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Cricket returns to Kingsmead amid chaos and concerns in South African camp

South Africa last played a Test in Durban in February 2019, and have won only one out of nine Tests here since 2009

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Kingsmead hasn't hosted a Test since February 2019  •  Getty Images

Kingsmead hasn't hosted a Test since February 2019  •  Getty Images

"The national team? Really? At Kingsmead? Will there be tickets?"
A lifelong Durban resident had no idea that cricket in South Africa is returning to the before-Covid times and international fixtures are starting to make their way around the usual traps, with fans invited back in. Last week, as South Africa moved to its most lenient restrictions since the start of the pandemic, it was announced that stadiums will be allowed to fill 50% of their capacity (up from a maximum of 2000 people before that) and bars will be open (the sale of alcohol was prohibited at sports venues since March 2020).
South Africa haven't played at Kingsmead since the washed-out ODI against England in February 2020, and haven't contested a Test here since February 2019, and the pandemic is not the only reason for their absence. In the last decade, the national side has become increasingly disillusioned with the venue, which has lost the pace and bounce it was known for in the 1990s and adopted a slow, low subcontinental flavour. And their dislike of Durban has reflected in the results.
Since 2009, South Africa have won only one out of nine Tests in Durban - against India in 2013 - and have lost to India, Sri Lanka, Australia and England; the last three all twice. Indeed, it was Sri Lanka's win in Durban in 2019 that put them on course to record a first Test series win by an Asian side in South Africa. Bangladesh are playing at the same two places Sri Lanka triumphed in (Gqeberha, which was earlier known as Port Elizabeth, will host the second Test), which is as good an omen as any that they could become the second Asian side to do so.
And it's not just the conditions that could play in Bangladesh's favour. Everything about the circumstances this series is being played in means this is their best chance to overturn a record of six Test defeats, five by an innings, in this country. The first day of the Test will be Graeme Smith's last as director of cricket as he moves away from an organisation that has done its best to make him feel unwelcome. Smith has a notoriously poor relationship with some of the board members and has just gone through an arbitration process that one insider described as "humiliating" over the findings made at the Social Justice and Nation-Building commission. He takes with him the ability to negotiate with moneyed boards like the BCCI and it's yet to be seen where that leaves South Africa in the long term. What we do know is that there is no replacement for him yet, and some players are nervous their coach Mark Boucher, who faces a disciplinary hearing in May, could go the same way as Smith.
Then there are the immediate concerns affecting the team. South Africa have lost six players to the IPL and a massive chunk of experience has gone with them. Now, four of the top six will have just 13 caps between them with at least one debutant - Ryan Rickelton or Khaya Zondo will come into the side - and none of the seamers has played more than a baker's dozen Tests. "Maybe the new faces in the team can help us start on the front foot for a change," an optimistic Keshav Maharaj said, referring to South Africa's first-Test defeats to both India and New Zealand.
It's been a season that has swung from the highs of a come-from-behind Test series win over India to the lows of a first-ever home ODI series defeat against Bangladesh but Maharaj still assessed the few last months, since South Africa's tour to the West Indies, as "phenomenal". He was part of the 50-over outfit that just lost and admitted the team was unhappy with their slip up and keen to make things right in the Tests.
"It hurt a lot," he said. "A lot of us sat in the change room afterwards and tried to reflect on where to go from there. It did break the morale a little bit but every team can't be on a high forever. They are going to have a bad series but it's a matter of dusting yourselves off and trying to get back to winning ways."
At least what South Africa have is some players in relatively good form. Keegan Petersen, who was excellent against India before missing the New Zealand tour after contracting Covid-19, has played one first-class game since and scored a century, while Simon Harmer topped the first-class wicket charts including a nine-for on his return from New Zealand.
Maharaj is expecting big things from both of them. "Keegan is a very hungry cricketer and I know he wants to build on his amazing performances against India," he said. "He is in a good space and is hitting the ball nicely so I'm hoping he can step up and lead the batting." Maharaj also praised Harmer as an "exceptional performer" with whom he is "looking forward to bowling in tandem".
It sounds counterintuitive that South Africa will field two spinners at home - they haven't done so since 1970 - and Maharaj could not confirm if that would be the case, but it's possible they might, given the conditions. Although Dean Elgar saw plenty of grass on the Kingsmead pitch, Maharaj said he had never seen grass of this colour at his home ground, which makes it a "difficult pitch to read".
Very few South Africans would have seen the Kingsmead strip recently, so it's likely to be a surprise to everyone, even the locals who are threatening to take up as much space as they're allowed to, although historically there've been more empty seats at the ground than occupied ones. The odds are in favour of that changing, given how long it has been since international cricket was played in these parts, how many of the Test squad (Maharaj, Petersen, Sarel Erwee, Zondo and Daryn Dupavillon) play their domestic cricket in Durban and how much free time there is for some. School holidays are ongoing and the man who didn't even know there was cricket has plans of bringing his son to the match. He is eyeing Saturday and no one had the heart to mention there is a 90% chance of rain. It's too early in the series to start putting a dampener on things.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent