As the titleholders and the Supersport Series pace-setters last season, the Diamond Eagles will have their credentials as defenders of the crown severely tested when South Africa’s first-class cricket competition gets under way on Thursday.
It’s a truism in sport that getting to the top is sometimes easier than staying there and there’s little doubt the Diamond Eagles, after last season’s success, will be a team in the crosshairs of their opponents’ sights as the summer unfolds.
Despite the popularity of limited overs cricket and the proliferation of 20/20 tournaments, Test cricket and, by extension, the four-day first-class game, remain the true yardstick of a top cricketer. The stands may be empty but the importance of winning the first-class competition is undimmed and is still at the top of any self-respecting coach’s agenda.
The Diamond Eagles kick off their campaign against the Cape Cobras in Kimberley, while elsewhere, the Highveld Lions host the Warriors at the Wanderers in Johannesburg and the Dolphins take on the Titans at Kingsmead in Durban. Interviewed after last season’s triumph, Diamond Eagles coach Corrie van Zyl said the depth in their squad had been crucial to their success, especially after they lost Nicky Boje and Johan van der Wath to the Indian Cricket League, and Ryan McLaren and Jacques Rudolph to injury during the campaign.
“We had good depth, it’s great to have talented youngsters around, and the guys that came in did their jobs. There was also a good relationship this season between the Free State and Griquas,” Van Zyl said.
Fast bowler Dillon du Preez was one of the season’s revelations with a record haul of 55 wickets and he’ll again be in the mix on the bowling front this season, while captain Boeta Dippenaar, Morne van Wyk, despite a poor run last season, and the talented and promising Dean Elgar will be the key men in the batting department.
They’ll need to be at their sharpest against a dangerous looking Cobras attack, spearheaded by Monde Zondeki and Charl Langeveldt, and which includes an old familiar name in leftarm spinner Claude Henderson. One of the most experienced bowlers in the competition, Henderson will be keen to show he still has what it takes to compete at a top first-class level.
The pick of the opening round matches could be the clash in Durban where the Titans will pit a high quality spin attack of legspinner Imran Tahir and leftarmer Paul Harris against a Dolphins battling line-up sprinkled with national stars. Pakistani Tahir, who does not qualify as a development player, comes from a season in England for Hampshire where he excelled in the second half to take 44 wickets in seven matches, transforming the county from also-rans into championship contenders.
With many national players available for their franchises in the early stages of the competition, it will be interesting to see what impact Tahir has in South African conditions. SA spinner Harris will relish the chance to form a serious spin combination, albeit for a short while.
There will, however, be no easy pickings against a Dolphins side led by SA A captain Ahmed Amla, which includes his brother Hashim and the experienced HD Ackerman, a former national player who moves up the coast from the Warriors. Hashim Amla will be particularly keen to find his form early in the season, while Ackerman had another good season for Leicestershire in the English county competition, posting six hundreds with a top score of 199. In KwaZulu Natal this season, there’ll be plenty of interest in the progress of 19-year-old lefthander David Miller, an exciting prospect likely to fit in somewhere in the middle-order. The former Maritzburg College pupil scored 129 in a warm-up match against the Warriors recently and is clearly one to watch for the future. In the final fixture of the weekend, the Warriors will be looking to maintain the momentum they have built in the competition in recent seasons when they face the Lions in Johannesburg. Davy Jacobs has taken over the captaincy from Zander de Bruyn and with Ashwell Prince, back on his home turf, in the line-up, there’s a solid look about their batting.
SA stars Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher are also contracted to the Warriors this season, but their appearances will be limited. Nevertheless, despite losing Ackerman, the Warriors have a strong thread of continuity running through their side and if they manage to solve their problem at the top of the order, they have the potential to seriously test the home team.
Among the bowlers, SA U-19 captain Wayne Parnell will be looking forward to the challenge of developing his game at a higher level. It’s a big step to the Supersport Series, but Parnell, along with fellow leftarm seamer Lonwabo Tsotsobe, is the type of player South African cricket will be hoping to develop into a serious national contender in the next few seasons.
The Lions, under the stewardship of new coach Dave Nosworthy, will be desperate for an improvement after a bottom-of-the-log finish last season in which they failed to win a single fixture.
The fixtures and squads are: Dolphins v Titans in Durban (9.30am start): Dolphins: Ahmed Amla (captain), Imraan Khan, Hashim Amla, Rivash Gobind, HD Ackerman, David Miller, Jon Kent, Pierre de Bruyn, Johann Louw, Saidi Mhlongo, Quinton Friend, Ugasen Govender, Yusuf Abdullah, Daryn Smit. Titans: Pierre Joubert (captain), Farhaan Behardien, Faf du Plessis, Blake Snijman, Heino Kuhn, Gulam Bodi, Morné Morkel, Basheer Walters, Paul Harris, Martin van Jaarsveld, Ethy Mbhalati, Imran Tahir, Rushdi Jappie Highveld Lions v Warriors in Johannesburg (10am start) Warriors: Davy Jacobs (capt), Ashwell Prince, Robin Peterson, Arno Jacobs, Zander de Bruyn, Michael Smith, Johan Botha, Wayne Parnell, Rusty Theron, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Sinethemba Mjekula, Justin Kreusch. Highveld Lions: still to be released Diamond Eagles v Cape Cobras in Kimberley (10am start) Diamond Eagles: Boeta Dippenaar (captain), Dean Elgar, Ryan Bailey, Morne van Wyk, Rilee Rossouw, Victor Mpitsang, Dillon du Preez, Reeza Hendricks, CJ de Villiers, Thandi Tshabalala, Con de Lange. Cape Cobras: Andrew Puttick, Stiaan van Zyl, Henry Davids, JP Duminy, Justin Ontong, Vernon Philander, Ryan Canning, Rory Kleinveldt, Claude Henderson, Mondi Zondeki, Charl Langeveldt, Brendan Adams.