February 6, 2014

South Africa hope to send a message

Graeme Smith is banking on his countrymen to come out and show they care more about Test cricket than was thought before

The power of mass action is as much in its ability to change the world - consider the Arab Spring - as it is in its capacity to raise awareness. South African cricket is hoping for a healthy dose of the latter in the upcoming Test series against Australia.

In the wake of the ICC's proposed restructure, South Africa has a lot to prove. It will want to show that it is not a small cricket country, irrespective of what the financial figures say. It will want to show it is a place where cricket is important and respected, where it can and should be played regularly against top opposition. And it will need its fans to do the demonstrating.

Stadium attendances, although not the best yardstick for this purpose, are a barometer for measuring interest. That may be why on January 28, the same day as the ICC's quarterly board meeting at which the draft proposal was discussed, Graeme Smith tweeted, "I understand people back at work/school but really hope people turn out in droves and put their weight behind SA cricket next month!"

The post got 260 retweets and was favourited 94 times. He will need many more than that at SuperSport Park, St George's and Newlands for it to make any sort of impact, and he knows it. "I hope they want to come and support us," Smith said, when asked why he made that plea on social media. "There's been a fair amount of hype, especially after Australia's success against England. This series is important for different reasons. Hopefully fans would add a lot of value with their presence."

It does not take a codebreaker to figure out what Smith is hinting at. South Africans in their numbers can send messages that, even if they don't influence decisions made by the game's global governing body, can indicate the seriousness with which South Africans take Test cricket.

Thanks to the common sight of empty seats at Test grounds, the impression South Africans have created is that they don't value the longest format. But their appreciation, or perceived lack thereof, should not be taken at face value alone. Jacques Faul, the current Titans CEO, who was acting CSA CEO when the 2012 Boxing Day Test was cancelled in favour of a week of festive T20s against New Zealand, recalled the decision was met with surprising outrage. "I was getting hate mail," he said to ESPNcricinfo. "I didn't expect the backlash to be as big as it was."

Much the same happened this season, when the New Year's Test could not take place for reasons beyond South African cricket administrators' control. A severely shortened India tour made the fixture an impossibility. Suits at Newlands reacted with shock, especially because they lost all the matches they were due to host in that series. The players made their disappointment clear. Smith revealed disappointment at the loss of what he called a "marquee game" and the "centre point of the summer", and fans voiced their irritation on social media platforms.

"One of the challenges we've faced as a team is that we play so sporadically together. I feel, as a team the more we play together the better we get"
Graeme Smith

To make up for it, a "festival of cricket" was held in Cape Town. The event featured a few exhibition matches: one between the national cricket and rugby teams, one a north-south derby with a twist (players qualified for each region based on where they came from, not where they are currently based), and a triple-header featuring all six franchises to kick off the domestic 20-over competition.

The first day was a sell-out but crowds had dwindled by the time the official stuff started and bad weather rolled in. Some fans said it "just wasn't the same as a New Year's Test" when asked why they stayed away.

A disgruntled public spent January with only the domestic 20-over tournament for entertainment. As 2014 kicked off, the players also longed for whites. Smith has often lamented the team's lack regular Test cricket and this season gave him an opportunity to bemoan it once again. "One of the challenges we've faced as a team is that we play so sporadically together - we had a large winter period off, then two Tests against Pakistan, two Tests against India," he said. "I feel, as a team the more we play together the better we get."

Because their schedule does not flow smoothly, South Africa often enter series undercooked. In an attempt to change that, CSA tried to secure a one-off Test against Zimbabwe before the Australian series but their neighbours declined. Instead, South Africa had to schedule a match between a South African XI and a composite side of fringe players. The fixture is currently taking place at the Wanderers and features 22 cricketers who are all part of national plans.

It includes the entire Test squad bar AB de Villiers, who is still recovering from a hand injury; Quinton de Kock, who many members of the public were saying should be included in the squad; exciting left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks; left-hand batsman Stiaan van Zyl; and offspinner Simon Harmer. Entrance was free but by lunchtime on day one there were two spectators in the ground.

The match was not advertised, so many would have been unaware they could watch a game at the Wanderers. Work and school commitments on a weekday would have kept others away. Still, it could be seen as confirmation of suspicions about South African attitudes towards cricket.

Of course, there will be more people once the Tests start, even though there are no public- or school holidays across the three matches. All three venues are doing what they can to draw crowds. SuperSport Park will have a traditional Ladies' Day, and for the first time, a Captain's Day for men. St George's always comes alive, with its band present. There is a feeling in Port Elizabeth that Test match culture is being revived again, after the venue hosted a Test last summer for the first time in six years. And the Newlands faithful, who will have their first (and last) Test of the summer, have already responded: the first three days of their match are almost sold out.

The more people pile in, the more it will be seen as a show of strength. And for them, it will be their last chance to watch big cricket for almost two years. South Africa's schedule from here on in is lean. After this series, in Test cricket they are due to tour Zimbabwe in July, and then host West Indies in the summer of 2014-15.

"West Indies are not a great crowd-puller, so next summer will be a tough one from an international perspective," Andre Odendaal, the Cobras CEO, said. Immediately after that series, South Africa will compete in the 2015 World Cup, and only in the following season will they host a team again: England are due to tour in 2015-16.

That's a long time from now and with the current discussions at ICC level, there's a strong chance things will change. The FTP may be different after this weekend, which could make the Australia series even more important, both in terms of its profile and because of the context in which it is being played. That leaves Smith and his men with a lot to think about; so much, in fact, that he wants them to shut it out as much as possible.

"There is so much happening around this stuff, we've got to focus on what we can control. We've had to deal with a fair amount of issues outside of our playing capabilities, and we've found ways to be successful despite that," Smith said. In the last four years, the administration in South Africa has been through a prolonged scandal over bonuses, which former CEO Gerald Majola was at the centre of, a politically infused argument over the India tour, and now the ICC discussions.

One of the outcomes is already known, in that the Test championship will not take place. It was an event Smith was keen on. "Hopefully in all this they can come up with something good," he said. Until then, all the South African team can do is, "trust the administration in making the decision in the best interest of the game" and "prove we are the No.1 team in the world and we deserve to be here".

In many ways, that says a lot about the South African frame of mind. Despite having been at the top of the rankings for 18 months, South Africa still feel they have to justify their position. Maybe that sentiment is prevalent because of the way they are being treated at higher levels. That could also be why Smith called on the crowds to back his boys. At least then they can feel like kings at home and the world can see it too.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent