Bums on seats don’t lie. There is truth in the happiness heaving in the hordes around the stands and on the grass banks with each rapidly passing match day in the SA20. That truth is this: despite growing fears to the contrary, South Africans haven’t fallen out of love with cricket. Their enthusiasm for the game, at best apparently dormant until the tournament started on January 10, is more rudely alive than ever, a stark change from the gloom that has hung over the country’s steadily more empty grounds for years.
Administrators who used to be asked why they seemed bent on destroying the game are now assailed with questions about how to secure fast-moving SA20 tickets. Don’t bother trying to buy any for the final at the Wanderers on February 11. The last of the publicly available tickets were snapped up by Friday – just 10 days into the tournament and 23 days before a match no one knows which teams are going to contest.
Spectators are descending on grounds that haven’t been anything close to full since before the pandemic, some of them not for decades. Some of the new faces are less versed in the game. “I don’t really understand cricket,” one teenager said to two companions as they made their way along a crowded grass bank at Boland Park on Sunday. But they were there and, judging by the giggles that greeted that comment, having fun.
Fun! Cricketminded South Africans had forgotten what that is. Given the failures of the national men’s teams and the concertina of crises in the country’s economy and infrastructure, they could have any mood they liked as long as it was frustration or disappointment. Enjoying themselves at the cricket would have felt unpatriotic.
But don’t let the grinches steal the narrative. The SA20 hasn’t only put the fun back into South African cricket. It’s also put the cricket back into South African cricket. Graeme Smith, the league’s commissioner and at heart an old-fashioned cricketer tasked with dragging a retrograde corner of the game into the real world, looked a touch sheepish and duty-bound when he described the tournament, four days before it started, as a “cricket product”. As in not primarily a music and lights product. Or a party product. Or even a crowd-pleasing product. Smith couldn’t have been more right, and more wrong. The SA20 is all of the above and more.
Faf du Plessis’ 58-ball 113 not out – the SA20’s first century – powered his team to victory in front of more than 16,000 spectators at the Wanderers on Tuesday. It was a performance that shimmered with class, reduced differences between formats to semantics, would have belonged at any level, and was scored against an all-international attack that had 141 Test, 206 ODI and 122 T20I caps between them.
Roelof van der Merwe claimed the wickets of Heinrich Klaasen, Quinton de Kock and Jason Holder in his haul of 6/20 at St George’s Park on Sunday. Two days later at the same ground, Van der Merwe cleanbowled Jos Buttler three balls after the England captain had reached 50. He has also dismissed Donovan Ferreira, David Miller and Sam Curran, and is the tournament’s leading bowler with 14 wickets at an economy rate of 4.73 and an average of 7.78.
Better than all that, to see Van der Merwe celebrate a strike is to witness one of the game’s seismic events. The pumped arms, the bulging veins, the fiery eyes, the raw roar, the torqued legs and the nearly horizontal back combine to make Dale Steyn look like a Boy Scout selling cookies in comparison.
Of the 22 matches played, six have been won with more than 20 balls remaining and five by more than 20 runs. But five have been decided in the last over and two more by 10 or fewer runs. Only Durban’s Super Giants, who have lost four games consecutively, have gone down in more than two straight matches. Only Sunrisers Eastern Cape, who pulled off a hattrick of victories last week, have won more than two on the bounce. With just eight of the 30 round-robin games left to be played before the semi-finals on February 8 and 9, and a maximum of five points on offer per match, just 10 points separate the top five sides. Even the bottom team, DSG, are not nearly out of the running. The quality of the cricket played is in the eye of the beholder, but it would be churlish to argue that what we’ve seen so far hasn’t come out of the world game’s top drawer.
Thanks to baked-in broadcasters at home in co-owners SuperSport, a 10-year deal with Viacom in India, and IPL franchise owners, the SA20 has hit the ground not only running but profitable. And popular, and with passionate professionalism on parade in every match. How is the tournament not the best thing to happen to cricket in South Africa since 1970, when the ICC finally found the courage to isolate the country’s unacceptably all-white teams as part of the global fight against apartheid?
Marco Jansen was no doubt starry-eyed in the afterglow of hitting Rashid Khan for 28 in a single over at Newlands on January 18, when he hammered 66 off 27, but he had additional reasons to be cheerful about the SA20: “All the players know how big this is for everything. It’s not just an extra pay cheque but extra exposure. Today we were playing against [Jofra] Archer, [Sam] Curran; massive names. If someone had to say to me four years ago that I was going to play against Rashid Khan at Newlands today, I would have said, ‘Good luck with that. I don’t know how you’re going to get that right for me or how it could happen.’
“As a South African player, if you do well in this tournament you don’t just open doors for yourself here, you also open them overseas. The world is your oyster. If you use the opportunity it can only bring good things.”
For Rassie van der Dussen, the IPL angle was important: “In the world probably they know the business of cricket the best. To come with their expertise in terms of team management, and what’s needed to go into a professional set-up, from marketing and building hype points of view, it’s been really refreshing. It feels like they brought that here.
