Miracle of the one-day cricket recovery
Good planning has rescued an event on which even cricket's diehard supporters were giving up, writes Neil Manthorp.
It is only now, a year later, that cricket can truly appreciate just how low it had sunk when the game's domestic professionals competed for a nameless trophy in largely empty stadiums in front of dwindling crowds of diehards. The One-Day Cup, it was called. Ho-hum.
Perhaps this year's sponsor has been the beneficiary of a perfect storm. Even the name describes perfectly what has happened to the domestic one-day game this season – it has gained Momentum, in every sense.
December 14's final at the Wanderers may well be one of the most keenly anticipated and well attended since the heady days of the B&H Cup, when international cricket was in its infancy and yet to consume fans' interest to the detriment of all else, 12 months of the year.
Now, however, there is really something to look forward to. Excuse yet another gratuitous – albeit unavoidable – plug for the sponsors, but strategic and compact scheduling for the tournament has created momentum in the build-up to the final that has not only sustained interest, but also created it.
And everywhere you look among the teams there is a story. Even the "journeymen" have become personalities to those with an interest in the game. Neil McKenzie is one of the few names in the Lions squad who needed no introduction this season. "It's been building for a couple of years now," he said this week in reference to the, er, momentum in the Lions squad.
"Quite a few players have been around for several years. They know their games; they know their capabilities. Stephen Cook was told he wasn't a one-day player a couple of years ago; now he's among the leading run scorers. Aaron Phangiso couldn't be sure of a game at the Titans; now he's our banker."
It is called experience and the 37-year-old McKenzie knows its value better than most. But he also brings something equally valuable but quaintly old-fashioned to the event – a sense of loyalty. "I'm a Jo'burg boy and the Wanderers is my home. It's great to see the Lions doing well and, hopefully, we can have a great couple of years at the end of my career."
One final has already taken place at the Wanderers this year, but the Champions League showdown between the Lions and the Sydney Sixers is one that Cook and his men would rather forget, having collapsed under the weight of expectation and been thrashed in embarrassing fashion.
But some wise old heads among the Cobras will not make that easy.
"They got found out in the Champions League final and completely lost it, so I'm sure that will still be in the back of their minds," said Charl Langeveldt, one of the few cricketers in the domestic game able to match McKenzie for experience.
"If we bat first and put a decent total on the board, they may struggle to chase it. They don't have too much experience. They have McKenzie, Gulam Bodi and Zander de Bruyn, but that's about it. Other than the Champions League, they haven't played in many other finals," Langeveldt said, warming to his theme in a manner incomprehensible to the modern-day, cliché-ridden youngster.
"We will be mentally stronger. We've played in a lot of finals and have won trophies. They haven't won a trophy in a few years."
Ouch. But true. The last, in fact, was almost 10 years ago.
Against this backdrop of feisty competitive spirit comes the news that South Africa's professional cricketers have, through their union, the South African Cricketers' Association, lodged a formal dispute with the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration against their administrators, Cricket South Africa (CSA).
It can be interpreted in different ways, but in the commercial world of labour law it is usually the first step in a long and winding process that can conclude in a legal strike.
This is rare but not unprecedented in professional sport. It happens on an almost annual basis in American sport and, try as they might to disguise their motives, it always comes down to money.
But on this occasion it appears that the quality and structure of the game's administration matters more.
The Nicholson commission of inquiry, established to clear up some of the mess and confusion left in the wake of Gerald Majola's departure as chief executive of Cricket South Africa, recommended a streamlining of the board from an unwieldy 23 directors, none of whom are independent, to a board of 10, five of whom should be independent.
The restructuring was approved and the five independent directors appointed. The process was even signed off and approved by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, until they performed a spectacular U-turn and halted the entire process.
D-day has now been rescheduled for February 2 when Cricket South Africa will hold its rescheduled annual general meeting.
It is not only the players who will be watching the results closely. Momentum also has a clause in the sponsorship agreement that insists that Nicholson's recommendations be followed as closely as possible by Cricket South Africa. There is more at stake than most cricket-lovers can possibly imagine.
But, for now, enjoy the final. It should be a belter.