cricket South Africa, the franchises and the fans themselves in order to promote this culture. Gauging interest in a shuttle service from certain parts of the different provinces and putting this on over the weekend could be one way of getting people to the grounds. Free access to public transport or a deal with ride service Uber is another option. The potential is endless, but for now, it all remains a pipe dream. DM
Photo: A general view with Table Mountain in the background during the third cricket test match between South Africa and England at Newlands in Cape Town January 6, 2010. REUTERS/Philip Brown