“The crowds have been great. People are hungry for positive vibes when it comes to cricket; the old school thing of going to the cricket and watching the cricket. The crowds have been brilliant. As a player, it’s great to be involved.”
Jansen fetched the equivalent of more than USD354,000 at the SA20 player auction, where Van der Dussen was sold for more than USD226,000. The cynical view would be that well-paid players have reasons to talk up the tournament. Mandla Mashimbyi won’t make nearly as much in his role as Paarl Royals’ fast-bowling coach, but he concurred: “This has taken people out of their troubles, with everything that’s happening in South Africa. People have something to be excited for. It’s a beautiful thing for South Africa. We should be happy that maybe 40% of the people coming to the ground are new eyes.”
The fun isn’t restricted to the stands. Freed from the limiting myth that national pride is on the line, the players are able to give their best. If they come off, wonderful. If they don’t, it hardly matters because it’s hard to care about manufactured teams – proven players, yes; a shiny new badge, no. Besides, the next match is only a day or two away. The international game, with its overwrought obsession over results, isn’t at all about fun or enjoyment or the appreciation of players and teams. It is only about winning.
“At the Proteas, I put extra pressure on myself, because I want to do well,” Jansen said. “It’s not only for, for instance, the Warriors; it’s for your country. I want to kick myself in the head if I don’t perform for the Proteas… don’t put that in! If it doesn’t go well, we feel – I feel – as if we’re letting the whole country down. That’s the difference.”
What did Theunis de Bruyn think the tournament might do for his bid to reclaim a regular place in South Africa’s teams? “I’m not even thinking about that,” De Bruyn said. “This is so exciting. It’s rejuvenated a lot of juices in a lot of cricketers in our country. I’m really enjoying this tournament and it’s great for us. Those things will look after themselves. I would just like to win this tournament. This is a quality tournament with quality cricketers. It expects high standards every time you cross that boundary.”
Asked whether more of the credit for the SA20’s success belongs to CSA, the tournament’s majority owners, or the expertise of IPL-aligned franchises, David Miller said: “It’s a pretty successful formula, and it’s been that way around the world because of the IPL. International cricket will always be strong and to compare the two is quite tough. From my own experience, the tournament has been a breath of fresh air. It’s been different to the local competition we normally have. There’s more hype, we’ve got more overseas players, and they’re distributed throughout the country. We’re getting strong, competitive teams, which is healthy.”
Why don’t we let the fans decide? Premier venues like the Wanderers, Newlands and Centurion tend to attract decent crowds, and Boland Park is home to a throbbing cricket subculture all its own. But how St George’s Park and Kingsmead have fared in the SA20 could be a better indicator of the tournament’s acceptance by the public than other grounds.
At St George’s Park, where the current capacity is 13,171, a crowd of 10,224 saw the day/nighter between SEC and Pretoria Capitals on January 12, a Thursday. There were 7,398 on hand for SEC’s game against Mumbai Indians Cape Town four days later, a 1.30 pm start on a Monday. On Saturday evening, when Joburg Super Kings were in town, the numbers bumped up to 11,909. DSG and the home side played in front of 6,441 in a day/nighter on Sunday. On Tuesday, 3,674 were there for the lunchtime start featuring the Royals.
Kingsmead’s capacity is 16,100. On January 11, a Wednesday, DSG and JSK drew 13,200 for a day/nighter. Four days after that 12,000 turned up on a Sunday afternoon to watch their team take on Paarl Royals. There were 14,100 in the 100-year-old ground on Friday evening for the game against the Capitals.
The SA20 is doing exponentially better than Bangladesh’s three men’s ODIs and two Tests at Centurion, the Wanderers, Kingsmead and St George’s in March and April last year, which attracted a total of 14,348 spectators. There were never more than 2,738 and an average of 1,196 for the dozen days of cricket the tour encompassed.
That the involvement of prominent players has helped build SA20 crowds is indisputable. But how important a factor in that happening is the public not perceiving the tournament as a CSA product? A picture is being painted of a game that doesn’t need a national board, particularly a board that has been blamed – often rightfully – for so much that has gone wrong.
CSA are in desperate need of the money that will flow from the SA20. What they wouldn’t have budgeted for is having their role; of being made at best irrelevant and at worst a reminder of and cautionary tale for how bad things can get. The case will surely be made that the SA20 proves CSA are the problem, even if they have facilitated the solution.
The conversation will reach a new stage on Friday when South Africa play the first of three men’s ODIs against England. Reportedly ticket sales in Bloemfontein have been slow. A poor performance by the home side in front of sparsely populated stands will chill the bones of CSA’s suits. A series defeat, which would push South Africa uncomfortably close to the ignominy of having to qualify for this year’s World Cup, would land like nails in a coffin. The pressure is squarely on.
“International cricket is always about pressure,” Shukri Conrad, who will coach South Africa in the series, told a press conference on Wednesday. “I don’t think we’re competing with the T20 league; I’d like to see it as an ally. We’re hoping to use some of the guys’ form in the league going into Friday. The only pressure is playing really good cricket against a top side like England.”
Do that and there will be bums on seats. Don’t and see them disappear to the SA20, perhaps never to return. South Africans love cricket, but not unconditionally.