Warriors brace for rare big occasion against defending champs
South Africa's silly season starts on Friday and not just because it's the final of the franchise T20 competition. December 16 is a public holiday and its timing - nine days before Christmas - allows it to serve as a marker for the start of the festive break. It's when summer is at its sexiest with blue skies, braais and temperatures touching 30 degrees throughout the country.
From next year, if all goes to plan, it will be the day South Africa's new city-based, eight-team T20 extravaganza concludes. The franchise twenty-over trophy will still exist but could lose profile, so the Titans and the Warriors have the chance to make the last big splash.
They ended first and second on the table respectively - although Warriors had to win a playoff to secure their spot in the final - and according to Titans coach Mark Boucher, it will be a "fitting end" to a hard-fought tournament. "Whichever way it goes, whoever picks up a trophy tomorrow, both sides will say they are the deserved winners. Both teams have played good cricket over the whole competition," he said.
Here's how things shape up:
Titans are under a new coach after Rob Walter left for New Zealand, but the transition to Boucher was seamless. They top the first-class points table at the halfway stage and finished top after the group stages of the T20 Challenge, with seven wins from 10 matches. They have a good mix of experience, led by Albie Morkel, Farhaan Behardien and Tabraiz Shamsi, and exciting youngsters to complete a well-balanced line-up. "The successful teams that I was privileged enough to play in, the teams sort of ran itself with a strong core of senior players. That's no different in this dressing room. It's no use having one captain in the side, you've got to have a couple of guys who are playing leadership roles and that's something that's a strength of ours," Boucher said.
Warriors, on the other hand have underwhelmed for several seasons. They've struggled to hold on to big-name players but have started to find some consistency in Malibongwe Maketa's second full season in charge. They lie third on the first-class points table - a focus for them because Maketa believes "if you nail your four-day skills, you can always transfer them to the other competitions," and had big wins in the T20 competition to finish second, with six wins. "It's exciting. It's almost like the first final exam with the work we've put in over the last 18 months. There will be pressure because it's a final but we trust our skills and our processes," Maketa said.
Albie Morkel was asked to captain the Titans in T20s last season and Boucher has kept him in that role. Morkel has performed his usual all-round role in the side, provided crucial lower-order runs and has been one of their most dependable bowlers.
JJ Smuts took over from Colin Ingram for this season, and it seems "the captaincy brings the best out of him," according to Morkel. Smuts leads the competition's run-charts with 355 runs at 44.37, including a hundred and a fifty.
Boucher is from the Eastern Cape and began his career at Border - one of the two provincial sides that feed into the Warriors franchise - but his only coaching experience is with Titans. They head-hunted him for the post and so far, he seems a natural fit. "I've always said that I want to try and be a coach the players would like to have. If I was a player, I would like to be the coach that I would like for myself," Boucher said.
Maketa played his cricket at Border but began his coaching career at Titans. He served as assistant coach to Richard Pybus and Matthew Maynard. He was also coach of provincial side Northerns and took them to a List A and T20 cup, before returning to his home team. For Maketa, reaching this final is about coming full circle. "I'll always be grateful for the opportunity I was given here. To come here and win would be really special for me in the sense that my coaching was grounded here," he said
Behardien has been the Titans' stand-out batsman and lies fourth overall in the run charts with three fifties. Morkel said he has never seen him bat better than he is now. "I've always known he has got that talent. He is a guy that strikes the ball cleanly and he gets good opportunities now. When he plays for South Africa, he often bats at No. 7 where it might be a little bit low and you just see glimpses of what we can do. Here with us, he has got a real senior role, batting at No. 5. He closes out games and he has taken that responsibility."
Titans' bowling successes have been shared between their fairly young trio of Malusi Siboto, Junior Dala and Lungi Ngidi. Their collective effort has pleased their coach: "Their skill levels are pretty high. They are also completely different bowlers and offer different variations. Their attitudes have been fantastic. With a bit of attitude and a little bit of talent, you can go a long way," he said.
Apart from Smuts, Warriors also have Ingram and Christiaan Jonker in the top ten run-scorers and have entrusted their more experienced players with the responsibility of securing wins. "We've had a good culture change under Malibongwe. The Warriors have always had players in the top batting and bowling statistics, but we've probably not finished games off as senior players. This year what we've stressed is for senior players to go out there and win the game for the team," Smuts said.
They also have the second highest wicket-taker in their ranks, Andrew Birch, who missed out on the qualifier to make room for Kyle Abbott. How to make room for Birch will be their biggest conundrum ahead of the final. "To leave out a player of Birch's calibre is heartbreaking but I have to balance the team and that was the best-balanced team we could take on the field with our international players available. That's how the cookie crumbled," Maketa said, but hinted Birch may be brought back. "I've looked at his record and he's put on some special performances at this ground."
Runs aplenty predicted the home captain, Morkel, who played down any advantage his team may get from a flat Centurion track. "In terms of home ground advantage, I don't think it will play such a big role anymore. Players play so many games around the world and in different conditions so for me, home ground advantage is sort of something that has gone out of the window," he said.
Head to Head
Both teams split their two games in the group stages. Warriors were victorious in their first meeting on December 2 at SuperSport Park, chasing down 148 with seven balls to spare. Andrew Birch took 5 for 16 and the two Colins - Ingram and Ackermann - scored a half-century each. Titans got their own back in the final league match on Sunday , which was reduced to a five-over shootout. Farhaan Behardien's 55 off 15 balls saw them pile on 80. Warriors made a good fist of the chase but fell short by just six runs.
Titans are the most successful outfit in the system with 11 trophies - two shared - and are the defending champions of this tournament. They regularly produce national players, the latest being new Test squad member, Theunis de Bruyn whose career started with the Titans before he moved to Knights.
Warriors' only successes in the franchise system came in both limited-overs competitions in 2009-10, under current national coach Russell Domingo. The following summer, 2010-11, they reached the T20 final but have waited five seasons before reaching another. This season, they have operated primarily without international stars.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent