JOHANNESBURG – I was struck last Saturday, while watching Western Province and the Blue Bulls slog it out at Newlands, by the outpouring of love - on social media at least - for the Currie Cup.
That outpouring was accompanied by some strong criticism of SA Rugby for its supposed undermining of the storied competition. It also highlighted how many people, despite the plethora of international sport now available - both when national teams play or simply the offerings on-line and on TV of big events overseas - still cared deeply for domestic sport.
In cricket the country’s Four-Day franchise series, currently without a sponsor, has been shunted to the sidelines. There is a wider issue regarding first class cricket and the supposed lack of interest among spectators for the ‘red-ball' format. Stadium attendance for Tests in this country - the New Year’s Test at Newlands aside, and weekends at SuperSport Park - are pathetic.
AB de Villiers completed one of the greatest Test hundreds by a South African on a Sunday morning at St George’s Park against Australia with barely 4000 people in the ground.
And yet ‘bums on seats’ is not a good gauge for interest these days. It’s probably the mistake SA Rugby made, and it's one Cricket SA is making with its four-day competition.
On the opening day of the season, CSA had the national coach Ottis Gibson do a press conference in Joburg, while the Titans and Dolphins - both teams dotted with Proteas, both established and ones looking to get back in the team - started the summer in Centurion. Why not have Gibson speak at SuperSport Park and shine an extra spotlight on the competition which provides the foundation from which the SA Test team is picked?
This week the Titans, the defending champions, and the Cape Cobras, the current table toppers, are playing at Centurion. Yet the majority of the media were dragged off to the airport for interviews with the two national captains Dane van Niekerk and Faf du Plessis. Again attention was taken away from a key domestic game.
Yet interest remains high - again if social media is to be believed. On twitter the game at SuperSport Park was a trending topic throughout Monday and on Tuesday - quite something in this country where ‘big news’ happens ceaselessly.
Shane Warne said something this week about Australian cricket that relates to how CSA is apparently treating its Four-Day competition.
“I think in any business you need the foundation to be strong and the foundation of Australian cricket has always been grassroots cricket, club cricket and first class cricket, Sheffield Shield cricket. To me I think Cricket Australia are devaluing shield cricket.”
Cricket SA is heading in the same direction with its four-day competition. For all the issues CSA faces; finding a sponsor for the Mzansi Super League, ensuring the tournament is broadcast with high quality, finding sponsors for two other domestic competitions, and a series sponsor for the summer Test matches, etc - treating its four-day competition like a second class citizen is entering into dangerous territory.
Despite the riches on offer in T20 competitions, it’s still the tournament the players most want to win, for, like the Test format, it’s the one that is the truest measure of their ability. The public have shown they’re still interested, Cricket SA should at least match that.