South Africa v England, 1st Test, Port Elizabeth, 3rd day December 19, 2004

Apathy in the Sleepy City

Most of the vibrancy at Port Elizabeth didn't come from the home sides.... © Getty Images

Port Elizabeth likes to be known as the Friendly City. England's buffeted bowlers probably know it better by its alternative monicker - The Windy City. But in reality PE is the Sleepy City. It is a town of wide, sun-bleached boulevards, lined with palm trees and mapped out by succinct no-nonsense yellow road signs ("Cape", "Rink", "Park"). There is life, particularly down towards the Summerstrand beachfront, where a huge throng gathered last night to celebrate the start of the summer season, but it is not life as we know it - and particularly not at St George's Park.

As the name of the ground suggests, this is the most anglicised of the five Test-hosting cities. Cenotaphs and statues adorn the route through the park to the stadium where, in 1889, South Africa played their very first match, an eight-wicket defeat against Major R Gardener Warton's team of luxuriantly moustachioed gentlemen. But if that seems a bygone age, then so too do the memories of South Africa's first matches after readmission to international cricket, when Port Elizabeth seemed the most vibrant of the venues on offer.

Nine years ago, on England's first appearance of the modern era, the stands were a teeming, shimmering, reverberating sea of noise and colour, and not even the most desperate of dull draws could deter the fans, a massive proportion of whom were black. On the final afternoon even the fielders were swept up by the atmosphere, as the joyful St George's Park Band played "Stand by Me" until the sun went down.

The sun went down on those days a long time ago. The band has been banned since the World Cup - apparently the prospect of smuggling a tuba through the metal detectors was too much for the tournament's panic-stricken organisers - and they have not bothered to come back since. Without them, the fans have simply dissipated, ushered out through the turnstiles by the heartbreak of the match-fixing scandal, and kept away by the team's subsequent struggles.

It would not have been fair to pass judgment until the apathy had been exposed in all its lack of glory. We were promised home fans on the Friday, but they never materialised - busy catching up on work, no doubt, after Thursday's public holiday. We presumed they would come on the Saturday instead, but they must have all gone fishing. But there was surely never any doubt that they would come on the Sunday. This was, after all, the officially designated Fancy Dress Day.

...but from the Barmy Army © Getty Images

Well, rather like that ill-advised 8pm curfew for local liquor sales, the fancy-dress plan seems to have been cancelled at the last minute. Of the 9000 fans in the ground, a good six or seven thousand were once again Brits, wearing nothing more fancy than a football shirt and a beer gut. The rest, for the most part, were the same smattering of faithful souls who had come along on the first two days. In fact, the only hint of dressing up was to be found high in the home supporters' stands, where a pair of bunny girls sat huddled side by side, looking every bit as sheepish as Bridget Jones at that non-existent Vicars and Tarts party.

Efforts are still being made to tap into the absentee audience, however. At hourly intervals up in the press box, the dulcet tap of keyboards is interrupted by lengthy bulletins from the man from Radio Xhosa, who describes the unfolding play in an animated chatter of clicks and crescendos, as he addresses an estimated five million listeners across the Eastern Cape - almost twice the number that Test Match Special reaches back home in the UK. Suddenly, the desire to usher Thami Tsolekile into the side does not seem quite so self-defeating as it at first appeared.

All of which leaves the Barmy Army, and, love them or hate them, where would the atmosphere be without them? For the third day running, they have stormed the Castle (Corner), and in the absence of any meaningful resistance from the home fans, it has been left to the electronic scoreboard to provide most of the banter, through an increasingly bizarre series of jibes and messages.

"Great catches" have been greeted with the image of a shapely bikini-clad girl ("She has a great personality"); play-and-misses have been accompanied by a picture of a bat with a hole in it, while today's Barmy Army special is "lobster soaked in beer". Undeniably droll, but it's strangely poignant that the wittiest of the home supporters is a machine.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo, and he will be following England's tour around South Africa.