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South Africa, West Indies and the fight to protect Test cricket

Players and staff from both sides make stirring calls to invest in the game outside of the Big Three

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
South Africa and West Indies are playing this series in front of empty stands and they know its not right  •  AFP/Getty Images

South Africa and West Indies are playing this series in front of empty stands and they know its not right  •  AFP/Getty Images

Just underneath the West Indies' crest on his practice kit, Kraigg Brathwaite wears a badge of personal significance. It's a photograph of his late grandparents, one of whom passed away just two years ago, and if he could, he would put it on his match day whites as well. While that's not allowed, Brathwaite has the pin on him at all other times, to keep his relatives close to his heart and take them with him wherever he goes, even as close to the cricket field as possible.
"Test cricket means a lot to us in West Indies," Brathwaite said, ahead of the second Test against South Africa in Johannesburg. "Our fans really follow Test cricket a lot and they want the Test team to do well."
That may sound like an overly optimistic statement to make, given the decline of West Indies as a Test power and especially given their record on the road. They last won an away series against a top eight team in 1995, when Brathwaite was three years old, no-one else in the squad was older than seven and five others had yet to be born. The glory days are well beyond any of their current recollections, though doubtless they've been regaled with stories of that old dominance and have dreams of reaching those peaks again. But in a climate of T20 leagues, where Test matches outside of those between India, Australia and England feel low-profile, it will be very very difficult.
We cannot be excluded on the basis of not being leading lights in Test cricket. We are, and so are the West Indies
South Africa coach Shukri Conrad
Against that backdrop, Braithwaite is a chip off the old block. He is now a one-format player - 13th on the West Indies all-time Test run-scorer's list - his last ODI was nearly six years ago and he hasn't played any T20 cricket. At all. If it were up to him, West Indies would play more Tests, more often and would progressively improve. "You learn from playing. These two back to back tours - Zimbabwe and South Africa - have been good. You get rhythm," Braithwaite said. "Some guys may not have done well but I think the more you play, the more you get familiar and it's just better for us, as cricketers. When it's spaced out so far, sometimes it's tough."
South Africa are about to experience how tough that could be. They have no Test cricket scheduled for the next nine months and only play two-Test series until 2026. For a team that reached No.1 in the world just over a decade ago, their slide into a sort of obscurity has come quicker than expected, and everyone from star seamer Kagiso Rabada to new red-ball coach Shukri Conrad wants to stop it. While Rabada asked for Tests to be "prioritised a lot more," Conrad believes dwindling interest, despite what Braithwaite said, is one symptom of where things are going wrong.
"Our and their proud traditions and heritage should be ample proof that we need to play more Test cricket. We cannot be excluded on the basis of not being leading lights in Test cricket. We are, and so are the West Indies" Conrad said. "But the sad reality is, in places like the West Indies and hopefully not here, the lack of Test cricket might mean that interest starts waning. That's a place you never want to reach, because once a youngster doesn't have the desire to play for his country that spells the beginning of the end."
You only had to glance at the almost empty grass embankments at last week's SuperSport Park Test to see what Conrad means. A mid-week game, that started on a Tuesday and ended on a Thursday, pulled only a few hundred fans and most of them turned up when South Africa's women's side arrived to sign autographs following their run to the T20 World Cup final. There were smatterings of school kids at other parts of the Test but in general, inconvenient scheduling has meant this series will be poorly attended and deepen the impression that the red-ball game is dying in places outside the Big Three.
That is partially true for a variety of reasons, and one of them is that Test cricket is perceived as boring. So enter Bazball and other styles of play in that ilk.
When they came together in the English summer, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum made it clear that one of the things they were going to advocate was an entertaining style of play, even if it meant losing, to get bums on seats. Incidentally, they've only lost two matches since then and their brand of aggressive cricket has been spoken about as revolutionising the game. South Africa have toyed with trying something similar, and called it brave cricket, except that it wasn't that at all and they lost series in England and Australia as a result.
Now, they're trying to figure out their batting blueprint, with a line-up where almost no-one is sure of their place. "It's a unique set of circumstances. We don't play a lot of Test cricket, so I've got to find novel ways. If that plays itself out in giving everybody a go and seeing how they react, so be it," Conrad said. "That brand will take longer on the batting front. There's patience required in terms of the batting side."
The problem with that, is that in 2023, with options aplenty for thrill-seekers, the waiting game is the one thing people don't want to play, even if it brings it's own subtleties and storylines - things that will be remembered long after the result. For example, West Indies arrived at their Wanderers training session with a massive pink teddy-bear named Suzie which was has to be carried by a particular member of the squad.
"We play a game for warm up - a little tennis game and we always have a Man of the Match, who is the worst player of that game who has to take care of it," Brathwaite explained.
So who is it? This time it was Kyle Mayers. "Most of the squad has had a turn but unfortunately Mr Kemar Roach hasn't gotten it yet."
Roach is the oldest member of the West Indies touring party. He is their fifth-highest wicket-taker now, going past Joel Garner's tally of 259 in the first Test. He still wants to play for "two, three, four, five, six, seven…" years because he's still motivated by his team-mates and "wanting to get amongst the greats."
If there's one thing this series is showing is, it's that there's life in this old format yet, even in places where it seems there may not be.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket