Stephen Gelb July 12, 2008

Wisdom of the crowds

Watching a Test match is still a great way to spend a day, and for your kids to learn the game

ODI matches attract much more crowds than Tests in South Africa © Cricinfo Ltd

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.