Ten countries, four continents, one question on the minds of those close to the sport: What is the future of Test cricket?
This is a question I waffle on – sometimes I feel invested in it and at other times I think it doesn’t really matter, which of course I would never say aloud in a press box.
For all of the cries and rending of cloth, though, it turns out the answer was there all along. I have found the future of Test cricket in South Africa.
The stadium experience varies from one country to the next. In many places in India, the fans themselves are the only nice part. They bake on concrete steps, drinking water from tiny plastic cups as bottles are not allowed, and are all but strip-searched to gain entrance. Huge fences cut them off from players, and guards with batons stroll the perimeter inside and out. Outside of the stadium, I once saw a man, painting faces from little tin cups of orange and green, have his calves unceremoniously whacked by one policeman. It was terrible to see a grown man beaten like he was a petulant child, and I looked away, embarrassed to be human.
These same guards patrol the fences lining the boundary, and fans are always at least a few chain links away from their cricket heroes. Access to those players is limited, if at all, and those who love the sport must settle for just breathing the same air as the players, even if that air is through fences and superheated in the baking oven of the concrete stadium bowl.
In South Africa, I was pleasantly shocked to see a whole area of grass designated for families to have a picnic on. Colourful umbrellas and camp chairs sprung up like flowers, and beer was served in solid plastic mugs. Even more shocking, at the lunch break, spectators are not only allowed but actually encouraged to come onto the field itself. I watched the families during the lunch break, trying to guess their stories. On this trip, I have asked dozens of people how they first became interested in cricket and you’d be surprised how many times the answer is their mother. What I saw on the field was no different. Mothers had brought their children out for a day of cricket, and now taught them right there on the same field where the “real” players played. One toddler was swinging the bat wildly, holding it up high by his head the way baseball players do. He must have been only three or four, and still had that uncoordinated chubby-arm way about him. She paused mid-toss to hold her arms low and take up the tell-tale cricket stance, showing her little one the proper way to play cricket.
Further out on the cricket pitch, two new young bowlers, Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada, practised. Only a thin rope separated the pitch from a crowd of fans, who were allowed to watch these rising stars play up close. It is easy to imagine the joy this will bring those fans in the future: they will look back and remember when they saw those players when they first started, just a reach away as they learned to play for their country.
Despite South Africa’s dark history of apartheid and segregation, the field was dotted with people of all races, playing side by side. The genders were as equally represented. A girl ran forward with the ball, braid flying, to run out her brother. It was like watching a promotional video for peace and happiness playing out in real time. Cricket and equality for all.
After about 20 minutes, people started leaving the field. There must have been some announcement, but from the enclosed press box, it looked like they had all just simultaneously decided they were ready, and melted off the field. Without complaint, without fuss, everyone made their way back to their seats.
How much more interesting is the rest of the day, the rest of any match played on that stadium ground, to those who had stepped inside it? How proud must those children feel, of their city, their country, Their Team?
If you want to light a spark in fans, if you want them to be invested, you have to give them access. Everyone agrees that Test cricket will die if people stop watching, yet many stadiums continue to treat their guests like prisoners deserving of fences, like criminals who cannot be trusted with a plastic water bottle.
I can’t help but think of a mother in India who might like to watch a match with her young son or daughter, and pass on her passion for the sport. What is her experience like compared to the mother I saw in South Africa, who bends to hold an imaginary bat, feet firmly planted, and tosses a ball to her curly-haired young one, on the same grass as Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers, and future cricketing heroes.
Both those children will have different experiences growing up with the sport. But who will have a story to tell when he is grown, of how he came to love the game of Test cricket? Which one will keep watching?