South Africa and Australia during national anthem    Getty Images
South Africa and Australia during national anthem Getty Images

It was billed as one of cricket’s great battles but it hasn’t translated into a rush on the turnstiles. The first Test between South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead features the world’s second and third-ranked teams, both bristling with world-class fast bowlers and stroke-playing batsmen. Yet the crowds have been negligible. The official attendance on the first day on Thursday was 3,957. It improved slightly to 4,865 on Friday but there were not enough people to create a vibrant atmosphere in the 18,000-capacity ground.

Ticket prices are low, starting at 60 rand ($5.03) for students and pensioners and 100 rand ($8.39) for adults. The most expensive seats are 230 rand. At those prices spectators are likely to spend more on food, drink and parking than the admission price. Test crowds, or the lack of them, have been a concern in South Africa, and Durban in particular, ever since South Africa staged its first post-isolation Test in the coastal city in 1992-93. Despite frequently being allocated the prime Boxing Day holiday slot, single day crowds have seldom exceeded 10,000.

The current match is being played at an unusual time of year for Test cricket but Altaaf Kazi, Cricket South Africa’s head of communications, said the turn-out was disappointing.”We have done all the usual promotion,” he said. “It is not as though Durban people don’t support cricket. One-day games attract capacity crowds.”One theory is that people prefer to watch Test cricket on television, with live ball-by-ball coverage on both free-to-air and subscription channels.

There is also a significant counter-attraction on Saturday with the local Sharks team playing a Super Rugby match with an afternoon kick-off at the nearby Kings Park stadium. South Africa’s poor position after two days was a further deterrent to potential spectators. Although there has been extensive promotion on regional radio, newspaper coverage has been patchy and confined to the sports pages.

A Saturday newspaper had a preview of the Sharks game as its main sports article, with a report on the cricket in a lesser position.

Next week’s second Test is being played in Port Elizabeth, another city where attendances usually are poor, before the series moves to Cape Town and Johannesburg, where bigger crowds are likely.