Lions may upset the formbook

The defending champion Titans and their predecessors, the Diamond Eagles, will start as favourites for this season’s SuperSport Series but the Highveld Lions may be the combination to upset the form book.

The Highveld Lions have come off a couple of low key seasons by their standards but there was enough evidence that the players, who were involved in the two training matches at the Proteas’ pre-season camp, have the talent, form and depth to make a strong challenge in all the domestic competitions.

First up for coach Dave Nosworthy and captain Neil McKenzie is the four-day SuperSport Series which makes an early start on Thursday with the fixture between the Diamond Eagles and the Cape Cobras in Bloemfontein.

Both these sides are India-bound in October for the Champions’ League, which explains the early start to the summer. The following week sees the Cape Cobras taking on the Titans at Benoni while the Lions travel to to take on the Diamond Eagles.

One of the biggest advantages the Lions have is that captain McKenzie should be available for the bulk of the season and the same applies to another current Protea, Vaughn van Jaarsveld.

The result is that their top six will include McKenzie, Van Jaarsveld and another Protea, Alviro Petersen, who scored six first-class centuries last season, and two of the best young talents in the country in Jonathan Vandiar and Dane Vilas.

Vandiar, assuredly one of the best teenagers in world cricket at the moment, made an excellent start to his Lions’ career last season before being cruelly struck down by a major Achilles’ tendon injury, while Vilas was named Emerging Domestic Cricketer of the Year at the CSA awards function in June.

To this group can be added Zander de Bruyn who has returned ‘home’ after a spell with the Warriors. He has continued to show excellent form for Somerset in Division One of the England County Championship.

There are other young batting talents around such as Jean Symes and recent SA under-19 cap Themba Bavuma as well as the more established Stephen Cook.

One way or another the Lions will not lack for runs.

“We have got a few issues on the bowling front,” commented Nosworthy.

“Craig Alexander is going to be out of action for about three months after an operation and will not play until December while Andre Nel is recovering from an arm injury. Fortunately it is not his bowling arm,” he added.

The Titans and the Diamond Eagles have been the two powerhouses of the SuperSport Series in recent seasons and they will both be well to the fore again although they both have new coaches in Chris van Noordwyk and Sarel Cilliers.

They have both been involved in their respective franchises for some time and, although they will want to put their own stamp on the way they go about things, they are inheriting squads that should not require a lot of fine tuning.

The Diamond Eagles have the advantage of a settled squad that does not lose players to the national set-up but that could change very quickly as they have any number of the country’s best young talents in the likes of batsmen Dean Elgar and Rilee Rossouw and fast bowler CJ de Villiers.

They have also regained the services of Ryan McLaren on a full-time basis and he is one player who is a definite Proteas’ contender. Another is Johannes van der Wath who becomes available again after cutting his ties with the Indian Cricket League.

The Titans, like the Warriors, are capable of taking on any domestic team in the world when at full strength as, between them, they contribute 13 players to the Proteas in the various formats of the game.

Such is the strength of their squad, in fact, that there have been times when Proteas’ new find Roelof van der Merwe has not been
able to get into their four-day line-up.

The Titans certainly have enough players on the fringes of national selection to make up for the absence of the ‘big guns’.

These include the likes of Heino Kuhn, Farhaan Behardien and recently qualified Imran Tahir. Behardien has slipped under the radar of the national selectors in recent seasons but grabbed his opportunity when he was chosen for the recent SA Emerging Squad tour of Australia.

He played a major role both on and off the field in getting the South African combination to the final and any player who can score a century off 60 balls against the cream of Australia’s emerging talent has to be respected.

The Warriors will feel the loss of De Bruyn, Robbie Peterson and Mario Olivier of their back-up strength—they have recruited Nicky Boje—but they will at least have some internationals available most of the time as the Proteas cannot accommodate all of Makhaya Ntini, Wayne Parnell and Lonwabo Tsotsobe in their attack at the same time.

Johan Botha and Ashwell Prince, specialists in different formats, should also be available for considerable periods of time.

The Cape Cobras and the Dolphins, like the Lions, have not lived up to their traditional powerhouse ratings in the four-day game in recent seasons and will be keen to make an impact this time.

“We have done well in the limited overs competitions but we definitely want to target the SuperSport Series this season,” commented Cobras coach Shukri Conrad.

There is no reason why they shouldn’t. Justin Kemp is a major acquisition along with Peterson and Olivier and there is no shortage of talent. Kemp, Justin Ontong, Andrew Puttick and Henry Davids provide the batting experience and they have two classy youngsters in Stiaan van Zyl and Richard Levi.

To that can be added the all-round quality of Vernon Philander and Rory Kleinveldt plus a bowling attack spearheaded by Charl Langeveldt who seems to get better and better with the passage of each season.

Much will depend on keeping Monde Zondeki and Francois Plaatjies fit while the spin of Peterson and Claude Henderson will provide the ideal balance.

The biggest gain for the Dolphins is not so much the arrival of new talent (they have gained Loots Bosman) as the return of former coach Graham Ford who has recruited Lance Klusener to look after the bowling side of things.

It is this latter department that holds the key for the East Coast men as there is nothing much wrong with a batting line-up that includes last season’s SuperSport Series Cricketer of the Year, Imraan Khan, the Amla brothers, Pierre de Bruyn and HD Ackerman plus three young talents in David Miller, Khaya Zondo and Cameron Delport.

It could well be a very open competition with all sides being hard to beat on home turf. What it should confirm is that South African cricket probably has greater depth than at any stage of the post-unity era.—Sapa

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