The bizhub Highveld Lions are in full roar, with just one bonus point left on the table in their near perfect start to the season. They are comfortable log leaders and even at this early stage of the season look safe bets to host the final next month. And it is not such an early stage any more. Given the compressed nature of the competition, which started just a fortnight ago, the Lions will be completing their first round when they host the Chevrolet Knights.
It has been a different story for the men from the central franchise. After a comfortable win in their opening match, they have slumped to two heavy defeats in their following matches. The margins of defeat might be concerning, but coach Sarel Cilliers was philosophical on the subject. “We need to focus on what we believe in and stick to the basics. It’s a simple recipe really. All defeats hurt, the close ones the most as they leave more questions because one mistake could have made the difference. The big defeats show us exactly where the problems are.” He is hoping to see his team rebound from the latest setbacks in the same way the Lions shrugged off the hiding they received in the final of the Champions League T20.
The Knights will be led into battle by the third captain in four matches. Morne van Wyk’s shoulder injury is still not responding to treatment, and Dean Elgar has left to join the Proteas in Australia. All-rounder Ryan McLaren will be in charge. His form with the ball has been excellent, with nine wickets in three matches, while he has also shown signs of good form with the bat. His average is at a respectable 54 with a strike rate of close to 90. Van Wyk’s normal opening partner in the one day format, Reeza Hendricks, will also be absent. Hendricks has been getting the Knights off to some brisk starts, maintaining a strike rate of better than a run a ball, but an injury in the field on Wednesday afternoon sees him side-lined as well. The Knights have called up fast bowler Duanne Olivier and Aubrey Swanepoel. Swanepoel will probably bat up the order, and is a useful off-spinner. Rilee Rossouw is also showing some good form. Nicky Boje and Dillon du Preez have been among the wickets, although a bit on the expensive side, while the other veteran in the bowling attack, Johan van der Wath, had a night to forget against the Dolphins.
They come up against a Lions outfit that is in superb touch, as their results attest. Stephen Cook is in the form of his life, piling up 283 runs already including two of his three career centuries at this level. He has not only scored big, but scored quickly with a strike rate of 95.9. He is 116 ahead of the next challenger (Andrew Puttick), and is miles ahead on the averages table as well. He has been well supported by Gulam Bodi, Quinton de Kock and Neil McKenzie. The only moderate concern would be the current form of the middle order should the top four fail. The bowling has been in similar devastating shape. Hardus Viljoen has swept all before him, already claiming fourteen wickets at an average of just seven, and has been miserly as well with an economy rate of 3.3. Left arm spinner Aaron Phangiso was a revelation in the Champions League, and has continued that form with seven wickets despite not even getting a bowl in the rout of the Titans, and his economy rate of 3.1 is the best in the tournament.
Cook feels that being named captain in the absence of Alviro Petersen has sharpened his batting. “In a strange way, my batting has improved even though I am focusing more on the team. I have not had played much of a role in the T20 squad, but I knew I had the ability to make an impact and kept training during the Champions League.” The success of Hardus Viljoen, especially on the more pacey Highveld wickets, was not a surprise. “We knew what impact he could make, especially playing with two new balls. He is tall and can exploit any movement in the pitch.” Quinton de Kock is settling in well at the top of the order, and has easily taken up the role of a wicket-keeper/batsman in the style of an Adam Gilchrist, and gives the Lions more options at the top of the order. The Lions are a settled unit, and are relishing the habit of winning. Cook is not anticipating any changes to the team for tomorrow.
History does give the Knights more hope than the formbook. In 17 previous encounters, the Knights have won twelve and the Lions just four, with one washed out. At Potchefstroom the Lions have enjoyed more success, winning eight out of sixteen (one no result) against all opponents as compared to an overall record of 30 wins to 50 losses. The Knights’ last visit to Senwes Park was in 2010. Although Rossouw hit 102 in an imposing total of 259 in what was then a 40 over competition, the Lions snuck home by three wickets.
Cook has not seen the pitch yet, but by all accounts another good batting wicket is to be expected, and the outfield is sure to be as lightning fast as always. Play starts at 15h00. Weather conditions are expected to be hot with only a slight chance of rain towards evening.