July 12, 2008

Stephen Gelb

Wisdom of the crowds

Stephen Gelb





ODI matches attract much more crowds than Tests in South Africa © Cricinfo Ltd
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Here’s my five cents worth on Samir’s and Michael’s issue of crowds and fans.

I grew up in the 1960s watching cricket at Newlands, sitting on the grass in front of the grandstand [by law only whites, by custom only men], watching three-day inter-provincial matches and the occasional Test. My first Test, England in 1964, was dull as ditch water. On the other hand, Australia in 1967 and 1970 was fantastic. But before 50-over games and before television [introduced into South Africa only in 1976], provincial matches were major events often with full grounds.

Even on the grass, there was a strict etiquette. Most importantly, you never ever moved during an over. If you wanted a cold beverage or go to the loo, you waited till the end of the over. On your return, you parked yourself at the section entrance. Even the ice-cream sellers, the only blacks in our section, picked their way among us only between overs. By mid-afternoon drinks, the Castle Lagers, abetted by the sun, had done their work on the adults on the ‘white’ grass and on the ‘black’ grass just across the sight-screen, and the wisecracks came fast and loud. But not during play: barracking between balls and overs only.

It wasn’t just about form. Us kids also learned cricket, listening to the adults around us talking about the match. We learned to distinguish guff from good sense, and later could participate ourselves.

Today, you could miss a wicket or a great cover drive because the idiot in front of you stands up at the wrong moment. The conversation you overhear is probably on a cellphone, about last night’s party or tonight’s movie. The noise between overs is rock music on the PA system.

Even so, I don’t miss those old days. Watching India play Pakistan simply wasn’t possible then, but they have provided two of my all-time favourite cricket experiences. During the 2003 World Cup, my wife and I sat on the Centurion grass, surrounded by South Asians from Kolkata, London, New York and everywhere between. The singing and shouting was non-stop [but non-threatening too], and the cricket was good, even great - remember that Tendulkar-Shoaib duel? Last year, all of us, even 11-year-old Aisha who ‘hates sport’, had a great afternoon at the World Twenty20 final.

The crowd’s passion and involvement added hugely to the thrill both times. If the price is a little more noise or a sometimes obscured view, it seems to me worth paying. It was the same when Waqar took 5 for nearly nothing to turn defeat against South Africa into victory in 1992, with a crowd of South African Indians on its feet around us chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad!’ each time he ran in to bowl. And when a packed Wanderers screamed our team to a rout of the Aussies in the ‘Cricket Ethics Memorial Match’, the day after Hansie Cronje admitted his crookedness and resigned.

You’ll notice I’ve only mentioned ODI matches. Tests don’t fill South African grounds these days, and Test crowds are different than they used to be - lots more women, and parents with kids – and also different from ODI matches - fewer young adults. Not too much beer is drunk, and the space on the half-empty stands create a sense of leisure perfect for the long game. Watching a Test match is still a great way to spend a day in Johannesburg, and for your kids to learn the game. If you don’t see a four or don’t hear a snick, there’s a big-screen television replay a moment later. All I miss, really, is being able to walk onto the field at lunch and tea, to play tennis-ball cricket or to stare closely at the pitch and make sage comments about how it should ‘turn’ later in the match.

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Posted by Anjo on (July 13, 2008, 11:07 GMT)

I was at the Aus-SA semifinal at St Lucia last year, and thanks to five obnoxious Australians, almost everyone in the party stand missed most of the excellent bowling that reduced South Africa to 27-5. Why? Because while everyone else were content to sit on the grass and enjoy the cricket, these fools provocatively decided to stand right up front and block our view, because according to their skewed logic, this was the "PARDY STAYND" and so nobody was supposed to sit down and watch the cricket. Despite everyone yelling at them, including almost all the other Australians in the stand (the memorable "You're a disgrace to your country") they stubbornly stood there hoping for things to get physical. Eventually when they couldn't stand much longer they sat down, but by then the game was all but over. A few beers and a couple of naps later they woke up to heckle Nel. Now I can understand having a PARDY closer to the end of the day, but during riveting play it is ridiculous.

Posted by Shripad on (July 13, 2008, 4:23 GMT)

Stephen, very good article. Did you see the Aus-SA match, the 434-438 one? It must have been a great experience. I get excited even now while watching it on youtube.

Posted by Roy on (July 13, 2008, 1:29 GMT)

Good read. At least we've still got the domestic competition, dozens of tennis ball games spring up as soon as the players leave the field for lunch/tea down here at the University Oval in Dunedin. With a few beers and the sun shining, no better way to spend a day.

Posted by Justin on (July 12, 2008, 15:53 GMT)

Stephen - last summer I attended RSA-WI Test at Newlands (the New Year's Test), and was surprised to see that spectators were once again allowed on the field during lunch (tho not tea, the interval being too short). It was wonderful to see lots of young kids on the field playing tennis ball cricket - there's something special about that.

Posted by Samir Chopra on (July 12, 2008, 14:56 GMT)

Wonderful post, Stephen. Very evocative.

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