A tournament beset by early problems is heading into an all-important second edition, writes Jonhenry Wilson in SA Cricket magazine.
From its original carnation as the T20 Global League with big-money investors and privatised franchises to the Cricket South Africa-owned Mzansi Super League, the country’s new premier T20 tournament is proving a burgeoning success in a global calendar increasingly less tolerant of failure.
The 2019 Euro T20 Slam was cancelled. This year’s Global T20 Canada was marred by disputes over player salaries. The St Lucia Stars were terminated from the Caribbean Premier League due to outstanding payments. The future of the Hong Kong T20 Blitz, meanwhile, hangs in the balance.
The Indian Premier League continues to be impressive as a flagship product, while Australia’s Big Bash League is inhibited by salary-cap grievances. The Pakistan Super League and Bangladesh Premier League are ongoing, while the Afghanistan Premier League has Abu Dhabi’s T10 League as a relatively new neighbour.
In short, there is a lot of domestic T20 cricket jostling for commercial position on a global scale and the Mzansi Super League is among the latest doing the same. Importantly, for its sustainability and longevity, the MSL will continue to be televised via the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
The decision to use the free-to-air service rather than paid-channel SuperSport has effectively empowered the MSL as the people’s tournament. From the working class to the affluent and all in between, old and new white- and blue-collar cricket fans have been afforded access to the competition on the cheap. This hasn’t diminished the value of the cricket, though, as a string of tight results in 2018 and the continuing participation of big-name international players attest.
CAPE TOWN BLITZ
The Blitz did a lot right to finish at the top of 2018’s standings, only to lose the final to the Jozi Stars. They’ve since replaced England batsman Dawid Malan with Pakistan fast bowler Wahab Riaz as their international marquee player, while wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock has remained as the local highlight. The retention of Dale Steyn, Anrich Nortje and Janneman Malan is as important as the acquisition of Riaz, particularly after left-arm seamer Nandre Burger moved to the Nelson Mandela Bay Giants.
The arrival of England batsman Liam Livingstone will likely prove a stronger drawcard than the punctuated presence of Malan last year. Malan didn’t play through the whole 2018 MSL, while Livingstone probably will this season. The all-rounder was key to Lancashire’s 2019 T20 Blast campaign with bat and ball – and represented the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League this year. Elsewhere in early September’s player draft, the Blitz sprang for ambidextrous spinner Gregory Mahlokwana and have an astute technician in coach Ashwell Prince. Like the Tshwane Spartans’ Mark Boucher, Prince is tipped for higher honours as the Proteas plot life after Ottis Gibson.
Holders of the wooden spoon from the 2018 competition after a mere three victories in 10 matches, the Heat have invested heavily this time with the recruitment of head coach Gary Kirsten. The former Proteas batsman’s coaching credentials are impressive – including stints with the Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL and Hobart Hurricanes in Australia’s Big Bash League. He is also signed up to work in The Hundred – the England and Wales Cricket Board’s new limited-overs tournament. Kirsten, of course, also coached South Africa and India.
For a coach of his calibre to momentarily halt the so-called talent drain in South Africa is significant for the franchise, country and tournament. ‘It’s about which players will make big plays in the tournament and hit form. I’ve learned in the T20 format it’s not necessarily about balance, it’s often about guys who play well and show good form,’ said Kirsten. The retirement of all-rounder Albie Morkel and the arrival of former Proteas wicketkeeper-batsman Dane Vilas suggests he will captain the Heat, as he did the Jozi Stars during last year’s title-winning campaign.
Meanwhile, they have purchased a quintessential modern-day T20 cricketer in England all-rounder Ravi Bopara, who hasn’t played international cricket in four years but has collected appearances for several domestic franchises around the world. Bopara will be accompanied by fellow Englishman Alex Hales, who has replaced Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan as the Heat’s international marquee player. All-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo is their new local marquee player after Hashim Amla withdrew from contention.
Batsmen Reeza Hendricks and Rassie van der Dussen and fast bowler Duanne Olivier were hugely important to the Stars’ title triumph last year. Van der Dussen has since risen in Proteas popularity, while Hendricks wasn’t able to secure a berth in the World Cup squad despite a superb stretch of form in the MSL. Olivier has since become a Kolpak cricketer. All three, regardless of significant change in circumstance, will again be key for the Johannesburg franchise this time.
Former Stars coach Enoch Nkwe, who has been appointed Proteas interim team director, has been succeeded by Barbadian Donovan Miller. The elevation of Miller is somewhat of a slap in the face to the adage of ‘local is lekker’, especially as the Heat, Spartans and Blitz employ the homegrown Kirsten, Boucher and Prince, respectively. That said, Miller will bring a wealth of experience and insight to the head coach post – and worked with the squad in the 2018 edition. His time at the helm will be preceded by an invaluable stint in the CPL too. The Stars’ international and local marquee players haven’t changed in West Indian Chris Gayle and Proteas fast bowler Kagiso Rabada.
The awkward owners of three international marquee players in two years, the Rocks will have to settle on Sri Lanka’s Isuru Udana. They had West Indian Dwayne Bravo in 2018 and were due to gain England’s David Willey this time. Willey, though, was withdrawn from the MSL due to the England and Wales Cricket Board’s workload management. Udana, like Willey, isn’t a big-ticket item like Roy or Gayle but entirely capable of winning a T20 fixture almost single-handedly with bat or ball. Their local marquee player is still Proteas Test captain Faf du Plessis.
Fast bowler Hardus Viljoen will join the Rocks as a well-rounded T20 cricketer. This is no longer the Lions cricketer who was capped once at Test level, but a globetrotting figure replete with IPL, CPL, T20 Blast and Pakistan Super League experience.
Their decision to retain wicketkeeper-batsman Mangaliso Mosehle early was intriguing, but makes complete sense after the player draft. Mosehle has fallen from franchise cricketer with the Titans to provincial player with KwaZulu-Natal, but is still effectively the Rocks’ only specialist wicketkeeper – and central to their attempt to improve on last year’s third-place finish.
The Spartans sent an early, telling message at the 2019 player draft by purchasing former Proteas fast bowler Morne Morkel for R1-million. The move immediately bolstered a bowling department that floundered through the 2018 campaign – and reminded all and sundry of the franchise’s Titans roots. As much as these are new franchises, they are still heavily influenced by allegiance to the unions that support them. Morkel was a stalwart Titans player for many years and the Spartans, and the Titans by extension, have repaid him.
The early decision to retain fast bowlers Lutho Sipamla and Lungi Ngidi will have to be carefully managed. With Morkel around, one can’t foresee all three playing in the same XI. Sipamla’s growing frame needs to be physically nurtured, while the injury-prone Ngidi’s workload must be consistently assessed. The arrival of Afghanistan left-arm wrist spinner Waqar Salamkheil will either backfire or epitomise the ‘wow’ factor.
Salamkheil debuted in Test cricket against Ireland earlier this year and has also represented the Kandahar Knights and Comilla Victorians in the Afghanistan Premier League and Bangladesh Premier League respectively. Gayle and South Africa’s AB de Villiers were among the opposition in his lone appearance for the Victorians. De Villiers will now be his teammate at the Spartans.
NELSON MANDELA BAY GIANTS
Mid-table mediocrity characterised the Giants’ 2018 campaign. They’ve since enlisted several personnel to ensure the 2019 season is stronger than the last, including finisher extraordinaire Farhaan Behardien. The retention of batsmen Jon-Jon Smuts and Marco Marais exemplifies the franchise’s trust in its Warriors roots, while England batsman Jason Roy’s return as their international marquee player must suffice across a squad lacking more talent from abroad other than Australia’s Ben Dunk.
Leg-spinner Imran Tahir will play for the Giants again in a bid to stay sharp and in the running for a berth in the Proteas’ T20 World Cup squad. All-rounder Chris Morris has stayed, too, and has something of a point to prove before the same tournament. He wasn’t included in the 2019 World Cup squad in the United Kingdom but arrived as a late replacement for the injured Nortje – and took the most wickets for the Proteas. Come selection time for next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia, Morris will want to be one of the first names penned, rather than a late afterthought.