Cricket news - Out of Newlands' emptiness comes cricket

After a break of 265 days, South Africa were back on the field

After a break of 265 days, South Africa were back on the field

"Evacuation procedure," Newlands' scoreboard glowered in giant yellow, white and blue electronic letters while South Africa and England warmed up on the outfield for the first T20I on Friday. "Make your way via the nearest emergency exit to behind the President's Stand, the area between the nets and the B gate, or in Campground Road."

On most days the relevant section of Campground Road is an ugliness of rattling, fuming traffic that hurtles unstoppably past the ground. On match days, when at least half the street is closed, public space is reclaimed for the public. And the sun seems to shine a little brighter. The trees look a touch greener. Humanity replaces the hurtling killing machines euphemised called cars.

But not on this match day. Just as there was no need to close the road, so there was no need to inform the crowd of the evacuation procedure. Because there was no crowd. There were only players, coaches, team officials, match officials, ground and administration functionaries, television types, and the press. That may sound like a lot of people, but we added up to just 306. Among us were a handful of security guards in dayglo bibs, punctuating the emptiness in the stands. What was their brief? Stop the players from fleeing the scene? Even in a comparatively small ground - Newlands's capacity is only 25,000 - the desolation was palpable.

More relevant signs were affixed to blocks of seats in stands at the northern and southern ends: "We stand in solidarity against racism and gender based violence. CSA stands for equality." It's not taking a knee - none were taken here on a day they were by West Indies and New Zealand at Eden Park, while Australia and India observed a barefoot circle at the SCG - but it's on the same page. Sort of.

Soon Dave Macleod, the voice of cricket and a lot else that happens in stadiums in South Africa, was booming to no-one: "Welcome ladies and gentlemen!" Music echoed around the ground, including "Pretoria Girls", a song by "Desmond and the Tutus", a rock group from, yup, Pretoria. Here's the chorus: "I love Pretoria girls, I love Pretoria girls, I love Pretoria girls, I love Pretoria girls..."

Close to toss time a half-dozen Egyptian geese waddled up the western side of the pitch table, more or less bisecting the gap between the squads as they were completing their preparations. One side-eyed another, and you wanted it to ask: "We haven't seen so many non-birds for months. Who let them in? They're scaring the worms."

Just after the toss, all four South Africa and England flags around the ground sank to half-mast in observance of the five days of mourning the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has decreed to commemorate victims of Covid-19 and gender-based violence.

The teams lined up for the anthems with the South Africans in earshot of the commentators broadcasting from a grass bank nearby. "There's been a lot of talk about social justice this week," JP Duminy began, and went on at length even as his former teammates stood stoic and silent and facing in the opposite direction. You could have cut the awkwardness with a twitching moustache as the players waited to be rescued by the dirge of "God Save the Queen".

Almost too soon, Sam Curran stood at the top of his run at the Kelvin Grove End. At the Wynberg End, Temba Bavuma was coiled into a crouch, tapping his bat on the pitch like someone counting down to the launch of a rocket. It had been 265 days since South Africa were last on the field. The waiting was over.