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Who will play on Boxing Day?

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Haroon_Lorgat_South_Africa_CricketCricket South Africa (CSA) CEO Haroon Lorgat has hinted that despite India having deferred their tour of the Rainbow Nation to January, the traditional Boxing Day Test, beginning on 26th December, will be part of the international calendar this season. Lorgat feels there is no reason why that the fixture, which has alternated between Port Elizabeth and Durban in the last four years, cannot be maintained in the form of a one-off Test match. 

“One way or another, we will be playing a Boxing Day Test this year,” Lorgat said last week.   His statement has given rise to speculation as to who might be South Africa’s opponents for the festive contest. India’s home series against Sri Lanka finishes on 24th December, which means that the Freedom Trophy, slated to be a four-Test affair, can begin no earlier than the first week of January with the New Year’s Test in Cape Town.

 

Australia and New Zealand will be involved in Boxing Day contests of their own; the former against England in the marquee Ashes clash at Melbourne and the latter in an ODI against the West Indies at Christchurch. Bangladesh’s tour of South Africa will be complete by the end of October. This leaves us with Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan as the prospects to feature in South Africa’s Boxing Day Test this year.

 

Pakistan last played Test cricket in South Africa in 2012-13, when they were whitewashed 3-0, and are scheduled to play their next full series there in 2018-19. Unless they shoehorn a last-minute assignment during that period, they remain a viable invitee for CSA to consider, what with the sizeable Pakistani population in Durban. Incidentally, Durban was also the scene of Pakistan’s maiden Test win in South Africa – a 29-run success in 1997-98.

Zimbabwe have not played in whites in their neighbouring country since 2004-05, when they were walloped inside three days in each of the two Test matches. They did host South Africa for a one-off Test at Bulawayo in 2014 though, performing reasonably well in a nine-wicket defeat. While not a big-ticket attraction like Pakistan, Zimbabwe can make for an ideal opposition for the Boxing Day Test, keeping in mind the proximity between the two nations.

If either of Ireland and Afghanistan, both newly promoted to the Test table, are invited for the Boxing Day Test, it might well be their inaugural Test match. Deservedly elevated to the top tier of international cricket two months ago, both Ireland and Afghanistan, in all probability, will be free of their commitments in the Intercontinental Cup, which is nearing its denouement, making them available in the last week of December. 

 

It would indeed be a momentous occasion should CSA decide on having Ireland or Afghanistan as South Africa’s Boxing Day opponents. Test cricket has been in dire need of novelty, and the inclusion of these two teams, who have repeatedly proved their worth over the last decade, provides an excellent opportunity for the game to spread its wings and popularise the charms of the game’s oldest form.

 

Of late, Ireland and Afghanistan have both had exposure of playing in South Africa. While Ireland played one-day internationals against the hosts and Australia last September, Afghanistan’s ‘A’ team took part in a recently-concluded tri-series along with South Africa ‘A’ and India ‘A’. Though they could not find success, the experience holds them in good stead in the likelihood of a dream Boxing Day debut.     

The proposed ICC Test Championship is structured to consist of nine teams, which means that Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan will, by and large, be expected to play among themselves, save for the odd game against a top-nine side. A Boxing Day invitation from CSA to either of these sides can set a positive precedent in this respect. The only way these teams can hope to move up the ladder is by playing stronger opposition on a regular basis.

However, CSA would do well to serve a notice well in advance if they wish to have one of the new members of the Test club for the Boxing Day Test. Playing the Proteas on their own turf could be an intimidating proposition for a greenhorn outfit yet to make their bow in Test cricket, and it would only be wise to give them a substantial period of time to prepare for a challenging initiation into the most revered format of the game.

It is laudable that CSA have overlooked the financial aspect of India’s postponed arrival and are strongly considering having the Boxing Day Test this year, instead of squeezing a limited-overs international or a domestic T20 festival on the public holiday. Here’s hoping that one of Ireland or Afghanistan makes it to Durban for their Test debut. It would be a fitting end to a year that saw the fulfillment of their long-cherished desire to attain full membership and Test status. 

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket blogger and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of Test...

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