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Cricket news - St George's Park to Faf du Plessis: Welcome to the home of cricket
When Du Plessis talked up Newlands as the "home of cricket" earlier in the series, eyebrows were raised.
Welcome, Faf du Plessis and Others, to the home of cricket. In South Africa, at least. It was at St George's Park in Port Elizabeth on two crazy days in March 1889 that a team who, despite their unbearable whiteness of being, had the gall to call themselves South Africa. They lost to a rag-tag side who, they later learnt to their bemusement, were billed as England in what has become acknowledged as the first Test played on the sharp tip of what was, for too long, shamefully caricatured as "the dark continent".
So when Du Plessis talked up Newlands as "the home of cricket" before the second Test the other week, eyebrows yanked upward; particularly on the faces of those blessed with the flat vowels and rough attitude that come with hailing from the Eastern Cape. You could hear them thinking: "What? Newlands is 'the home of cricket'? Is the poor bastard lost?"
When Du Plessis' team were beaten in the shadow of the most referenced mountain in cricket, no-one had the gumption to ask whether he wanted the game to move house. Just as no-one thought to ask Joe Root, fresh from leading England to their first victory in a Newlands Test in 63 years, if he would prefer that cricket relocates to Cape Town. From Dubai: it hasn't lived at Lord's since 2005.
Doubtless Du Plessis and Root will have done their homework on St George's Park before the third Test on Thursday. This is the country's slowest pitch, but that doesn't mean captains should load their XIs with spinners. You have to go a dozen entries down the list of the best performances in an innings in Port Elizabeth to find the first slow bowler, and nine quicks have taken more wickets in their careers here than the most successful spinner. On both counts that spinner is Hugh Tayfield, who racked up 154 wickets all told in the 1950s. Only four bowlers of whatever style had more victims overall in that decade. The next best South African was fast bowler Neil Adcock with 69: less than half Tayfield's tally. Just five bowlers have snared 20 or more wickets in the 30 Tests played in Port Elizabeth - Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini. The same group plus Morne Morkel, Jacques Kallis and Vernon Philander have taken at least 20 on the faster, bouncier, seamier surface at Centurion, which has hosted five fewer Tests. From a South African perspective, St George's Park is a spinner's surface. In more objective terms, it's a recognisably South African pitch. Except that it's slower than the rest.
Of the grounds being used in this series, South Africa have their worst win/loss ratio here. It's also where England have fared the best in this country on that score. South Africa haven't won any of their four Port Elizabeth Tests against England since 1957. There's that year again.
Old hands at St George's Park will tell captains to look up as much as down before they make their decision at the toss. Whatever the pitch looks like - even if it's green it's unlikely to be fast, or offer significant seam movement - they should note the wind. If it's blowing from over the north-west corner of the ground it's bringing dry air from inland: bat. If it's gusting over the scoreboard, or 180 degrees in the other direction, it's carrying moisture from the nearby Indian Ocean: field. Or at least consider that as a serious option.
To the north is the vast red-brick, green-roofed curving expanse of the Duckpond Pavilion. Its construction in the 1990s was fodder for allegations of poor building practices fuelled by dodgy money. Almost 30 years on, the award-winning edifice stands as solid as ever. The short spiral staircases either side of the sightscreen were uncovered until December 1995, when England played a Test at St George's Park for the first time since the end of South Africa's isolation in 1991. Can't have that, England's management said, and demanded that an already excessively wide white space be made wider and whiter still by the addition of opaque shields around the stairs.
The players, the parasites - who are sometimes called administrators - and the press are accommodated at the southern end of the ground. The teams' balconies are uncomfortably close to the reporters watching their every off-field move. So Michael Atherton smashing the leg off a chair in reaction to his dismissal in that 1995 match didn't go unnoticed. Neither did the disturbance caused by Shoaib Akhtar taking a bat to Mohammad Asif's shins in the dressing room in January 2007. Sitting in the pressbox, you would be forgiven for imagining you are close enough to the middle to reach out and tap a slip fielder on the shoulder to offer advice.
Grass banks stretch away to the east. It was here in March 2018 that poltroons wearing Sonny Bill Williams masks gathered in a malevolently misguided attempt to taunt David Warner by disgracing his wife, Candice Warner - who had a brief relationship with the rugby star before she met her husband. Two Cricket South Africa officials posed for photographs with the disguised dolts, and were suspended from their jobs as a consequence.
The ground's heart beats most rhythmically in its north-western quarter. The brassy blare of the St George's Park Band, an amalgamation of musicians drawn from several churches, is central to the grand pageant of Test cricket on the south-eastern edge of Africa. Some can't stand the noise - admittedly it can dominate television audio - and umpires have been known to tell the band to pipe down. But the signature scene of a St George's Park Test is the band riffing on the introductory bars of Ben E King's "Stand By Me" for much of a session; usually after lunch or tea, and usually when South Africa are in the field. If you've watched enough cricket here it's impossible not to remember Jonty Rhodes, at backward point, dancing to that unbreakable tune between deliveries. The band is behind him, the sun hangs low in the sky beyond, the planets are aligned, the universe is in sync, and the moment never ends.
If you're a South African of a particular geography, that's a picture of the truth - memory is nowhere near a rich enough descriptor - that confirms what you know already every time this circus rolls into town: Cricket's coming home.
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