The opening night of SA20 hits all the right notes

My first impressions of South African cricket’s quest for renewal were positive.

There were people present. For the first time in three years, Newlands was packed with fans. Not just any fans, either. Fans are overjoyed.

This is not a dog-bite-man story, but it is worth stating loud and proudly right now because there have been over 1000 very difficult days in South African cricket prior to this, the opening night of the SA20. Unhappy times. And people who are dissatisfied.

The difficult times began right here, on this ground, in December 2019, with the announcement of a new CSA leadership amid administrative chaos. In the weeks, months, and years that followed, nearly everything that could go wrong, both on and off the field, did, and public trust in the game shriveled and shrank. Even the most ardent supporters moved to a negative town, and word on the street was that nothing the CSA did would ever interest them again. But 20,000 of them were lured back into Newlands on Tuesday afternoon, two weeks before January’s payday, and the same number is expected to show up at Kingsmead on Wednesday and Gqeberha the next day.

They were impressed by what they saw in Cape Town. People smiled and took selfies as they made their way to their seats in the late afternoon sun. Young children, still on vacation, came in with their parents and were almost certainly allowed to sleep later than usual. The crowd was diverse in age, gender, and race, as it had been just before the pandemic silenced our stadiums – a heartening sight gave the polarised state of the game outside of this tournament. They then began to sing.

The SA20 organizers spent a lot of money on entertainment and brought out two of South Africa’s most famous performers for an otherwise low-key opening ceremony. Sho Majozi, a rapper, and Master KG, best known for the lockdown hit “Jerusalema,” performed on a stage just outside the newly built office development at ground level, while dancers performed in front of the embankment. A swarm of pre-converted MI Cape Town supporters joined them, complete with branded azure blue caps, flags, t-shirts, and all the right moves. The daytime fireworks blended in with the bright blue sky and were lost on almost everyone, but the presence of the who’s who of South African cricket was not.

A fenced-in area on the grass embankment served as a makeshift commentary box. Graeme Smith, now the league’s commissioner but who has held positions ranging from national captain to director of cricket, was surrounded by autograph seekers. Smith has been loved and hated in equal measure over the last three years, for saving South African cricket after the terrible Thabang Moroe era, and for suspicions that he fostered a sort of boys’ club in the national team (which was also implied at the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings), but he still commands an audience.

With a match-winning knock in the tournament opener, he lived up to his reputation as the next big thing in South African innings, after it appeared that local players would be outdone. George Linde, from Cape Town, was tasked with bowling the first ball of the new competition, and he would never have played in front of such a large crowd at home. His first two deliveries were successful, but Jos Buttler threaded this third through extra cover. He gave up eight runs in total before switching ends to bowl the fourth over, in which he gave up nine more runs.

In the meantime, Jofra Archer made his long-awaited return to competitive cricket after an 18-month absence, and he couldn’t have asked for a better start. After swinging the first and zoning in on the toes with the second, he removed Wihan Lubbe with his third ball and finished with a wicket maiden. The oohs and aahs were likely admiring but also nervous. Remember that Archer will be part of the England ODI squad that faces South Africa in World Cup League matches later this month, and if he’s already hitting 145kph, how dangerous will he be?

Buttler found his groove with ramps and lap shots, and then Olly Stone took out both his and Dane Vilas’ middle stumps, giving South Africa plenty to worry about. With a 31-ball 42, including a glorious six over long-on off Sam Curran, David Miller demonstrated what South Africans are capable of, but he became the first of Archer’s two-in-two. Then South Africa’s new names took over.

Brevis and Ryan Rickleton, both talked about as batters who should have been in the test squad in Australia, made the target look small as some of the national rugby team, including scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, watched from the president’s suite. They batted with a freedom that South African players haven’t seen in three years, free of the burdens of controversy and, to some extent, expectation.

A sunset stroll around the grounds revealed that, while people were paying attention to what was going on in the middle, they weren’t paying close attention. After all, this is a tournament about more than just cricket, and many of the people at Newlands were taking advantage of the other activities on offer. They were catching up with their friends, eating too many hot chips, queuing at bars, and occasionally enjoying a big hit. So far, so good as the SA20 officially begins.