Why this Pietermaritzburg cricket ground is unique

Sturdy as oak The famous tree at the Oval  


The biggest celebrity in the picturesque City Oval cricket ground at Pietermaritzburg is around even when there’s no match in progress. And, it’s not a person, but a tree.

People from world over visit this ground, one of the popular venues in South Africa, not because it has tonnes of cricketing nostalgia associated with it; Wanderers at Johannesburg and Kingsmead at Durban would be the places to go to for that. But the City Oval has a distinction that even its far more established peers can’t boast of — a factor that makes it stand out among all cricketing venues. It has a big, towering tree that is located inside the boundary ropes.

It’s an oak dating back to 1888, reveals Yashveer Singh, coaching manager of KwaZulu-Natal Inland Cricket Union, as he takes me for a stroll through its lush environs. “The ground was built with a resemblance to St Lawrence Ground, UK, the only two fields that had a tree inside the boundary ropes at the time,” he says.’

Sturdy as oak The board citing the rule in case the ball touches the tree

Sturdy as oak The board citing the rule in case the ball touches the tree  

The cricket fan in me is immediately kindled, and I ask what happens if the ball touches the tree. Singh flashes a kind smile, before signalling to a board. It reads: ‘Maritzburg Oval Local Rule: A ball touching any part of the tree counts as four.’ “This is explained clearly to the teams playing here before the toss, to avoid any controversies,” says Singh. The Oval has seen some memorable international cricketing encounters during the 2003 World Cup; it was the time when Sri Lanka pacer Chaminda Vaas got a 6/25 against Bangladesh. Indian cricket fanatics will well remember the memorable century played by Sachin Tendulkar at this ground against Namibia; fans kept hoping that the ball would touch the tree. The Oval has also witnessed many domestic games, since it’s home to the Hollywoodbets Dolphins and the Hollywoodbets KwaZulu-Natal Inland.

The City Oval has a tradition that will please Nature lovers as well; the authorities invite a high-ranking cricketer to plant a tree near the ground. The trees that dot the area outside the boundary have been planted by international cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar and Chaminda Vaas. “This practice dates back to the 2003 World Cup. It was earlier used to commemorate great performances by past legends like Malcolm Marshall.” This tradition continues till date, with the last international cricketer planting a tree being England’s Alastair Cook for his century against South Africa in 2015.

The trees might be special to cricketing fans, but the oak is the Oval’s big draw. The authorities do not do anything to the tree except water it — it belongs to the Umgungundlovu District, Msunduzi Local Municipality and the KZN Inland Cricket Union who groom and shape it. “It does sometimes grow massive branches,” Singh smiles as I click photos of the ‘celebrity’.

The writer was in South Africa on the invitation of South African Tourism.

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    Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 11:55:44 AM |

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