The bizhub Highveld Lions are roaring again. Success in the limited overs game has led to improved results in the First Class competition, and the Lions go into their Sunfoil Series match against the Nashua Titans this weekend in third position. They are just under fifteen points behind the log leaders, the Cape Cobras, but have a game in hand, which might prove to be crucial. As for the Titans, they have experienced their worst season in the competition and are firmly rooted to the bottom of the log with just pride to play for.
The Lions have reached this promising position after ending the Cobras’ unbeaten run last weekend. There was no doubt about the intensity and passion on display at Newlands. Some of the incidents were reminiscent of the good old days of Western Province vs Transvaal confrontations, and might still have disciplinary repercussions for those involved. I asked Stephen Cook, the captain of the Lions, if this intensity reflected a passion to win the tournament, often regarded as the Cinderella of the franchise competitions. “Absolutely”, he replied, “we tried to instil the desire to win into the players before the season, and they have responded. It was always going to be tough against the Cobras, and we are happy where we are on the log. We have been trying to play winning cricket, and have had just one draw this season. Even that was an exciting finish. We are striving to play winning cricket, even at the risk of losing.”
It has been a different story for the Titans, who have always been a team to reckon with. They are the only team without a win this season, and have in fact lost five times out of six. In the process they have tamely surrendered any chance of defending their title. Their performance against the Knights last weekend was all too typical. After a useful first innings total, with contributions all the way down the order, they had the visitors seven down and still 165 behind. A remarkable eighth wicket partnership of 253 turned the game around, and a limp batting display second time around saw the Titans just avoid an innings defeat.
Coach Matthew Maynard still has some hope of ending the campaign on a positive note. “We have set out to play our best in every match, but it has not always worked for us. We had two good days against the Knights. We have not been a million miles from success, and we will play positively for our last four matches.”
Cook says that the selectors will have some difficult choices to make for the final eleven. The loss of Quinton de Kock, the only batsmen to pass 500 Sunfoil runs to date this season, will be compensated for by the return from Test duty of Alviro Petersen. All rounder Chris Morris returns after injury and the bowling department is pretty well stocked with Ethan O’Reilly and Pumelela Matshikwe in good form. The return of all-rounder Cliffe Deacon added a new aspect to the Lions team last weekend, while Zander de Bruyn was the wrecker in chief with his accurate medium pacers. Imran Tahir might have disappointed in Australia, but has already picked up 27 wickets this season at a healthy average of 22. Bar the occasional left-arm spinner Jon-Jon Smuts, he is the only spinner in the top 20 bowlers this season, good news for the Lions if not for the national selectors. The batting has not been as stellar. De Kock has been the star performer while veterans Neil McKenzie and Thami Tsolekile are the only other Lions to average above 40 this season. The likes of Cook, de Bruyn, just short of 7 000 Sunfoil Series runs, and the promising Temba Bavuma need to contribute the big scores of which they are certainly capable.
The reason for the poor performance of the Titans can be seen in the dearth of their players in the averages. Jacques Rudolph does top the batting averages. He has only been available for three of their six matches to date, but has contributed 331 runs at an average of 66. He has passed the fifty mark in six innings, but has yet to record a century this season. He will be hoping to continue with his form for the Titans in matches against the Lions. In eleven innings against their southern neighbours, he has passed fifty seven times and has a healthy average of 84, boosted by a top score of 210. However, there has not been much else to write home about this season with Heino Kuhn’s 38 the next best average. The bowling has also looked pretty thin. Ethy Mbhalati set the pace early in the season, but no other bowler has come anywhere close to matching his 20 wickets at 24.8. Indeed, the Titans have earned only 15 bonus points for bowling in their six matches this season and a major improvement will be needed in this match.
One major positive for the Titans has been the form of new captain Henry Davids. Maynard agreed with the view that Davids has made a new start to his career with his selection to the national T20 squad. “He has been in great form in all formats. The captaincy has given him extra responsibility. There is a long way to go in the season. While he may not have made the squad for the New Zealand ODI series, there is still a T20 and ODI series against Pakistan to come, and Henry will be looking to earn selection there.”
While there are still some injury doubts, the Titans are sticking with the same squad. Rudolph returns from the Test squad and will replace Farhaan Behardien. The Titans are also looking to give Shane Warne lookalike leg spinner Shaun von Berg some more game time in this match.
Cook expects a typical Wanderers wicket with pace and bounce, but hopes the fickle Highveld weather will not hamper preparations. Good weather is predicted for Thursday, but thunderstorms are forecast for the rest of the match. Play starts at 10am on Thursday.