On the Highveld, the cricket is rarely dull © Getty Images
Let’s get this out of the way: Johannesburg is not Durban or Cape Town. There is no seaside holiday feel, no mountain as a muse, no accidental tourists. Jo’burg is hard work in every way. It’s where the country’s money is made, where the hussle is, and if you believe the locals, where the energy is electric. It’s the City of Gold.
So it’s no surprise that even though the Boxing Day Test, which has swung between Durban and Port Elizabeth in recent years, holds tradition and the New Year’s Test in Cape Town is regarded as the marquee event on the cricketing calendar by even ex-Jo’burger Graeme Smith, Chris Morris still thinks, “everyone wants to play at the Wanderers.”
For bowlers, there’s pace and bounce. For batmen, there are runs. For fielders, there is the gorgeous green carpet which has found its colour even in the country’s worst drought in more than two decades. For the home side, there’s the knowledge that if the Wanderers is full, it can feel like the Colosseum. For the opposition, there is that knowledge too. “It’s the Bullring, it’s exciting and when the crowd are around there’s a special buzz,” Morris said.
Before the coastal types tell you that there’s as much chance of the Wanderers selling out as there is of snow in the summer, hear this. The organisers are aiming to pull in a bigger crowd than the 85,000 people who packed into Newlands for the second Test and their aim is not that far-fetched. At capacity, the Wanderers holds 33,000 people and with full houses expected for the weekend, that only leaves 20,000 over the remaining three days, which is not an impossible ask. Of course, the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms on every day of the match may turn some people away but Jo’burgers tend to be tough and they will see the value in getting to the ground.
For one, the chances of a good spectacle are all but guaranteed. Only one in the last 13 Tests have been drawn at this venue and that one was a thriller. New head groundsman Bethuel Buthelezi has promised a pitch that will go five days and a one that will produce a result.
For another, South Africa have shown their hand early and will be going all-pace. The sole spinner in the squad, Dane Piedt, was released from the squad late on Wednesday afternoon to play in the first-class competition which means local boy Hardus Viljoen is competing with Kyle Abbott for a place in the side and Viljoen should win. All signs point to fast and furious and that’s the kind of thing Jo’burgers like. At the same time, Morris warned that patience is the key because bowlers can get “a little carried away.”
If that is not enough, South Africa’s stand-in Test captain, AB de Villiers, has indicated the team will take the field with new energy after their fightback in Cape Town and the change of leadership. “I honestly believe there was a bit of a momentum shift in the last Test match,” de Villiers said. “I’ve played enough series to know that that doesn’t just happen: it’s a big thing in a big series like this. It’s up to us to make sure we maintain it now. There’s a nice energy in the team, a little bit of a fresh vibe maybe.”
For a must-win match, that is exactly what South Africa need. De Villiers himself is a Highveld boy, not from Johannesburg but from about 60 kilometres away in Pretoria. It is the country’s capital but it is not quite as intense as Johannesburg in lifestyle terms; much more intense in sporting terms. The Blue Bulls rugby team and to a lesser extent the Titans cricket team have regularly received louder support than their Lions counterparts down the road, although that has started to change. De Villiers would have been around at the time when sport was what defined Pretorians and there is no doubt it contributed to his outlook.
“I am a very competitive person and I truly hate losing,” he said. “I’ll try and lead by example, score the runs and throw my body around in the field and do the hard yards, and I believe the team will follow. Losing is not an option. We are here to win the series.”
And to do that, de Villiers wants to remind England they are not in Durban or in Cape Town, but on the Highveld, where the home boys are determined to mark their territory. “I’ve never been the kind to throw a lot of words around or to sledge. I like to have a good body language. So we’ll make them feel uncomfortable and remind them they are away from home and to not enjoy the pound and the rand too much.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo