Tour catches on but fails to ignite

Peter Robinson on how the crowds have been enticed back to Test cricket in South Africa
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ever the optimist, Ali Bacher remains convinced that the United Cricket Board will turn a tidy profit from South Africa's five-Test series against England this summer.

You might say that he has to believe this, given the determined and costly marketing campaign which preceded and which still accompanies this tour. But there are encouraging signs that the South African public is once again learning to live with Test match cricket.

During two decades of isolation, South Africans simply forgot about Test cricket. As the memories of the great 1970 team began to fade, so day and night cricket, borrowed wholesale from Kerry Packer and promoted aggressively, took hold. So much so that in late 1992, when India became the first country to officially tour here after readmission, hardly anyone bothered to watch the Test matches.

They came in their thousands to the one-day internationals, but quite clearly the public had to be enticed back to Test cricket. This, despite the almost complete loss of six days play during the first three Tests, seems to have been achieved. Significantly, the rain-ruined first and third Tests, attracted crowds of 20,000 and 28,000 respectively in Pretoria and Durban which by the standards set during the Indian tour was a remarkable improvement.

There are several reasons for this gradual recovery. Not the least of them is the fact that in South Africa Test cricket is unusually cheap. It is possible, for instance, to watch a day's play for around pounds 2. Three separate television advertising campaigns have exhorted spectators to roll up and watch the Poms catch it, a throw-back to the traditional colonial desire to put one over the Old Country.

The tour then is succeeding in spite of the fact that it stubbornly refuses to ignite. To a large extent this has been as a result of the weather which has dogged England's travels around the country. Their arrival in fact coincided with the breaking of a drought which began in 1987 and whatever else England may or may not have done, their presence here has delighted the farmers.

On the field though, or rather in the dressing-rooms at Centurion Park and Kingsmead, the abiding emotion has been frustration as the rain has pelted down. It is true, too, that the series so far has been short of individual heroics. While Mike Atherton's epic rearguard action at the Wanderers was a great achievement, it was a match-saving rather than match- winning innings and it left the series still tied nil-nil.

For all this, Bacher is confidently predicting good crowds at St George's Park for a fourth Test and a sell-out at Newlands for the fifth. Expectations are that 65,000 will watch the Christmas game and 115,000 the New Year match. If this is so, some 313,000 spectators will have attended the five Tests, a figure well in excess of the 280,000 budgeted for by the UCB.

Before the tour it was generally believed here that South Africa's fast bowlers would simply be too good for England. It has not quite worked out that way, with the tourists proving resilient and workmanlike, if hardly spectacular. No single figure has captured the South African imagination but England have gradually won respect for their doggedness.

It is in fact fair to say that the man of the tour so far has been Paul Adams, the teenage mystery spinner who should make his Test debut in Port Elizabeth next week.

The fascination with Adams is twofold: his action, which resembles a man trying to steal hub-caps from a moving car, is a constant source of wonder; and secondly, he is the first tangible product of the UCB development programme which seeks to take cricket into the black townships and previously underdeveloped areas of the country.

It is no secret that the politically correct UCB has been embarrassed by the all-white complexion of the South African team. Cricket watched in envy as rugby not only won the World Cup, but did so with Chester Williams in the Springbok team. Adams, it is hoped, will be the answer to Williams, a black player who is not simply in the team on merit, but who could develop into something very special.

Of course, there is still the possibility that the series could end deadlock at nil-nil. If the Port Elizabeth Test is drawn the temptation will be there for both teams to cut their losses and approach the final game with the utmost caution. It would be a great pity if this was to be the case, because it has been the fault neither of England nor of South Africa that the series has yet to catch light.

From the UCB's point of view though the real money- spinner will be the seven-match one-day series. In South Africa if you turn on the floodlights and dress up in coloured clothes you can confidently hang out the house full sign at the same time. And despite the gradual reawakening of what Bacher calls a "Test match culture" the one-dayers will pay any outstanding bills caused by the weather.

Peter Robinson is Cricket Correspondent for the Johannesburg Star.