Cape Town – The process was unusually, controversially drawn-out, but sanity has largely prevailed with Friday’s announcement by Cricket South Africa of the home roster for the Proteas in 2019/20.
It is marked by two significant features: the bypassing of Kingsmead for Test purposes – though Durban earns the compensation of a fair limited-overs dose – and Paarl’s Boland Park earning its first ever one-day international clash featuring the Proteas against a fellow “big-four” nation (Australia).
The national team entertain their two oldest foes for differing durations next season, England in all formats at prime time and then the Aussies for some purely white-ball activity towards the end of the summer.
There has been consternation in England – you need only visit the websites or social-media platforms of their larger supporters’ cricket tour operators – over the time it has taken CSA to release the bilateral programme, considering the customary high levels of demand from those shores.
But planning by the “Barmy Army” and other, perhaps slightly less exuberant elements of England’s travelling support – which should amount to several thousand people again – is finally able to gather steam now for the four-Test, three-ODI and three-Twenty20 international combat.
At least one reason for the period of uncertainty over the itinerary was the reported keenness, two or three months ago, of CSA to put two key traditional dates – the New Year Test and the Pink ODI, normally at Newlands and the Wanderers respectively – out to “tender”.
Financially-challenged for varying reasons, including the early-years burden on the coffers the Mzansi Super League will be, the umbrella body was considering installing a bidding process by its franchise/provincial affiliates, alongside their relevant municipalities, for those lucrative fixtures.
But they are also two of increasingly few international occasions during the SA home season that almost always boast rosy crowd numbers at their established venues, and there was criticism that CSA’s initial intentions represented a cynical attempt to milk further some already successful products.
The status quo has, thankfully, prevailed: the Proteas tackle England in the second of four Tests against the English (it is the only scheduled home series in that format for 2019/20, which will irk some purists) over the popular New Year period at Newlands (January 3-7), and the Bullring retaining the charity-driven, carnival-like Pink Day one-dayer against the same foes (February 9).
Just as shrewdly, CSA have repeated last season’s promising experiment of staging the often problematic Boxing Day Test (it will be the opener of the series) at SuperSport Park.
After years of ping-pong over which of coastal centres Durban or Port Elizabeth was better for it – the answer could well be said to be neither? – the fixture was tried at the Centurion ground in 2018/19, when South Africa beat Pakistan by six wickets.
The gate figure was a notable improvement, making it a sensible step to issue a vote of confidence next summer.
There can be few complaints even from KwaZulu-Natalian circles that Kingsmead goes entirely Test-free for the England tour; crowds have too often been pitiful there in recent years for the five-day fare, often regardless of calibre of opponents for the Proteas.
The weather is just as commonly an aggravating issue there at the height of summer, with both bad light and rain always a potential threat.
Durban does, however, get to host both an ODI and T20 international against England.
A major hallmark of the later visit by the white-ball Aussies is that the first of the three ODIs – a day/nighter, into the bargain – is to be played at Boland Park in Paarl.
South Africa have played there six times in the 50-overs landscape previously, but always against slightly less heavyweight foes like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe.
But the ground, with its more intimate feel than the major stadiums around the country, has shown that it can attract a fervent local public, as well as being close enough to Cape Town (some 60km up the N1) to coax plenty of people from there as well.
It also fared better – as host of the Paarl Rocks – than several other grounds countrywide for crowd figures and general atmosphere during the moderately successful maiden MSL last season, and fully deserves this little “promotion”.
The rest of the ODI series against the Aussies is also staged at smaller centres, with Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom the beneficiaries, while East London earns a T20 clash, earlier, with England.
Some short of shakeup was necessary to try to improve turnstile activity around South Africa for Proteas games, and CSA cannot be accused, over how they have shaped next season’s itinerary, of inertia in that respect … even if it was a long time coming.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing