Watching a Test match in South Africa, and what Pakistan could learn from it
“Yeah, I’m gonna be at Newlands for the Saturday, with the whole family.”
Those were the words of the car rental guy at Cape Town airport. To my Pakistani ears they just sounded odd – someone going to a Test match with the whole family? Was this bizarro world?
Within the next two hours I would meet another bloke – who didn’t even know the result of the first Test match – who was planning to go to either the 1st day or the 3rd day (Saturday). Again, the concept of someone going to the Test match, despite him being anything but the stereotypical fan, slightly disturbed me. Over the next four days, I would meet a bunch of people, often those who wouldn’t even be considered cricket “fans” if they were in Pakistan, all promising to be at Newlands for the Test. One bloke – very much the stereotypical hipster – told me that he had not watched TV since he was 12 years old, but did go to cricket matches since he played cricket in school. Another, whom I met at the Wally Wilson Oval, had been to every Test match at Newlands since re-admission.
This was not a world I was familiar, or even comfortable, with. The vast majority of people did not even realize that South Africa were playing a cricket series – the consequence of being in a truly multi-sport country. Rarely did I meet anyone whose level of cricket understanding would be appreciated in Pakistani circles – yet a whole bunch of them were sure they would go to the Test match. I guess that is what the less enlightened refer to as a culture shock.
I grew up in Lahore in the 90s. There you just did not go to Test matches. Sure you would haggle and use contacts for tickets to ODIs, but the Test match? That was for a bunch of blokes in shalwar qameez, in the middle of vast swathes of empty seats and terraces; nobody with a life went to the Tests. Ignoring the fact that Pakistanis – Punjabis in particular – really aren’t doing anything productive, you would think that watching the game they profess to love would be appealing to them. But as the sea of empty seats at nearly every venue in Pakistan over the last 15 years testified, this just wasn’t happening.
So I went to the Test at Newlands, and was immediately struck by something that basically defines this difference in cultures: the South African spectators were treated with a level of respect that a customer has the right to expect. The toilets were clean, the parking was sufficient, there were seats in the shade if you didn’t want to stay in the sun, there was a constant supply of “refueling” items, and nobody expected to be lathi charged that day. Sure there are a lot of things that really can’t be imported into the Pakistani Test experience: watching a pair of desi guys lie on the grassbank (as they did at SuperSport Park) immediately took all the glamour out of what many Pakistanis consider to be the height of spectator sports. Sure the likelihood of introducing tanning or beer trucks behind every grass bank – or grass banks themselves for that matter – to Pakistani stadia would not be approvable to all. But again the level of respect for the spectator is something that our authorities could learn from.
But it’s not just that – something that all Pakistani would probably be familiar with having watched Tests in South Africa (on their TVs admittedly) – it’s the little things that matter too. Behind every grass bank and the stands is a 10 metre wide pathway with stalls for foods, and with kids playing cricket. At every point in a day’s play, there would at least be half a dozen games of tennis or plastic ball cricket going on behind the stands. At lunch on each day, everyone in the crowd is allowed to come on to the field – only the pitch is barricaded – and they can play cricket, rugby or whatever during those 40 minutes. The connection to the ground or a spectator is far greater than if he had been put behind a barbed fence. Behind one of the stands (in Newlands’ case, it was the Snake Pit), there were a bunch of bouncy castles set up, where you could leave your kid and a volunteer or employee of the sponsor (of the bouncy castles) would give him catching practice. Their 8 year old kids have catching practice on bouncy castles, our 8 year olds play on tarmac; and then we wonder why South Africa’s fielding is so much better than Pakistan’s.
The crowds themselves are a motley crew of cricket fandom. On one end of the spectrum was a father quizzing his five year old daughter about fielding positions in cricket – all of which she had learnt by heart. On the other was a lady who had come to each of the first three days at SuperSport Park, and on the third day asked her boyfriend what that South African player had on his chin; when it was pointed out to her that Hashim Amla has a beard because of religious reasons, she seemed a bit confused as to what religion Amla belonged to. I also met thirty-odd students who had driven from the University of Stellenbosch down to Newlands to watch the match and sing songs of praise for Amla and Steyn. Quite simply, the configuration of the crowd included all ages, genders, colours and understanding of cricket (more than once I had to explain the LBW law to someone as the giant-screen showed a review that had been called). Of course, by the third session, having been drinking since the morning, the pre-1994 South African came out from a lot of stereotypical Afrikaners; but this was just a minor glitch in a wholly satisfying experience – a completely different world to the one that I was familiar with.
Test cricket will return to Pakistan one day, make no mistake about that. I always thought that this era could have been used to revive public interest in the domestic game – much like South Africa did during their isolation (and twenty years on from that the domestic game here is still much popular than it has probably ever been in Pakistan). Some argue that Pakistanis are fans of just the national cricket team, and not of the game itself. This was an assertion that was debunked as far back as 2004/05 when the first national T20 championship was held. Perhaps if the PCB was an organization of greater vision, the last decade could have been used to cultivate both the standard and the interest in the domestic game. But alas.
It’s not as if Pakistan and South Africa are that different anyway. South Africa is a country of contrasting ethnicities fighting against economic and historical inequality where the biggest problems seem to stem from the power of corporations and the corruption of public officials, and where the vast majority of population does not have access to the best possible facilities; it is a country where the regional divide is there but mined in a constructive way. I could go on and on but I will just say this: quite simply, South Africa is just a richer man’s Pakistan.
But enough about stuff that I don’t really understand.
When cricket comes back to Pakistan, all I wish is for some members of the PCB to have a walk around South African stadia on match-days; just to understand how this thing called ‘customer care’ works. We may never have the beer trucks, but surely there must be a way to attract everyone: from families to shoraas; where the ground can be some place for the family to go out, and still be something that the laundas could go to before their night out in Liberty. Pakistanis will still come to the shorter formats, I am sure of that, but the result of that will be that we will continue to produce players of the shorter formats – to be able to play the five-day game, surely you need to appreciate it. And if you appreciation of it begins only when you get to the First Class game, then surely there is something wrong with the system.
Perhaps, as Ayub Khan might’ve said, we just aren’t built to watch Test cricket – being warm blooded people and all that – but there’s no harm in actually trying. I dream of a day when the PCB tries to attract people to the ground on Test days rather than repel them.
In conclusion, yeah, watching a match in South Africa is all that’s it’s cracked up to be – but probably not for the reasons you thought it was.