The St George’s Park ground is unique.
Experts and commentators here consider it a throwback to the early 19th century. There is nothing corporate about it. With old-fashioned stands, a long room that is basically a glass enclosure within the stands, the stadium has red-brick walls in Victorian style with copies of newspapers from the early 1970s, when South Africa had just been banned from international cricket, adorning them.
It is a venue that has historical significance for the country — it hosted South Africa’s first cricket Test (1889), first rugby Test (1891) and their first international baseball game (in the first half of the 20th century).
India though will be focused on the present, and will aim to seal the series after losing the fourth ODI at Wanderers on Saturday. The record though is against them — India have lost all five matches they have played here, losing four to South Africa and one, surprisingly, to Kenya in 2001.
Usually a wicket that doesn’t have many runs, the grass on the St George’s Park pitch points to the pace that can be expected. It is also meant to bind the surface. Of course, it may not stay that way by the time the match starts on Tuesday, but it shows the curator is aiming for a surface with bounce and pace.
The home side needs to win the remaining two matches to draw the series, which India lead 3-1. Aiden Markram’s men would prefer a surface like Johannesburg — bouncy and a bit quick, though without much lateral movement.
In the 25 years of ODIs here, a 300-plus score has been achieved at the venue only five times in 39 matches. In this decade, the milestone has been crossed just once, in 2011 when the hosts made 303 against Australia. Compare that to Wanderers and SuperSport Park (Centurion). Both have seen 300-plus scores 17 times in 46 and 51 matches respectively.
In a way, it is like another port city, Durban, which hasn’t been a batting paradise. However, Durban has become more batting friendly in limited-overs cricket in recent times while St George’s Park stays the same. If it is a typical wicket, batsmen will have a tough time. The Indian middle-order will have to be prepared if the law of averages catch up with Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan.
India have a forgettable link to Port Elizabeth as well. The second Test of 2001 descended into chaos after ICC Match Referee, the late Mike Denness, penalised five Indian fielders for excessive appealing – Virender Sehwag was banned for a game. All hell broke loose after Sachin Tendulkar was charged with ball-tampering (it was later changed by ICC to change condition of the seam without the umpires’ permission.)
The stand-off between the ICC and the BCCI – Denness was kept out of the final Test at Centurion – saw the world body strip the game of its official status.