The penultimate round of 4-Day Franchise Series matches gets under way on Monday, and all six teams still have something to play for, even if (for some) it’s just pride.
Knights vs Lions
Interim Knights coach Alan Kruger is wary of the dangers his side face when they come up against what he describes as the ‘form team in the country’, the Highveld Lions, when the two sides clash in their Bloemfontein match from Monday.
The Johannesburg-based side are on a roll, having won three of their last four games, including a record innings-and-239-runs triumph over defending champions the Titans this past week. That result, coupled with the Warriors upsetting the log-leading Cape Cobras in Cape Town, has thrown the title race wide open.
The Lions trail the Cobras by little more than a point heading into the round nine fixtures, and Kruger is anticipating a difficult game at the Mangaung Oval.
‘Playing against the Lions is going to be a huge challenge,’ he said. ‘They’re the form team in the competition at the moment, a very dangerous side, and they’ll have that extra spring in their step after the results of this past week.
‘Everyone in their side is firing, so we’re going to have to work hard to try to nullify them.’
The Knights are out of the running for the title, but Kruger, who is in charge after head coach Nicky Boje departed for a new role in the United Kingdom over Christmas, wants his team to continue improving in the last two matches of the campaign.
They drew with the Dolphins in Pietermaritzburg this past week, and the coach added: ‘For us it’s about continuation and trying to finish as high up on the table as possible. We need to do our basics correctly, focus in-house and try and do what we can as best we can.
‘I think key for us will be starting on the front foot. We haven’t managed that in a few games, we’re mainly playing catch-up cricket, so hopefully this time things will be different.’
Lions coach Enoch Nkwe, meanwhile, was thrilled with their showing this week and praised his players for the way they performed. ‘It was just a fantastic performance overall,’ said Nkwe. ‘Initially, we were unsure what to do at the toss, we bowled and the players all responded superbly. The bowlers did so well as a unit, and then the batsmen, from Dom and Nicky to Kagiso Rapulana, changed the momentum of the game.
‘It was really exciting to see and I am very proud of the boys.’
Nkwe is also thrilled that the title race is now going down to the wire, adding: ‘We’re just happy that we managed to get a win out of the past four days.
‘That has got us closer to the Cobras … I think one-and-a-half points is the difference … so that makes it really exciting for South African cricket to have such a closely-fought first-class season.
‘Hopefully, it goes into the last week where both teams have to get a win to make it even more exciting. We just want to take it a day at a time and trust what has got us to this point. We’ll keep believing and try to control whatever we can until the end.’
Cobras vs Titans
Cape Cobras assistant coach Faiek Davids admits that their 4-Day Domestic Series defeat this week has opened the door for their opponents, but is hopeful the log-leaders will bounce back against the Titans.
The Western Cape-franchise were upset by the Warriors when they went down by six wickets in Cape Town, with defeat in that Round Eight encounter seeing their lead slashed from nearly 20 points to just over one-and-a-half points.
A few weeks earlier the lead was 30-plus points, with the Cobras seemingly running away with the title, but now the second-placed Highveld Lions are breathing down their necks, while their rivals from further east also have a chance, should they win their remaining games and the top two slip up.
‘It’s definitely opened the door because we’re now only one point ahead,’ lamented Davids. ‘It’s certainly there for the taking. We play the Titans and then we play the Dolphins in the last game.
‘We’re out in Oudtshoorn as well in this game, so we don’t have any say in terms of what the pitch is going to be like. But hopefully it’s a good cricket pitch and the best team will walk away victorious.’
Davids conceded that their performance with the bat in the first innings was their big let-down this past week at Newlands.
‘It was certainly disappointing – we didn’t bat well in the game,’ said Davids. ‘We were on the back foot from the first innings when we made 239, so obviously well done to the Warriors. They played well and deserved the result.’
Like the Cobras, the Titans were also beaten this week. The reigning champions were blown away by the Lions in their Jukskei derby by an innings and 239 runs – the third-biggest defeat in the history of the four-day competition.
Davids is expecting a big reaction from Mark Boucher’s men.
‘We’re expecting them to bounce back,’ he added. ‘They obviously are a good side and we’re not taking anything for granted. We can’t really. We know what we need to do and hopefully we can go out there and play good cricket. We back ourselves and look forward to it.’
Meanwhile, Titans assistant coach Mandla Mashimbyi was blunt in his assessment of their loss against the Lions. He conceded that the players had plenty to do to win back credibility in the remaining two games.
‘It’s been a bad two weeks and there’s no other way to look at it than we’ve been playing poor cricket,’ he stated. ‘But there are still two games to play and a chance for the players to win back some pride and some credit.
‘We know we’re not going to win the tournament anymore, so the most important thing is to regroup and come back stronger in the next game. They have to play for each other and show that what happened in the past two weeks was just a slip-up. We’re confident the players can turn it around.’
Warriors vs Dolphins
Warriors coach Rivash Gobind is delighted with their 4-Day Domestic Series progress and hopes they can continue the improvement they have shown in recent weeks when they welcome the Dolphins to Buffalo Park in East London from Monday.
The Eastern Cape franchise caused a competition shake-up by stunning the log-leading Cape Cobras at Newlands this past week, throwing the title-race open for the first time in 2018-19.
The Cape Town side has dominated the first-class tournament so far this term, and only two weeks ago looked like they were walking away with the title. But their 30-point plus lead has been slashed to one-and-a-half over the Highveld Lions and just over 25 more than the third-placed Warriors, and Gobind is pleased with how they are playing.
‘We always speak about judging ourselves, based on going on to the field and executing our plans,’ he said. ‘It’s been really good these past two weeks, so everyone is really happy with our progress.’
The hosts still have a chance at winning the title, but Gobind has rubbished such talk by insisting they were not even thinking beyond the Dolphins.
‘It makes the last two rounds exciting, doesn’t it? That’s great for the competition, but we’re just taking it one game at a time,’ added Gobind. ‘It’s an old cliche, but it’s something we’re going to have to try to do. Once we start to worry about other results and other people, then we’re going to take out eyes off the ball and I don’t want our guys to do that.’
Looking ahead to the clash with the bottom-of-the-table Durban side, Gobind highlighted the fact that in franchise cricket there are no easy games.
‘We don’t take anyone lightly, we respect everyone. It’s all about executing your skill over the four days and that’s what we’re going to try to do.’
Meanwhile, Dolphins coach Grant Morgan was mainly happy with their performance this past week when they drew with the Knights in a match heavily affected by the weather in Pietermaritzburg.
‘We played good cricket for most parts, but disappointed towards the end when we got a bit ahead of ourselves. But I think overall the performance was really encouraging,’ said Morgan.
Looking ahead to the clash in East London, Morgan hoped his players would continue applying themselves right through until the end of the season.
‘We must just have a mindset with this young group of not opening a shop with a closing-down sale. We mustn’t decide on conditions and decide on things in the future. If we can stay in the now, stick to our plans, stick to our processes and have that right mindset, we have the capability to go a long way,’ added Morgan.
‘We sometimes do what we have to for two-and-a-half days, and then slip up. We mustn’t do that, we must avoid a situation where you do the first 80km of a 90km race well and then stuff your journey up in the last 10km.
‘This is something we need to improve on. Hopefully, in the last two games, we’ll show that improvement.’
Photo: Cricket South Africa