Kingsmead loses traditional Test
Kingsmead Stadium's most defining feature is probably the Castle Corner. The beer garden on the grass bank furthest from the press box is one of the liveliest places to watch a cricket match. By contrast, the stands are one of the best places to catch a late afternoon brawl, if you are so inclined. The local joke is that no match is complete without at least one member of the crowd being hauled out by security. Few really know what for: too many samosas, too much spice, or too much spunk?
Ok, you get it. There is nothing overly spectacular about Kingsmead. It's just another cricket ground with a concrete face, bowels that have too many stairs and in summer, a cauldron of humidity and heat. That does not mean it isn't a special place.
Kingsmead is the ground on which Gary Kirsten spent hours chiselling out an innings of 275 to become the joint highest individual run-scorer for South Africa in 1999. It is the ground on which South Africa chased down a record score of 335 against Australia in 2002. Neither of those records stands anymore and Kingsmead too, has fallen.
In the 2012-13 season, Kingsmead will be without its usual Boxing Day Test, breaking a tradition that has stood fairly firm since readmission in 1992. Worse than that, Kingsmead will not host a Test match at all in the coming summer. Instead, the five Tests have been spread out across other venues, with Newlands in charge of two of them, the Wanderers and Centurion being given their usual share of one each and St George's Park in Port Elizabeth, the recipient of the other. Kingsmead has not been forgotten entirely. It will host two Twenty20s and an ODI, giving it at least three days fewer than its usual allocation of a Test match and an ODI a season.
"We are disappointed," Jessie Chellan, chief executive of Kwa-Zulu Natal Cricket Board told ESPNcricinfo. "The one thing is that we are not getting the Boxing Day Test, which has become a tradition and has grown legs of its own. But we are also disappointed that we are not getting a Test at all."
Financial considerations are among the main reasons for the new schedule and the cancellation of the Boxing Day Test this summer. It is not a permanent change, rather a "trial of something different" over the holiday season, as South African team manager Mohammed Moosajee put it, and the Durban Boxing Day Test could well return to the calendar in future.
But why the complete removal of Kingsmead as a Test venue? It's not as though there aren't enough matches to go around, with South Africa hosting five Tests. Rather, it seems as though the Durban stadium has been punished for a combination of poor crowds and poor results for the home side, which inevitably affect each other.
South Africa have lost the last four Tests they have played at the ground, all of them after being bowled out cheaply in one of their innings. Kingsmead has never hosted the first match of a series and in the last two seasons, against India and Sri Lanka, South Africa have gone to the venue with a convincing first Test win. Against sub-continental teams, South Africa have often felt they are playing away in Durban, because of the large presence of supporters for the touring teams.
Complacency, the seaming and swinging pitch, the presence of families with the team, have all been offered as excuses for the defeats in Durban. The one explanation never mentioned were the demons that sometimes exist in the mind of the South African team, who are haunted by mental issues ranging from the chokers tag in ICC events to their Durban jinx. The national side has shown a distinct dislike for Durban, choosing to stay north of the city in the beach town of Umhlanga instead of in the main hub, where the visiting teams are put up.
Irrespective of the ghosts that have come to linger over the Durban Test, the fixture has remained popular among fans and Chellan is saddened that it has been taken away. "For the last three years, we have been sold out on the first day of the Boxing Day Test," he said. "Over the five days, yes, there has been a decline but whether that has to do with the popularity of Test cricket or the performances of the national team here, can be debated."
Moosajee said that suggestions that a request was put in from the national side to avoid playing Tests at Kingsmead were not true. "As a professional team, they have to learn to play in all conditions," he said. But, CSA acting chief executive Jacques Faul admitted the team's record there "was taken into consideration" when the schedule was decided. He added that Kingsmead would not be deprived of Tests in the long term. "It's not to say that we won't play Tests there again," Faul said. "The board just thought this was the best decision for this season."
Perhaps that best decision was taken because New Zealand are considered a smaller team, who will not draw much interest, so CSA are happy to stick them in Port Elizabeth. Perhaps it is because they want to give the team time to learn to win at home again. After all, South Africa won their first Test series on home soil since 2008 against any team other than Bangladesh when they beat Sri Lanka earlier this year. Perhaps they just don't know what to do with Durban, as a venue.
Whatever it is, the team is "very happy," with the decision. Moosajee said the team has welcomed the change. "It is disappointing not to be playing a Test there, because Kingsmead is a wonderful place to play cricket," he said. "But we are looking forward to the change. It is a different concept to play a Twenty20 over the holiday period. For some of the guys it will also mean they can spend Christmas at home, which hasn't happened for a long time."
Kingsmead will host one of those Twenty20s - on December 21 - and another in January. Chellan said that although it is too early to forecast whether the local board will profit from the change in schedule, but having two Twenty20s, instead of one "should have a positive effect on our bottom line." Much will depend on advertising and suite holder interest which will only be determined at a later stage. And even if it does mean money, Chellan said Durban "would have still preferred to host a Test match."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent