For what should have been the first 33 minutes of the Test series between South Africa and Bangladesh on Thursday (March 31), nothing happened. Not on the field, anyway. And not that many people were at Kingsmead to notice the dearth of cricket.
Dean Elgar, Mominul Islam and Andy Pycroft had appeared for the toss. Then all concerned lined up for the warbling of the anthems. A gaggle of children in the north stand sang in pantomime fashion, shrieking through the shriller parts. At least some among the growing generation of cricket’s fans haven’t confused patriotism with sport.
Or maybe they were too excited to sing straight by the fact that they were among the first spectators to be able to watch real live Test cricket in South Africa in more than two years. The first ball to be bowled on an odd looking pitch – a lane of brown on either side, a lane of dark green between them, well-grassed all over – was imminent. Until, with increasing uncertainty, it wasn’t.
Had there been anything like a crowd in the ground, or had the ground not been Kingsmead, the deflation might have hit harder. Instead, the smattering of fans didn’t seem to notice that Bob Marley wasn’t halted in his sonic tracks by the hallowed silence that descends onto the opening exchanges of a Test. On the eastern edge of the ground, the obligatory travelling Bangladesh fan, replete in his tiger-striped pyjamas, held the national flag proudly aloft as he raced another busy bunch of bused-in children – all in white shirts and black shorts – along sun-swept grass banks. Who needs cricket when you’re having that kind of fun?
Ah, yes, the cricket. Where was it? Hiding behind a malfunctioning sightscreen at the southern end – where a sponsor’s logo glowered down on the scene despite all efforts to wipe the slate clean. Taskin Ahmed stood at the top of his run at the northern end and Elgar crouched at the other, but play could not begin until the stain was removed from the vast whiteness opposite. After a spell of head-scratching, the players and umpires retreated to the boundary and, another few minutes later, to the dressing rooms.
In the relative stillness, the famous, or perhaps apocryphal, story of Groucho Marx, the American comedian, being taken to Lord’s was trundled out. After a few overs, Grouch allegedly turned to the person at his shoulder and said, “Say, when do they start?” It would have been a valid question this time. Then again, not in Durban, a city fuelled by sunshine, sugarcane farming and surfing. None of that happens in haste, so perhaps Durbanites don’t notice the creeping decline all around.
A large example looms just beyond Kingsmead’s southern boundary. The five-star Hilton Hotel, 14 storeys of grey and blue glass arranged in nautical lines, or like a sagging wedding cake, opened to much fanfare in 1997. In January last year it was shuttered indefinitely.
On Wednesday night at Spiga, a famous local restaurant less than 3km north of the ground, a definitely but not obviously familiar figure in a straw hat darted between the tables. The seated patron who reckoned he had spotted him blurted out, “Mr Shaik!” And so he was. Schabir Shaik whirled to face his addressor with a sharp smile, as if he was being greeted by an old friend. “We don’t know each other, but you are a famous man,” he was told. He shook hands with grace and retreated to a table in the shadows where a greying, heavy-set, moustachioed man sat waiting. Soon, another arrived and leaned in to talk, while remaining standing, between bouts of conversation on his phone. Then he was gone into the night.
In June 2005, a High Court judge found Shaik guilty of corruption and fraud and sentenced him to an effective prison term of 15 years. That wasn’t what made him famous. What did was the identity of the person the judge found “overwhelming” evidence of having indulged in corruption with Shaik: Jacob Zuma, then South Africa’s deputy president. Zuma was duly sacked and Shaik’s appeals, which went all the way to the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest, failed. But in March 2009, having served only 28 months of his sentence, Shaik was parolled on medical grounds. Two months later Zuma started what became almost nine years as South Africa’s president, a time when corruption ran rampant.
In July last year Zuma was jailed for 15 months for contempt of court after he refused to testify at a judicial commission investigating wrongdoing during his term as president. Like Shaik, he has since been granted medical parole but is tangled in continuing legal problems.
Unlike Shaik, he does not cavort in popular restaurants. Indeed, Shaik is enough of a regular at Spiga, which is a short walk from his luxury home in one of Durban’s most affluent areas, to have a dish named after him. The menu offers “linguine alla Shaik”, which comes with a sauce of “olive oil, garlic, chilli, plum tomato and sweet basil”.
No-one else seemed to care about or even notice Shaik’s presence. Just like no-one seems to care about or notice the Hilton’s haunting presence on the skyline. Nor care about or notice the slow slide of large parts of the city into disrepair. Nor, indeed, did anyone care about or notice the Test series’ failure to launch at Kingsmead on Thursday. Welcome to Durban.