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Where to now for cricket in South Africa?

by  Awais  •  Last updated on 2020-08-07 15:11:06

Potchefstroom is a place of surprises. It's a student town where the restaurants are as cheap as the music that screams from their speakers is awful. The portions they serve would sprawl over most of a manhole cover. Everything comes with scarily orange cheese, often under a mound of the stuff. Chicken? That's for vegetarians. Vegans? They're from a different planet. It's called Cape Town.

In Potch, out-of-town men of a certain age and neck girth are mistaken for plain-clothes police. Especially by marijuana dealers trying to find as yet unmet clients in the local pizza joint, where food is served in old army tents on distinctly unhipster wooden boards by precisely one waitron, even on a weekend evening.

The streets are wide with quiet. Or are they quiet with wideness? Either way, they're wide. And quiet. Always. People in Potch look you square in the eyes. Always. And are friendly and helpful. Always.

You wouldn't expect to find something so civilised as a decent espresso in this town. But if you venture to deMILKo at No. 26 Borcherds Street, that's exactly what you will find; an espresso worthy of Melbourne or Seattle or anywhere else. You'll also find a "smoked pork neck and sweetcorn breakfast (or anytime) quiche". With cheese? Of course. Wifi? Don't push it.

Potch is also not where you might expect South Africa to have fired their last shots. Eleven needed off 30, six wickets standing. Mitchell Marsh to Heinrich Klaasen, whose longish levers engineer a pull through square leg for four. Then an overpitched delivery is crashed through the covers. Four more. Then a six, hoisted over long-on with the grooved grace of an angler casting a line many metres into the ocean. Thank you and good afternoon. A season of bad dreams, on and off the field, ends with waking up to the not quite cold coffee of a 3-0 ODI series win over Australia. Call it a half-decent espresso.

Summer was not yet gone and winter had not yet arrived. The limbo was sweet with the smell of still green grass and the sounds, simultaneously terse with purpose and innocent of intent, of cricket. An hour after Klaasen's six sailed into the sunset, the sun set. It was Saturday, March 7, 2020.

Since then, nothing. Friday marks four months since a senior South Africa team, regardless of gender or format, were on the field. The sight, in the flesh, of the players' familiar faces, gaits, backlifts and bowling actions would have been absent during the off-season in any event. So it's not their vanishing that is causing anxiety. Instead, the feeling of not knowing when they might be back, a feeling colder than winter, has seeped deep into our bones.

Winter ends every year. The pandemic? It will end. When? No-one can say. Which means nobody can say when cricket will return to South Africa, and how much an already struggling industry might shrink when it does stagger back onto the field.

"It is a nightmare because it's the first time in professional cricket in South Africa that you've had uncertainty about when you're going to play," Andrew Breetzke, the chief executive of the South African Cricketers' Association, told Cricbuzz. "That in itself is creating pressure on players, pressure on administrators. And if there's one thing that cricket requires to be able to survive it's certainty - certainty around the FTP, and broadcasting rights and sponsorship. If you don't have certainty around playing in the future, those factors also become uncertain. It's not as if the break we're currently on is unusual. We have had that before. It's the uncertainty."

Breetzke has found a balm for his worries: Rachmaninoff. The crystalline bleakness of the Russian composer's music is an appropriate soundtrack for a game that was in trouble before it was hit by Covid-19. And for thinking about how to come to terms with as yet unknown new realities.

"These are highly pressured times in cricket," Breetzke said. "It concerns me because I believe that decisions that are going to get made in the next couple of months around cricket will affect its sustainability going forward.

"It appears that people at [CSA] board level and at operational level at CSA are not focused on those important questions - Covid, the finances, the forecast deficit, sponsorship, broadcast revenue, ICC, all that stuff. There's a lot of work that has to be done there for us to be sustainable for us to be going forward as a cricket nation."

Even the rare silver clouds are stained with dark linings. For instance, many see the confirmed promise of an IPL this year, despite everything, as the green shoots after a bush fire; a glimpse of renewal and a return to normality. Breetzke recognise something else in the tournament's growing prominence: "The reality that the IPL is scheduled for a certain spot shows the importance that it has on the international calendar, over and above bilateral [international] cricket. That has confirmed for us the status of the IPL relative to bilateral cricket."

How outlandish would it be to wonder whether, one of these years, what we consider to be the most important cricket will comprise a travelling circus of franchise T20 tournaments? And that bilateral series between teams purportedly representing countries would be something that we used to know? "Given how cricket's moved in the last five years, that's probably not way off the mark," Breetzke said. "It could happen."

Already, CSA and the BCCI are on different planets. CSA's forecast deficit Breetzke spoke of could be USD57.4-million by the end of the 2022 rights cycle. The BCCI stands to lose USD534-million - almost 10 times as much - if the IPL doesn't go ahead this year.

That kind of thinking could keep you up at night. So could listening to too much Rachmaninoff, who never visited Potch. Had times and places been different, he might have found inspiration there.

In 1864 at Palmietfontein, a farm near the town, was born one Nicolaas Pieter Johannes Janse van Rensburg, a clairvoyant who, it is claimed, had some 700 visions of the future. Re-invented as Siener - Afrikaans for seer - van Rensburg, he became a close confidante of Boer War general Koos de la Rey and Free State president Martinus Steyn, and is said to have predicted World War I and the rise of communism. All three men are revered by the modern Afrikaner far right.

Another son of Potchefstroom, Robey Leibbrandt, boxed for South Africa at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. While there he took a shine to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and returned two years later. He was still in Germany when World War II broke out in 1939, prompting him to join the Wehrmacht. By 1941 he was back in South Africa and looking to mount guerrilla operations aimed at furthering fascist aims. He was captured, tried for treason - he gave a Nazi salute in court - and sentenced to death. To avoid casting him as a martyr, his punishment was commuted to life imprisonment. But he was released when the neo-fascist National Party, who formalised racism and legislated it as apartheid, won power in the 1948 white election.

Less distastefully, Potch-born defender Thabang Molefe earned infamy in the British tabloids during an international friendly in Durban in May 2003 by felling David Beckham. Beckham broke his wrist as he crashed to earth. Taken to a local hospital for x-rays, he asked for some privacy. "I think he wanted somewhere quiet to have a good cry," said the radiologist who treated him.

Clearly, Potchefstroom is generous with its surprises. Might it become known as the place where international cricket as we knew it ceased to exist in South Africa?


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