SA20: SOUTH AFRICA DARLING OR DRAGON?
The two best teams this season, Durban Super Giants and Sunrisers Eastern Cape, have deservedly made the final.
Last year the SA20 was the darling of South African cricket, exploding in a giddy blaze of sound and light to save an increasingly drab game from itself. This year it's the dragon, the destroyer of the fabric of cricket in this country.
At least, it is in the hurt hearts and miffed minds of those who won't forgive the tournament for robbing the Test squad of their best players and hanging the remnants and newbies out to dry in their series in New Zealand - where the full-strength home side outplayed the South Africans in all departments to win the first match by 281 runs in Mount Maunganui on Wednesday.
Exactly how the visitors will recover in time to give a better account of themselves in the second Test, in Hamilton from Tuesday, is difficult to fathom. Perhaps, after all the handwringing about the proliferation of two-Test series in South Africa's schedule, it's no bad thing there is no third match.
How dare Mickey Mouse nonsense like the SA20 get in the way of proper cricket, this narrative goes. It has to dare because, without it, CSA would struggle to raise the cash required to run their international teams.
Maybe the sold-out crowd that will pack Newlands for Saturday's SA20 final between Sunrisers Eastern Cape, the defending champions, and Durban's Super Giants don't care either way. Maybe they will have voted with their bums on seats against anything tainted by CSA's touch, even though the tournament is indeed the suits' creation - albeit it is externally run and its franchises Indian-owned. All involved will be happy that research company Nielsen found the television audience for "live and secondary" broadcasts of the first 19 matches in 2024 was up by 36% compared with last year. The "peak audience" was 35% higher, and "consumption" - or the "total number of broadcast hours viewed" - had increased by 49%.
But the fact is the finalists' squads alone contain nine players who, all things being equal, might have been in New Zealand bolstering South Africa: Temba Bavuma, Aiden Markram, Tony de Zorzi, Sarel Erwee, Tristan Stubbs, Wiaan Mulder, Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer.
Worse, Bavuma and Erwee have spent the tournament spectating. Bavuma - who had an injured hamstring at the start of the SA20 - has played one game and Erwee none. Similarly, Beuran Hendricks has had only three matches and Senuran Muthusamy four.
How did it feel to be here instead of there? At an interaction with the press in Cape Town on Friday, Keshav Maharaj, DSG's captain, greeted the question with a hollow laugh and said, "I can't answer that. That's left for the right people to answer." Maharaj's SEC counterpart, Markram, said: "Test cricket is my first love. I don't think there's a better feeling for players than wearing a Test cap. I'm disappointed not to be able to be there to take that series on, but the cards have been dealt and we're here. It's a difficult one for us as players, but this is where our focus has been this last month."
Markram can hardly be blamed for that. His job is to see the ball that's in front of him and to hit it, not the ball that's more than 11,000 kilometres away. But another part of his job at Newlands on Saturday will be to stop DSG's Heinrich Klaasen, the modern game's ultimate master blaster, from doing just that.
Klaasen's 208.87 is the tournament's leading strike rate by more than 23 points. He has scored an unbeaten 30 off nine balls, 40 off 16, and - in the second qualifier against Joburg Super Kings at the Wanderers on Thursday - 74 off 30. Only Ryan Rickelton has made more runs in the tournament this year: 83 more, but from 91 more deliveries. Klaasen has faced fewer balls than the rest of the top six runscorers in the competition and outscored four of them.
"You sit on the couch and think, jeez, how are we going to get this guy out?" Markram said. Maharaj was happy he wouldn't face Markram's challenge on Saturday: "Give [Klaasen] 10 balls for himself and the next 20 will disappear." Had Maharaj bowled to Klaasen in the nets, and did he 'dismiss' him? "I've bowled to him only once, and after about five sixes, yes, I did get him out. But that was because someone was fielding on the grass bank."
Maharaj greeted Markram for the obligatory photograph flanking the trophy with a hug and a warm, "Hello my boy!" Which is as it should be considering Maharaj is more than four years older and made his debut for South Africa almost a year earlier. They are different in many ways as cricketers and people, but united in growing the SA20 as a central part of South Africa's summer of cricket. The 2023 edition lifted the game out of the doldrums with its emphasis on fun and an absence of the seriousness that hangs over the international game. How did this year's tournament compare?