CAPE TOWN – The three-match series between England and West Indies played in the unique bio-bubble environment due to Covid-19 has been a considerable success.
It has shown what can be achieved despite the safety regulations required to maintain social distancing. All three Tests were, of course, played without spectators in attendance at the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford. Last Sunday, though, cricket took a further lunge into the new normal.
The Kia Oval has regularly been the grand stage for England’s most recent Ashes triumphs with capacity crowds generating some epic celebrations. It was also brimful when it hosted the World Cup opener which set hosts England on their path to eventual championship glory last year.
But none could have been happier than the 1 000 people that were allowed to enter the ground over the weekend. Broad smiles were prevalent all around as those who managed to get tickets for the otherwise insignificant two-day friendly between Surrey and Middlesex will always be remembered as the first spectators to attend a live cricket match post the Covid-19-enforced hiatus.
Back home in South Africa with the virus approaching its peak and the country remaining under strict lockdown such fan experiences remain unfortunately but a fantasy.
This is particularly depressing for Zubeida Brey. The recently turned 70-year-old is a long-time patron at Newlands Cricket Ground where she’s occupied seat No 14 in Block K of the President’s Pavilion for the past three decades.
An ardent supporter of all things Western Province, Cape Cobras and Proteas, Brey cannot help but wonder if she will ever hear the crack of leather on willow with the sun beating down on her skin again due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The year 2020 was meant to be extra special for Brey. Not only were world champions England the valued visitors for the New Year Test – “they always bring plenty of jovial supporters with them” – but she was planning to celebrate a significant personal milestone.
The initial intentions were for a mega birthday bash that included family and friends, many of whom were acquaintances from watching cricket at Newlands – Brey is a founder member of WPLSOC (Western Province Ladies Supporters of Cricket) – and from across the table while competing in her other favourite pastime scrabble.
“I don’t like to gloat but I played the ‘GOAT’ Nigel Richards once,” she says.
With major public gatherings still banned under the guidelines of the national lockdown though, the festivities were reduced to only a few of her closest and dearest singing “Happy Birthday” in the driveway while keeping the appropriate social distance. The rest had to be content with attending a virtual Zoom party.
This new normal is not lost on Brey. She is cognisant of the ramifications to how live cricket is going to be consumed, particularly due to her age being ranked in the “high-risk” Covid-19 category.
“I don’t know what is going to happen. This is a terrible thing. But I really do hope they find a cure quickly because I want to be back to Newlands in the summer. I haven’t missed a New Year’s Test in almost 30 years,” says Brey.
“I know England and the West Indies played in a ‘bio-bubble’ without any spectators in the ground. That’s just not cricket. Hopefully progress will be made and we will be back soon. I will certainly be writing to the authorities to state my case. We’ll sanitise, wear masks and even social distance by sitting far from each other in the stands as long as we can go to the cricket.”
Never one to simply accept the social order, Brey is a former United Democratic Front anti-apartheid activist who refrained from attending matches in Campground Road until after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.
Once Brey’s political chains were unshackled it flung open the door for her passion to be fully embraced.
Cricket and the Breys had always been interlinked. SA Cricket Board of Control (Sacboc) heroes Basil D’Oliveira and Sulieman ‘Dik’ Abed – prior to their defection to England – had frequented the family home with Brey often evesdropping on conversations between the legends and her father.
She also vividly remembers the golden voice of renowned commentator Charles Fortune explaining the nuances of the different positions on radio, while the love affair was further fuelled by watching her brothers Mushtaq and Omar turn out for Victoria Cricket Club along with Vincent Barnes under the auspices of the Western Province Cricket Board.
Only now Brey would have a front-row seat to the finest players in the world at arguably the most beautiful ground in the world. Initially the view was square-on from the ‘harde-bankies’ under the Oaks in 1991. An intermission in the North Stand followed before ultimately finding a home behind the bowler’s arm at the Wynberg End.
“I wanted to watch the game properly so I asked my brother Mushtaq to purchase a ticket in the President’s Pavilion. I initially wanted Block L but because the site-screen sometimes takes up sections of it, I moved to the other side closer to the change room where the opposing team sits. I have had my season tickets there ever since.”
Although not one to take selfies with the players, the vantage point is almost near-perfect for a camera shot every time a batsman is dismissed. Brey, who is always dressed in blue, has routinely been snapped on television enthusiastically waving her flag.
She insists, though, that’s not her motivation for attending cricket, particularly as Brey is present at every non-televised game too.
“People send me photos to my phone all the time from their homes saying they just saw me on television. I have hundreds (of photos). But that’s not why I go to cricket. I love the game.
“I have experienced so many great moments historic moments. Looking back I remember the day (Mohammad) Azharuddin and (Sachin) Tendulkar put on over 200 runs in an epic partnership for India. But it was really memorable because Madiba walked down the steps to meet them in front of us.
“More recently it was when Vernon Philander cleaned up the Australians on his Test debut with five wickets. Temba Bavuma’s century against England was also extra special. That was a goosebump moment. I can still feel the stadium reverberating when he raised his bat.”
The grand old ground has had some special characters come through its turnstiles over the years that have added to its unique charm.
Former WP fast bowler Garth le Roux’s great friend “Kojak” was the life of the party under the Willows – the area then designated for non-white patrons – during the isolation years, while Boeta Cassiem’s ice lollies are “part of the furniture” at Newlands according to Brey. There are many that would adoringly say the same about “the lady in blue”.