Sriram Veera is a former staff writer at ESPNcricinfo
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6 am Saturday. The Durban North Beach front is sparkling in its stillness. The surfers are up and about. The water must be warm. There is something graceful about how these surfers move. Elsewhere the city is slowly waking up. The coffee-shops are open; men are dry-wiping the empty seats. The walkers are ambling along. Cars disappear into the city. There is a man creating enticing shapes and figures from the mounds of the beach sand. The children stand around him laughing. There is something serene about this Durban morning.
Serenity seems be the theme of this Champions League Twenty20 as well. Everything appears quiet compared to the frenzy that the IPL threw up last year here. The pubs that were screaming about the IPL aren’t promoting the CLT20. The stadium too is quieter. On Friday evening the seats were being cleaned by women in uniformed tunics; in the middle, around the 30-yard circle, a few men were spray-painting the grass with tournament logos. The Central Districts team were practising alongside; balls were being hit long and hard into the empty stands. Arms were being freed, minds were being cleared. On the other side of the ground, the local groundstaff was indulging in the one hour of daily football. Screams of joy. Yelps of agony. Men enjoying themselves like kids. It’s not a common sight - an international team practising cheek by jowl with local staff indulging themselves in some horseplay.
There were no advertising hoardings around the boundary, no crazy neon lights flashing. That was what first hit the eye when one walked into the empty stadium before last year’s IPL. Stephen Fleming held a press conference, standing at the boundary edge and talking to a couple of us. The media hadn’t yet descended - around 150 accredited passes have been given this year for the entire tournament. For IPL it was over 300.
The serenity screams out at you. Yet don’t mistake it for a lack of interest in the game. I find that out at the ticket counters; it’s a sell-out. The 19th game and the semi-final sold out first. Then the Grass tickets (40 Rand, 5.6US$) for other games got sold out. What remain for a couple of games are the grandstand ticket (100 Rand). The games in Port Elizabeth, the home of the strong Warriors, are selling as well. It’s in Jo’burg, apparently, that the people aren’t sure yet of the game.
Locals explain: Durban has a large Indian population who will lap up the IPL teams. PE doesn’t have a good rugby team of its own, so the Warriors don’t have to fight for support. Jo'burg will see how the games are being lapped up in other cities and will start to slowly come out to shout for their Lions. I am told that the opening night saw a pretty decent turn-out.
Last year in India, this tournament was a flop. The interest here amazes me. It also makes sense. Champions League is a better fit for audience outside India, where fans will struggle to identify with most teams. In a place like South Africa, the IPL teams will have a natural fan base, as will the local teams. It’s a win-win situation.
The tickets are disappearing into wallets. The stadium is being spruced up. The DJ is ready. Yet there is no buzz. Nothing that is palpable as yet. And in that, perhaps, lies the appeal of this tournament in South Africa. At least in Durban. It’s not quite a grand international event which evokes jingoistic fervour or stirs the lover of the game in you. It’s just something that you want to enjoy on an evening out with the family. That’s something near-impossible in the ill-maintained stadiums in India, where you will be harassed by the administrators, appalled at the toilet facilities, feel claustrophobic and return far worse off than when you started. It’s better to sit at home and watch on TV. That’s not the case here in South Africa, which is why a tournament like this has a greater chance of being a success here. In a couple of weeks, we will know how it all panned out here. Meanwhile, it’s all still at the beachfront. I need to get into the water some day. One day I will.
8.55 am at the beach front. It just poured for 30 minutes and it's drizzling now. The sea looks pure, clear, sparkling and wondrous. I think I spot a familiar hulk strolling almost anonymously among the surfers. Oh, it's Matthew Hayden. We interact briefly; I can see he is itching to get to the sea. We try to fix up a date to chat later. "Can we meet in Jo'burg please?" Hayden asks. " Durban .. I will be busy. Very busy in PE as well." He then adds,"Busy surfing that is!" A loud laugh and off he glides into the misty rain.