Growing up within walking distance of St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth, I spent my youth watching every match that came to town (as well as all practices). Before our re-admission, it was the mighty Eastern Province, led by Kepler Wessels, that had my complete devotion and I can vividly remember our success in the late 80s and early 90s. Post readmission in 1991, there was even more cricket to watch, and so many more autographs to collect, and it was incredibly exciting to watch my first Test match, a commanding nine-wicket win, when India toured in 1992. Those late 80s and 90s were wonderfully fun cricket watching years and I knew St George’s like the back of my hand (I knew Newlands pretty well too having studied in Cape Town!).
Seeing the Proteas has sadly become less frequent, however, since moving abroad in 2008 and my ‘Protea Test diet’ is now largely their away series in the UK. The Proteas tour every five years and I’ve been living in the UK for their past two tours: in 2012, it was an unforgettable few days at the Oval and Lord’s watching us win the series and move to #1 in the world (with Hashim Amla scoring our first ever triple century). 2017 was sadly less memorable – we followed the boys across the country to every Test match and barring a glorious day at Trent Bridge, were outplayed and became the first South African side to lose a series in England since 1998.
In fact, I’ve only been back to my 2nd home of St George’s once since 2008, coinciding a work trip with an Aussie Test in 2014 (what a spell of reverse swing bowling by Dale Steyn to win us the Test!). It was thus incredibly special to watch the Proteas at home again and to be at Newlands, one of the most picturesque venues in the world, for the iconic New Year’s Test against the Poms.
There was a wonderful buzz around a packed Newlands and if it wasn’t for the glorious sunshine, £2 beers and 30p samosas, I might have thought I was back in the UK such was the number of travelling English fans in town.
The Proteas were 1-0 up and Joe Root would have been relieved to win a good toss. He had no hesitation in batting first and the chanting began as big Vern opened the attack. This was Vernon Philander’s final test at his home ground and from his favourite Wynberg End he was asking all sorts of questions with the new ball. It was certainly a stern examination for the young openers Sibley and Crawley and inside half an hour, big Vern had his 1st wicket sending Crawley back to the hut.
Whilst a number of batsman made starts, only Ollie Pope pushed on to a half century and it was a tough day’s cricket with South Africa steadily chipping away at the visitors. Two down at lunch became four down at tea and the day ended with England putting on 113 in the final session to end the day on 262/9. The Proteas would have been the happier team and we left Newlands merrily singing the same Philander tune as when we entered the ground .
Days two and three belonged to England but 141/3 at tea, with Dean Elgar set on 77 and Rossi’s van der Dussen on 46, it could have been so very different. A self-described ‘brain fart’ saw Elgar throw away his wicket and the Proteas collapsed to end the day 8 down for 215. It was a commanding third day for the visitors as they restricted the Proteas to adding only eight, a lead of 46, and then led by an unbeaten 85 from Dom Sibley, they ended the day on 218/4 – a dominant lead of 242.
I was back at Newlands for the fourth day and with the new ball due after one over, was expecting a strong fight back from the boys. Whilst Sibley was set, Stoke had yet to score and I was expecting the Proteas to attack. Inexplicably, however, Faf du Plessis chose not to take the new ball and before we knew what had hit us, Stokes has smashed a breathtaking 72 off only 47 deliveries. He has the rare ability to well and truly take the game away from the opposition. England would eventually declare on 381 and we had a long 140 odd overs to survive.
Thankfully we turned up, surviving the first 90 minutes to tea and then only losing two wickets by the close of play. Gus and I enjoyed our few hours on the grass under the Oaks and whilst batting out a full day would be incredibly tough, we left optimistic as we were very much alive and kicking.
There was all to play for on the fifth and final day and I was glued to the crackling Radio 2000 as Catherine and I made our way back to Port Elizabeth, where I watched the final few hours with my folks. We were hoping for an ‘Adelaide-esque’ miracle and with only five down at tea and de Kock and van der Dussen looking very settled on a docile pitch, hope was quickly turning to expectation.
How quickly cricket can change and when de Kock smashed a Joe Denley long-hop to mid-on, the tide turned. 6 down after a mammoth 120.4 overs became all out just 17 overs later with Stokes stepping up once more. He found pace and bounce to claim the final three wickets and we fell an agonising 50 balls short. With their first win at Newlands since 1956, England had leveled the series and I’ll be following the final two Tests from the office in London. It won’t be quite the same as drinking £2 beers in the sun, sadly!