It can’t fail to impress you. You might have seen the beauty of the Adelaide Oval, the colourful chaos of Eden Gardens and the awe-inspiring amphitheatre that is the MCG on Boxing Day. But there’s something about the Wanderers, even with the stands empty and the field abandoned, that makes you aware of the history of the place. For the Johnny Come Latelys, it’s where South Africa chased down 434 to win a one-day match against Australia last March, but for those who like to go back a little further, it’s a venue graced by the likes of Dudley Nourse, Hugh Tayfield, Neil Adcock, Graeme Pollock and the legendary Transvaal sides of the 1970s and ’80s, many of whom never got to play an international game.
Greg Chappell played here with an invitational side in the mid-70s, and has no doubts about the quality of the team he faced then. “I’d say that West Indies [of the late ’70s and ’80s], the current Australians and our lot in the mid-70s were the best sides that I’ve ever watched. This bunch was as good, definitely in that bracket,” he said, referring to the likes of Pollock, Barry Richards, Clive Rice, Vincent van der Bijl and Garth le Roux.
With a mere smattering of people inside the grounds, we can afford to walk in through the players’ tunnel, and the grassy embankment on one side offers a breathtaking view, both of the pavilion on one side and the building that houses the media centre on the other. As some of us shake off our jetlag, we pose for pictures, and even lie down on the grass. Player or journalist, most of us were fans first, and when you stare up at the view and the sky above, your faith in the beautiful game – shaken by the scandals of the past few months – is restored.
And as we’re about to head back, the ever-colourful Makhaya Ntini emerges from the dressing room with a terrified pigeon in his hands. He sets it down on a picnic table and then exchanges wisecracks with a few journalists before going back to the serious business of preparing for Sunday. “Be nice to the Indians,” someone tells him. “Be nice, eh?” he says with a laugh. Something about his demeanour tells you that he’ll be anything but once the umpires call Play.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo