One day at the Wanderers

At first glance, there would appear to be little correlation between prego rolls and domestic one-day cricket. This, as it happens, is not Roy Carrilho’s view. He has two containers at the Wanderers out of which he sells pregos, among other things, and he is as subtly attuned to the game’s commercial pulse as any marketing man and his PowerPoint presentation.

Indeed, for R35 (including a generous splash of his homemade chilli relish) Carrilho will give you chapter and verse on the vagaries of domestic cricket. He might even throw in a Coke for good measure if he likes the sound of your voice and the shine of your shoes. “Five or six years ago we used to have good business,” he said. “Now the only chance to make money is if the Lions play well and have a semifinal or a final. It’s a lottery.”

Carrilho was speaking outside his concession one Friday night earlier this month, in the interval between innings during the Highveld Lions’ first home game in the Momentum One-Day Cup. Their visitors were the Unlimited Titans, who had won the toss and elected to bowl. The Lions had posted 260 in their 50 overs, thanks mainly to 50s from skipper Stephen Cook and Alviro Petersen, with breezy haymaking down the order from Jean Symes and Neil McKenzie.

At the break it was moot whether 260 was enough, the Lions’ breakneck start having been reeled in and corralled by the Titans as the ball softened and scoring slowed.

“I think there’s maybe 1?000 to 1?500 people here tonight,” said Carrilho with a shrug of his shoulders. “I’m going to sell perhaps 200 to 300 pregos. Maybe – if I’m lucky – I break even.”

The prego index aside, I’d come to the Wanderers with the intention of experiencing the cricket as a punter and not as not a journalist. I paid R50 for a ticket in the Unity Stand, the money treating me to a good view directly above the pitch. It was slightly disconcerting upon buying my ticket to find only one ticket booth open, and even more so to find the green plastic seats thick with dust. Still, there was a pre-match atmosphere of sorts.

A gigantic furry lion mascot was prowling around the entrance to the tunnel and there was a retinue of little boys in shorts waiting to form a guard of honour for the players as they stepped on to the field. It was big-sky Highveld weather and there was the spirit-lifting promise of early-season cricket in the air.

With 15 minutes to go before the 3pm start there were seven of us hardy boys on the upper tier of the Unity Stand: three SuperSport cameramen, a security guard and three spectators, one of whom was me.

The stand filled up slowly as the afternoon folded into evening. Fans, coming in from work, spread out across the seats: fathers and sons, groups of kids in vests and back-to-front baseball caps genuflecting before their cellphones; middle-aged men in replica Man City jerseys nursing their way through biltong and beer. One crooked old geezer, his hands and shoulders a flurry of jerseys and plastic and kitbags, retreated to the top of the stand to obsessively score the match as far away from everyone as possible.

Behind him, every corporate box bar one – about 20 all told – was closed, the shutters pulled down in a huff. When night fell and it started getting chilly, even that one was closed and the lights turned off.

Despite the little ones and their guard of honour, the man in the lion suit and the cool soundtrack (Pink, Uncle Kracker, the Rolling Stones), it was impossible to shake the feeling that this product no longer believes in itself. The players believe in it, if only because they have to, and television believes in it – well, sort of. Still, a product without self-belief is similar to what the poet Robert Frost said of free verse in relation to poetry – it’s like playing tennis without a net.

I saw one small trestle table full of merchandise, the Momentum family area was either half empty or half full, depending on your state of mind, and everywhere were the signs of people looking quizzically for a magic long since gone.

The Wanderers is not alone. In their very next game, the Titans were adjudged to have prepared a substandard pitch in their match against the Knights at Willowmoore Park in Benoni, leading to the precious four points being awarded to their opponents. Even anecdotal evidence supports the view that the system is creaking: attendances are down, the grass stands scattered with only the most hardened of supporters.

A Knights home game in Kimberley early in the season is reputed to have attracted fewer than 100 paying customers. People aren’t so much voting with their feet as staying in the comfort of their lounges.

This is not going to be addressed by more gimmickry, short of topless dancers or high-wire artists walking across a steel cable suspended across the field, but in part by less sport on television. SuperSport’s insatiable appetite for rights of every kind, for more and more sport, has resulted in the steady erosion of live sport as a spectacle in this country. Their cosying up to the minister of sport and their apparently arbitrary shots of whomever is occupying the position of head of the ANC’s portfolio committee on sport are so cynical as to be verging on the comic.

Those of jolly disposition would argue that everything evens itself out in long cycles of growth and decline. Cricket became so becalmed in the early 1960s that a scoring rate of in excess of two runs to the over led to the popping of champagne corks. Cricket, as Carrilho knows, often takes its cue from the economy, and when the economy is striding out purposefully, punters will flock back. We hope for this, but it is difficult to see.

The bottom line is that punters are so spoiled for choice that they don’t know where to spend their money.

I spent R28 on an ice cream, R50 on entrance and R50 on dinner – all this for well over six hours of entertainment and the opportunity to chuckle at the lovable McKenzie’s neurotic tapping down on the bowler’s side of the pitch. (There is no one like the superstitious McKenzie for making a mountain out of a molehill.)

That kind of big spending works out at about R20 an hour and, although I wasn’t watching opera or Bruce Springsteen, I was watching the power hitting of South African cricket’s hottest new property, Theunis de Bruyn.

He didn’t do enough to win the Titans the game, but there was enough audacity from him to suggest that his future looks as bright as the Titans’ away kit.

The cricketing public could virtually see him for free at the moment. Then again, they will probably take their cue from television, having lost the confidence to admit into their hearts anything that doesn’t first have SuperSport’s approval.

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