CENTURION: The Gautrain from Johannesburg to Centurion takes you mostly through the suburbs. Barring the M1 highway that runs parallel to the track, and a picturesque mosque on its right, it is hard to spot any humans.
A 50-minute drive by road now takes only 23 minutes. But, even that doesn’t have many takers at the counter as the weekly pass for this stretch is both the most expensive and least used.
In one of these suburbs in the Centurion township lies the SuperSport Park. The first thing that strikes you at the venue is that it has a bowl-like shape. Those sitting on the grass banks that dominate the ground — except for one end — have a clear view of the action.
If you’re wondering about why exactly this ground was built almost in middle of nowhere, that question has a rather interesting answer. In the first quarter of the 20th century, when a white cricketer was swinging away with a bat in Pretoria, one of his shots smashed a window of a house owned by a man with significant financial clout. That led to to the game being banned in the city.
After some convincing, those who wanted to indulge in the sport were allowed to do so only inside a compound with walls so huge that it needed immense strength to clear them. But with these structures not bigger than a couple of tennis courts put together, cricket moved to Centurion, which lies between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
On the field, when South Africa arrived for practice on Thursday, they didn’t do so without worries. Though Dale Steyn has been ruled out, they have brought in Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier, two men who can clock more than 145kmph.
But the catch for South Africa is that their quota system might give them a bigger headache here, as compared to Cape Town.
By opting to go with four pacers and a spinner in the coastal city, they benched Temba Bavuma. Hence, there was only one black player — Kagiso Rabada — in their playing XI.
As per Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) guidelines, the team needs at least six players of colour. Even if they choose to not pick two black African players in their playing XI, they have to maintain an average for the entire season. The rider here is that if two players are vying for a spot, then preference goes to the coloured or black player.
Selecting teams to balance this quota has always been a tough job for captains, with a famous instance being AB de Villiers’ decision to leave out Kyle Abbott in the 2015 World Cup as Vernon Philander had returned after recovering from an injury.
Failure to meet this quota will result in the South African government freezing funds to CSA, a situation that the latter had experienced a couple of years back. All of this has left South Africa searching for answers. In all probability, Bavuma will walk into the XI. But if they chose to field Ngidi, then it will mean that they can choose a different combination and even alter it, with all-rounder Chris Morris also in fray.
But all of that will also depend on how the surface in Centurion shapes up over the next couple of nights. Unlike Cape Town, which had plenty of grass to aid seam movement, this hardly has any.
On Thursday afternoon, groundsmen covered the wicket after a bit of watering as it kept becoming increasingly hot during the day. A brown texture may also mean runs, but if it is hard — which we may know only on Saturday — the strip could become more difficult for India rather than South Africa.
“We don’t want this to end in three days,” a member of the ground-staff said. “We could have done it more harder for India, but you need to have a good balance between bat and ball. The square is hard and it will reflect in the pitch. Unlike Newlands, there might not be so much movement, but just about enough.”
Naturally, the first thing that Faf du Plessis did upon arrival here was to stride out to the pitch.
Both conditions and history seem to be favouring South Africa. But their selection quota could make things could interesting in Centurion.