South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg, 4th day January 16, 2005

Wandering around the Wanderers

  shares



The Bullring's four-storey stands 'leer over events in the middle' © Neil Lane/Cricinfo

Looking down across Johannesburg from the top of the Wanderers stadium, it can feel as though you are situated at the highest point of the highveld. Though the city itself is as unprepossessing as they come - a loose alliance of hilltop settlements, lured here in the last century by the prospect of gold, and loitering ever since - from the birds'-eye view of the fourth-storey press-box, it is possible to appreciate the subtler side to the city.

Everywhere you look, there are trees, which comes as something of a surprise to the uninitiated. Apparently, in that respect, Jo'burg is the greenest city in the whole of southern Africa, but it is only when you reach a high enough elevation to see across the security fences that you grow to appreciate that fact.

As you stare down the length of the Wanderers pitch, your line of vision takes you through the twin floodlights of the imposing Centenary Stand, which wraps itself around the northern end of the ground, and off into the distance, over and beyond the adjoining Wanderers golf club, and all the way to the tip of the Sandton City shopping and hotel complex. It is here that the teams are based for this final fortnight of the series, and the roof of the main tower is clearly visible, as it pokes through the canopy like Cleopatra's Needle.

For more than 74 years, the Wanderers Club has provided the focal point of Johannesburg's sporting aspirations, whether they be cricket or golf - which between them dominate the district of Illovo, where the club is based - or tennis, squash and bowls, which can also be found tucked away in the back streets. But tragically, in October last year, the clubhouse itself was entirely gutted by fire. It began in the kitchens and spread through the ventilation ducts, and by the time it had incinerated the venerable wooden rafters, there was little that could rescue three-quarters of a century of tradition.

A vast section of the roof collapsed, taking with it the club's imposing clock-tower, and as a match between South Africa A and New Zealand continued unawares down the road, the devastated members were left to salvage what they could of a mass of sporting memorabilia. Among the trophies, photographs and cricketana lost forever was the bat with which Graeme Pollock scored 274 against Australia in 1966-67, which to this day is ranked among the finest innings of all time.

The stadium itself is a fair way removed from the clubhouse, however, and if you arrive late at the ground on a matchday, you soon discover that the Wanderers lives up to its name. It is a veritable hike from from the car-park to the ground, although for the morning stroll, at least, it is downhill all the way. Upon arrival, you then take a further plunge into the basin of the ground itself, which is entered through an imposing gateway that sports a banner declaring the Wanderers to be "our battleground".

It is unequivocal stuff, and when play takes place in front of 20,000 fans, as was the case on the Saturday of this match, the ground certainly takes on a gladiatorial feel. It is universally known as "The Bullring", a nickname that is amply backed up by the sheer scale of the stands at either end. These are four storeys vertical, and leer over the events in the middle with such intrusiveness that the slightest whisper is echoed and amplified as it bounces between them. But never mind careless whispers - the throaty roar that greeted Herschelle Gibbs's hundred came close to matching the din created by the South African Airways fly-past that launched the World Cup final here in March 2003.

For all the imposing splendour of the main stands, however, perhaps the finest seats in the ground are those at midwicket. On the one side, there is the grassy bank in front of the pavilion, with its preponderance of beach towels and umbrellas, and of course, the ubiquitous bikinis. The players are shielded from all this by a neatly trimmed hedge, which marks the boundary of their viewing area and stands in stark aesthetic contrast to the intimidating perspex tunnel through which they must walk to reach the boundary's edge.

The opposite side of the ground is served by a magnificently rickety wooden stand, so steep that, at this rarefied altitude, anyone who gallops up it too quickly can require an oxygen mask by the time they reach the summit. On the first day of the match, this entire area was claimed by a local primary-school outing, not that any of them had any qualms about scurrying up and down the benches all day long. In fact, while Andrew Strauss and Robert Key were rattling along in that afternoon session, the majority of the kids found that the safety netting beneath the stand was of far greater entertainment, as they slipped through the slats and turned the Bullring into their very own adventure playground.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England on their tour of South Africa.