October 4, 2016

The charming antiquity of Willowmoore Park

The Benoni ground has hosted the likes of Denis Compton, footballers, and other athletes over the years. Might it soon have a bigger role to play in South African cricket?

Willowmoore Park hosted athletics, football and cricket in its early days © Getty Images

Jacques Rudolph was probably being excessively colourful when he once referred to Benoni's Willowmoore Park as "varkpan". Translated from the Afrikaans, varkpan literally means "pig tray" in English. A generation of young white South African men conscripted during the 1980s knows them well, because varkpans were the compartmentalised stainless steel trays into which your daily meals were slopped. They are symbols of an age, much like lockers and infantry browns. To the male South African mind they say much about the exercise of arbitrary power, meaninglessness and fear. They are anything but neutral.

Call me perverse, but contrary to Rudolph's deep love of the place, I've always liked Willowmoore Park. I like the fact that that if you screw your neck around from the far corner of the ground and look east, you can see Benoni's famous mine dump, its yellow sands quietly blowing away in the spring winds.

I like the fact that the western grandstand probably dates back from the 1930s, and if you look into the underside of the roof you can see a crazy quilt of supporting girders, many of which look strangely superfluous, and so give an impression of post-Edwardian vanity. It's like looking into another way of seeing the world - or another mind - and it's pricelessly and utterly charming.

The ground even used to have a beautiful arch at its main entrance, with the words "Willowmoore Park" suspended over your head in red art-deco letters. Upon visiting the ground last week, when Australia played Ireland in an ODI, I noticed to my disappointment that one couldn't see the letters anymore because they had been blocked out by a massive sign for Sahara computers. Such is the authorities' approach to cricket heritage.

A view of the girders supporting the roof of the ground's western grandstand © Luke Alfred

Built in the 1920s on a drained marsh - or vlei in Afrikaans - the ground is so called because willows used to line one side of the field, and one of Benoni's founding fathers was a man called Moore. It hosted pretty much everything in the early days. Athletics was a regular feature, and in 1948, Denis Compton toyed with the North Eastern Transvaal bowling by taking 300 runs off them in just over three hours. Having scored 42 fours and five sixes, his hair was probably perfectly in place when he strode back to the pavilion for a cup of tea and a fag.

Compton's Arsenal never played at varkpan, but the following decade saw a variety of visiting English football teams: Newcastle United, Wolves, and Bolton Wanderers. With big Scottish and English immigrant populations working on the mines, football was big in these parts, but as gold yields lessened, so the sport faded.

The local club was called Benoni FC, and at one point Denis Lindsay, the South African wicketkeeper-batsman of the 1960s, played as their goalkeeper. Denis was the son of Johnny Lindsay, who toured England with South Africa in 1947. When Johnny retired, he became the unofficial Willowmoore Park groundsman and designed the floodlights that remain today. The concrete pylons on which the lights are supported aren't beautiful, but they are solid and durable, much like the stock from which North Eastern Transvaal traditionally drew their players.

If the franchise system is expanded, the sizeable black cricket-playing population from Benoni and the surrounding areas will get more opportunities to play © Getty Images

Benoni tracks have always had a reputation for being sporty, partly because the water table is so close to the ground's surface. The story is told of a match in 1968 when Denis Lindsay was playing alongside Hylton Ackerman, Jackie Botten and Jim Presdee for North Eastern Transvaal against visiting Eastern Province. The men from Port Elizabeth had Peter Pollock, Alan Hector and Sibley McAdam in their midst, and so the hosts were quietly relieved when it started raining.

It rained so torrentially that one afternoon both teams took themselves off to the local cinema to watch The Dirty Dozen, with Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas and Charles Bronson. "Suddenly this message comes across the bottom of the screen," Peter Barrable, who played for North Eastern Transvaal in the match, once told me. "Will the cricketers please return to the ground? Play is about to begin."

Despite the reservations of Peter van der Merwe, the EP skipper, the match started, with Province being bowled out for 53 and the hosts cobbling together 41. "In the second innings, I remember taking Peter Pollock on the body for an hour - I was black and blue," said Barrable.

Although Willowmoore Park is a secondary ground, there is talk in South African cricket circles of the franchise system being expanded in the 2017-18 season. In all likelihood that would mean a team of their own for Easterns, which is good news for one of the largest urban provinces in the country, with an unusually large black cricket-playing population. "I can't see the current system going up [from six] to eight teams," said a local administrator, "so the logical next step is to shoot it up to 12. That way we can keep some of the kids who are heading to England and New Zealand but also give more opportunities to players of colour. It's a win-win at that level. The only problem is does it dilute our first-class competition too much?"

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • john on October 5, 2016, 9:53 GMT

    How does giving airtime to the previous regime benefit cricket for the masses, varkpan or not?

  • dan.zo5232965 on October 5, 2016, 7:48 GMT

    @ZM29_ yes was good time, the 2003-04 Easterns team had. Daryll cullinan, Zandre de bruin, Neil mckenzie, Albie Morkel,Andrew Hall and Andre Nel,

  • Jeffrey on October 5, 2016, 5:33 GMT

    I served in the South African Air Force in 1972 and have deep scars from the food I had to consume from my varkpan. Its not an 80's phenomenon Mr. Alfred... varkpanne were the bane of many a CF conscript in the 60's and 70's too!

  • DAVID on October 4, 2016, 12:45 GMT

    When Denis Compton belted his three-hour 300 during England's 1948-49 tour, John Arlott remained back in the hotel. Hours later he was regretting deeply that he'd missed the batting fireworks, though he wrote that players and press had a "gay" time that evening.

  • cchett4547419 on October 4, 2016, 10:59 GMT

    I remember the old Willowmoore Park sign with the red letters, brings back memories of my childhood because I grew up near the area.

    Just to add more perspective about the English influence on the area, the stadium is actually adjacent to a street name Liverpool Road, which is intercepted by Manchester Rd, Bolton St, Bradford St and Bristol St. Further down there are more streets like Birmingham, Leicester, etc.

    The place used to be buzzing under the old FC system when Easterns had the likes of Andrew Hall and Andre Nel, amazing times!

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