Cape Town - Great, overdue move: shifting the problematic Boxing Day Test from the coast to Centurion's SuperSport Park.
More questionable move: effectively still handing the country’s less fashionable venues, some of which have the potential to pull in tidy crowds, merely a few crumbs in the shape of early-season, limited-overs matches against crisis-torn and weak Zimbabwe.
Those were the salient features, to me, of the international programme announced on Monday by Cricket South Africa for the unenviable 2018/19 home summer.
I can tell you that as far back as two years ago, the CSA regime headed at the time by Haroon Lorgat as chief executive were already secretly - and sometimes not even so secretly - dreading the challenges posed by it after the much more lucrative 2017/18 itinerary which featured Test series visits from both financial juggernaut India (including in the other formats) and Australia.
In short, 2018/19 faces huge pressure both from a broad profitability point of view and in terms of coaxing bums to stadium seats; the latter has been a problem even for considerably more attractive series on paper of late.
It will be the first season in four in which the Proteas - entertaining Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in that order and with varying rosters - don’t have a fellow member of the well-established “big four” nations (them, plus India, England and Australia) visiting our shores in at least one format.
Generally speaking, the gap on several fronts between that quartet and the rest of the international pack remains as glaring as ever, even if Pakistan will at least arrive as the ICC Champions Trophy holders, courtesy of their sterling efforts in England last year.
Still, as the supposed headline, height-of-summer visitors, they sport a poor record in bilateral combat in South Africa: no Test series win from five prior attempts here since 1994/95, and just one ODI series success (2013/14) in four cracks.
They currently lie seventh on the ICC Test rankings and sixth in ODIs, all too often containing some delightfully talented “parts” but struggling to perform consistently well as a collective.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, visit after the Lord Mayor’s Show, as it were, in February when a conflicting, new rugby season is about to kick in domestically and with many enthusiasts mindful that it will only have been two seasons previously that the Proteas clean-swept them 3-0 in a Test series (the ODIs 5-0) also on SA turf.
The ‘Lankans suffer these days from not yet being able to meaningfully replace once iconic figures like Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, leaving them low on true superstars.
As for Zimbabwe, who tour here in the spring, they were absolutely annihilated in two days in the supposed, experimental four-day Test at St George’s Park last season and the uncomfortable question must be asked of whether they remotely belong in the same league as South Africa.
This time, they will play six matches, albeit that they are in the more abbreviated formats that will help to mask their shortcomings to a slightly greater extent.
Even so, their cause will hardly be helped by the heavy-handed Zimbabwe Cricket decision recently to fire the entire national coaching panel and other senior personnel, leading to some fears that cricket in the country will head the way of Kenya’s … into sad obscurity.
It is against that depressing backdrop that smaller centres like Paarl, Benoni and East London again have to settle for staging once-off, one-day matches between the Proteas and notably “second-tier” opponents, which is a little disappointing.
I am still firm in my own conviction that Boland Park and Willowmoore Park, as key examples, warrant deeper consideration for Test activity, especially given their potential for luring spectators from the larger but nearby metropolises of Cape Town and Johannesburg respectively.
Frankly, a slightly less blue-chip Test, if you like, against either of Sri Lanka or Pakistan might have been the perfect opportunity to daringly experiment with either or both venues for the five-day format.
Being smaller grounds, they would have the potential for a less soulless atmosphere than witnessed at some of the bigger, but more traditional grounds on days when there are swathes of empty seats - which only help, really, to fuel the arguments of those who believe Test cricket is, or even should be, a dying beast.
Paarl, and the Boland area more broadly, has a far keener cricket-loving community than CSA appear to realise, as well as Boland Park being an elementary enough drive up the N1 for Capetonians.
Instead, the more vulnerable of the pair of 2018/19 home Test series from an attendance perspective - the two matches against Sri Lanka in late-season - are also earmarked for the two most problematic of traditional centres in crowd terms: Kingsmead and St George’s Park.
Ouch! To put it mildly, don’t expect a sudden turnaround in gate receipts or “vibe” at either.
But there are silver linings to next season’s CSA roster policy, including SuperSport Park bagging rights to the Boxing Day Test (the first of three) against the Pakistanis.
After employing either of Durban - more customarily - or Port Elizabeth for that thorny slot over many years, and largely unsuccessfully, CSA have finally come to the realisation that not every Gautenger goes off holidaying to the seaside at that time of the year, and might just be lured instead to Centurion’s appealing grass banks.
The Titans are one of the better-managed franchises and usually have their marketing and promotional departments up to scratch, suggesting that they will take to the novel task of punting the immediately post-Christmas clash with some relish next season.
And at least when it comes to “fishing where the fish are”, CSA continue to acknowledge the near-unfailing drawing power of a ground like Newlands: it gets the traditional New Year Test (back in a more satisfying January 3 start slot, too, after the shenanigans around India’s late-arrival presence in 2017/18), as well as the fifth ODI and first Twenty20 international, in quick succession, of both the Pakistan and Sri Lanka tours.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
2018/19 INCOMING TOURS TO SOUTH AFRICA
Zimbabwe tour itinerary
September 30, 1st ODI, Diamond Oval, Kimberley - 10:00
October 3, 2nd ODI, Mangaung Oval, Bloemfontein - 13:00
October 6, 3rd ODI, Boland Park, Paarl - 13:00
October 9, 1st T20 International, Buffalo Park, East London - 18:00
October 12, 2nd T20 International, Senwes Park, Potchefstroom - 18:00
October 14, 3rd T20 International, Willowmoore Park, Benoni - 14:30
Pakistan tour itinerary
December 19-21, Three-day tour match v SA Invitation XI, Willowmoore Park, Benoni - 10:00
December 26-30, 1st Test match, SuperSport Park, Centurion - 10:00
January 3-7, 2nd Test match, Newlands, Cape Town - 10:30
January 11-15, 3rd Test match, Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg 10:00
January 19, 1st ODI, St. George’s Park, Port Elizabeth - 13:00
January 22, 2nd ODI, Kingsmead, Durban - 13:00
January 25, 3rd ODI, SuperSport Park, Centurion - 13:00
January 27, 4th ODI, Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg - 10:00
January 30, 5th ODI, Newlands, Cape Town - 13:00
February 1, 1st T20 International, Newlands, Cape Town - 18:00
February 3, 2nd T20 International, Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg - 14:30
February 6, 3rd T20 International, SuperSport Park, Centurion - 18:00
Sri Lank tour itinerary
February 13-17, 1st Test match, Kingsmead, Durban - 10:00
February 21-25, 2nd Test match, St. George’s Park, Port Elizabeth - 10:00
February 28, One-Day tour match v SA Invitation XI, Willowmoore Park, Benoni - 10:00
March 3, 1st ODI, Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg - 10:00
March 6, 2nd ODI, SuperSport Park, Centurion - 13:00
March 10, 3rd ODI, Kingsmead, Durban - 10:00
March 13, 4th ODI, St. George’s Park, Port Elizabeth - 13:00
March 16, 5th ODI, Newlands, Cape Town - 13:00
March 19, 1st T20 International, Newlands, Cape Town - 18:00
March 22, 2nd T20 International, SuperSport Park, Centurion - 18:00
March 24, 3rd T20 International, Wanderers Stadium - 14:30