Venue allocation short on cricketing reasons
During South Africa's sporting isolation, the marquee fixture of the cricketing summer was a north-south derby: a first-class match between Western Province and Transvaal played in Cape Town over New Year's. There were times in the last few months when those fixtures were reminisced about with more gusto than usual.
The joke was, that if India's tour to South Africa was cancelled altogether, something along those lines would need to happen again. The people at Newlands won't find that so funny anymore.
Cape Town, which was this week unveiled as third of Lonely Planet's top 10 cities to visit in 2014, has been snubbed for the India series. It was originally due to host a Twenty20, an ODI and the traditional New Year's Test but has been left with nothing.
It's a lot less than Cape Town expected, even when the customary January 2 fixture was ruled out because of the window offered by India which ended on December 31, because there was still enough to go around. Not so, Cricket South Africa said.
They cited "centralising venues" as the reason for leaving Newlands off an itinerary which has given the Wanderers and Kingsmead an ODI and Test each while allowing Centurion's SuperSport Park to keep the one game it was initially promised. Had Benoni's Willowmoore Park or Potchefstroom's Senwes Park been given the Durban games, "centralising venues" may be believable.
South Africa is not a big enough country to have travel times so great they need to be minimised, unless one is driving. Durban is an hour's flight from Johannesburg, Cape Town is two. Simplifying logistics is nothing more than spin. Cape Town, it seems, was deliberately overlooked.
A cynic would assume it was a political decision. The New Year's Test was forced to be cancelled because India could only spend from December 1 to 31 in South Africa. Officially, they gave three reasons for that. Firstly, the players needed rest before New Zealand; secondly, their players needed to be home to play in the Ranji trophy quarter-finals; and thirdly, their Sahara sponsorship ends on the last day of 2013, so they cannot have a tour which overlaps a period between sponsors.
CSA's president Chris Nenzani repeated the third reason on radio when asked why the New Year's Test could not happen. When it was first revealed there would be no match in the first week of 2014, whispers began that the BCCI did not want to play in Cape Town to further marginalise CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat. Although not born in Cape Town - Port Elizabeth was where he spent his formative years - Lorgat played there later in his career and it was where his administrative career began.
Lorgat has already been sidelined from the tour and cannot deal with the BCCI for as long as he is under investigation from the ICC for his role in David Becker's statement, and it seems the place where he made his name is being treated in the same way.
Whether this kind of isolation will have an effect on the already fractured relationship between the boards is questionable. South African cricket politics, unlike India's, is not overly geographically polarised, although they have been whispers of a "Cape cabal" on the board, so the decision to leave Newlands off the fixture list cannot impact Lorgat specifically. Rather, it will hurt everyone in South African cricket.
No New Year's Test robs the country of the only opportunity it has to fill a stadium for a Test match. Last summer, the first two days were sold out and there were similar high numbers in past seasons. Western Province CEO Andre Odendaal pointed out that that fixture draws the "highest income from gate takings" for the entire home summer. The players regard it as the highlight of the summer and expressed their dissatisfaction with it being removed even before it was officially announced. At a press conference in the UAE, Graeme Smith said it was a match all the players got "excited about" and they would be gutted if it was not happening.
Now they have reason to be even more upset because Cape Town is not getting a game at all and, in a Test sense at least, that seems to be in the interests of fairness. Cape Town has hosted two Tests a summer for the last two seasons and with only five Tests to spread around the same number of venues this season, it seems logical for Newlands to have to relinquish one of its games.
But why India, at a peak time when the match could attract large numbers of spectators, rather than an Australia one later in the year, when even Cape Town, as was evident by last February's fixture against Pakistan, does not have big crowds? Some say it's because South Africa's superior record at Newlands - where they have not lost a Test since March 2006 and have only been defeated three times since readmission - makes it a place for opposition to avoid. But if India were concerned about a wicket they would have preferred not to play on the fast, bouncy Wanderers track.
Cricketing reasons do not seem to be behind this decision. Rather, it's about keeping people happy. Durban had the Boxing Day Test taken away last year, and did not host a Test at all last summer. It had big plans when told the fixture was reinstated and was allowed to keep the India game, bringing great "relief" to the administrators there.
Johannesburg did not host a Test at all the previous time India toured South Africa because the stadium temporarily had its international status revoked by CSA after it was put into administration. It was also allowed to keep its Test this time. The myth about the city being a ghost town over December because its inhabitants flock to the coast is exactly that. Since the 2008 recession many stay in the city and are on the lookout for something to do.
So Cape Town had to be sacrificed and it can console itself with the knowledge it will host Australia even as it questions why it did not get an ODI against India, for which there is little sensible explanation. What the Newlands faithful should remember is that they are better off than some smaller venues, because they have not lost everything.
Bloemfontein and East London are the venues which were originally scheduled to host matches that will not have any international cricket as per the current schedule. Two of the smaller venues, both said they were disappointed at the outcome but remain hopeful they will be considered should CSA manage to organise a replacement tour.
Pakistan, who visited South Africa last summer for three Tests, five ODIs and two T20s and are currently engaged in a series against them in the UAE, have been approached by CSA to play some limited-overs matches in late November. The aim would be to make up for lost revenue from the India series, which has been cut from seven ODIs to three and no longer includes any T20s.
The grounds who will not host India will likely be the beneficiaries if Pakistan agree to fill the void and Newlands are first in the queue. "We are encouraged by CSA's statement that they are working on plans," Odendaal said. "It was going to be a very special summer and we hope to still have something." If all else fails, there's always the big north-south derby to keep in mind.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent