How Cricket Came to “The Bull Ring” in Johannesburg

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Derrinalphil, of the excellent, tells some personal tales of how cricket became big in Johannesburg’s intimidating “Bull Ring” prior to the South Africa v Australia 2nd Test starting this Thursday.

The cricket ground in Johannesburg is called “The Bull Ring” due to the rather intimidating atmosphere it develops when the cricket is on. This ground is the third ground in the city that has hosted Test Matches and there is some history of the ground, area and the country that has a cricket flavour and so will be of interest to us.

Johannesburg, or Joberg, as I will call it is built on gold. Gold was discovered in the area in 1886 so initiating a “gold rush.” Most listening will have no idea of what a gold rush looked like and what it meant to a country. In Australia’s case, without the discovery of gold, there would have been no way Australia would have attracted enough English migrants in the middle eighteen hundreds to have been able to compete with the English at cricket by 1877, the date of the first test.

I grew up near the town of Heathcote. It was a gold town and the family farm was covered in mine shafts left over from the gold rush. We filled most of them in with our household rubbish, back when I was a lad. The original Hills came from Germany, in the1850’s, a Catholic and a Jew who had to elope, as they were forbidden to marry. They came to Victoria. Victoria was the richest place on earth due to the gold rush. Geoffrey Blainey, Australia’s greatest historian, has written about rich Melbournians during this period preferring ice from certain Bostonian ponds in their drinks. That’s right; they would cut ice from ponds in Boston, put it in a sailing ship and sell it at a profit once it had arrived in Melbourne. This burst of wealth creation and rapid population increase set Australia up to beat the Poms at cricket.

The Californian and Eastern Australian gold rushes had petered out by 1886 so the discoveries of gold at Joberg, and at Coolgardie in Western Australia and in Alaska, was important to the world economy. The world economy at this time operated on what was called the gold standard, where each country’s currency was convertible into gold at a fixed rate. This system allowed some certainty in international trade and so leading to a great increase in wealth creation but there were some negative effects. It meant that each country’s money supply and monetary policy was dependant on the supply of gold. Until these later gold discoveries, the world economy had entered a depression that we in Australia remember well.

The Poms invaded the Joberg area in the Boer War; too much wealth to leave up to the ZAR Republic. So gold was instrumental in bringing the British, and the game of cricket, to Joberg. Three cheers for gold, greed and British Imperialism…

The city has about four million inhabitants and a real crime problem, despite being one of the richer parts of South Africa. I have met several cricket fans who have been mugged in South Africa when visiting Joberg for the cricket.

There are two dark spots in South African cricket. The first is the fire in 2003 at the ground that destroyed the museum. Many priceless items from South Africa’s past were lost. The more important one was the Apartheid regime. Cricket was segregated like all other parts of South African society. The non- whites played in their own leagues and were not allowed to sit with whites at cricket matches. Certain areas would be set aside for the non- whites at The Wanderers. You can imagine the poor facilities that they had to put with. These people used to barrack for the visiting side against the South African side. The South African side just wasn’t their side. The outside world boycotted all South Africa sporting sides for many years but here in Australia there were many who did not support the boycotts. The cry was “keep politics out of sport.” Bloody good idea I reckon. The apologists for the Apartheid regime could not see, or chose to ignore, that the South African sides were picked on racial, and therefore political, grounds. This is all now in the past and to reflect this I shall highlight the first test match played by a unified South Africa at “The Wanders” since their readmission to cricket.

The first test match that South Africa played on their readmission to world cricket was at Durban in 1992. This city has a huge Indian population but the crowd for this match was disappointingly small. Not so for the Wanderers match, played soon after the Durban one. Large crowds attended on each day. The referral system for a run out was first used in this match and Steve Bucknor put his foot in it when he failed to refer a decision against Jonty Rhodes. Tendulkar made a tough hundred, Kumble picked up eight wickets for the game and the South African quicks dominated the match.

In the end the Indians held on to obtain a honourable draw. As the president of the Appreciation of the Drawn Test Match Society I can only say what a fitting result. You see cricket, and South African society generally, were the winners. Have a look at the crowd this time and you will see South Africans of all ages, shapes and colours all barracking for South Africa. Let’s hope for another honourable draw.


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