The group stage came to an end this week with the four semi-finalists confirmed. Titans, Dolphins, Cape Cobras and Warriors will face off on Wednesday and Thursday to determine who will play in the final, with Lions and Knights bowing out. While Titans were on a good run from the start (which became bumpy in the final week) and were expected to qualify, Dolphins finished second on the points table despite three washouts in succession. Cobras lost their first three matches but had a mid-campaign surge and it took Warriors until midway through the competition to put their first winning points on the board but they snuck into the final four.
Last week, Cobras started well when they beat Knights by five runs, defending 156 in Kimberley. Temba Bavuma's move to the top of the order proved successful - he top-scored with 46 off 39 balls and shared a 56-run third-wicket stand with JP Duminy to resist a sustained Knights' pace attack. Ryan McLaren (2 for 31), Shadley van Schalkwyk (3 for 27) and Mbulelo Budaza (4 for 32) all enjoyed impressive returns. Cobras' Dane Paterson went better than all of them with 4 for 24 as he reduced Knights to 6 for 2 in the second over and inflicted mid-innings blows on them, removing David Miller, who scored 59 off 32, and McLaren. Knights remained in the contest until the end and needed 11 runs off the final over, bowled by Ferisco Adams. A run-out and the wicket of Duanne Olivier helped Cobras prevail.
On Friday, Cobras were victorious in another tense affair. They beat Titans, who were undefeated up to that point, off the penultimate ball and successfully chased down 133 with Adams again the finisher, this time with the bat. He hit the winning runs off Chris Morris, after Titans' internationals-laden attack struck repeatedly. Cobras were 88 for 6 at one point but Adams, helped by Rory Kleinveldt and George Linde ensured they did not squander their own good work with the ball. The trio, along with Paterson, kept Titans pretty quiet, dismissing Quinton de Kock and Aiden Markram for single figures while ensuring only Henry Davids (30) and Farhaan Behardien (43) made more than 20 runs. Titans' total of 132 for 9 was their lowest batting first this season.
The weather on Friday night affected the other games - both of which were reduced. In Bloemfontein, Dolphins were on the receiving end of more rain and had to take on Knights in a 17-over affair. Knights scored at just under 10 runs to the over with Miller's 46 off 23 balls and McLaren's 48 off 24 balls accelerating matters for them as they finished on 168 for 4. Imran Tahir's 2 for 23 was the only respectable return from Dolphins' bowlers. Dolphins' chase was almost derailed at 36 for 2 in the 6th over but Morne van Wyk's 70 off 43 and Dane Vilas' 51 off 22 took them close before Robbie Frylinck's 27 off 14 finished things off.
In Potchefstroom, Warriors batted for 17.1 overs and were 133 for 4 when the heavens opened. Wayne Parnell, on loan from Cobras, opened the batting and was stumped for 1 but Jon-Jon Smuts found form with 69 off 52 balls. Lions faced a reduced target of 97 in 10 overs and Reeza Hendricks' 41 off 28 took them close. He had little support, though, and Lions ended five runs short on 92 for 7.
Knights and Lions both needed a win to sneak an outside chance of making the semi-finals but their Sunday match only lasted one over before a Highveld storm washed the game out.
At Kingsmead, Dolphins bowled Titans out for 79 to hand them their second defeat. Titans were playing a largely second-string XI, without de Kock, Markram, AB de Villiers, Morris, Dale Steyn and captain Albie Morkel but did have Morne Morkel in their ranks. Morkel took 2 for 25, but only he and David Wiese (1 for 23) conceded at less than seven to the over as Dolphins scored 168 for 7. Van Wyk's 67 off 41 was his third half-century in three matches and the top-score. Then, Dolphins' attack applied sustained pressure, with everyone chipped in and Titans were skittled. Dolphins played three spinners - Prenelan Subrayen, Tahir and Keshav Maharaj, and they picked up two wickets each.
The victory for Dolphins, and Cobras loss to Warriors, gave the Dolphins a home semi-final in Durban while Cobras missed out on hosting their playoff in Cape Town. Like Dolphins, Warriors posted 168 but only lost five wickets and enjoyed contributions from Smuts (48) and Colin Ingram (41). Cobras made a fist of the chase and were 90 for 2 just after the 10-over mark but the dismissals of Hashim Amla and Duminy in the space of two overs made them wobble. Ingram took 2 for 18 and Warriors won by 18 runs. Cobras did have some good news, though, in the form of Vernon Philander.
Morne Morkel made an unexpected return to action after spending the last two months recovering from a side strain. Morkel was initially diagnosed as needing four to six weeks on the sidelines but, his brother, Titans' captain Albie, had earlier told journalists he didn't think Morne would be back to play in this tournament but he was wrong. Morne bowled his full quota of four overs so, irrespective of whether or not he plays in the knockouts, he has now fulfilled the requirement of playing a domestic match in order to be considered for international selection.
Paterson's impressive response after he was dropped mid-campaign by Cobras continued. He took eight wickets in three matches this week, with figures of 4 for 24, 3 for 28 and 1 for 30. He now lies joint-top of the wicket-takers' list with Tabraiz Shamsi and has claimed 12 scalps at 17.16.
Tahir enjoyed his best return of the tournament so far, with 2 for 20 for Dolphins against Titans.
Wayne Parnell was dropped by Cobras three weeks ago and has been trying to find form for Western Province semi-professional side with mixed results. After scoring 65 and taking 2 for 40 against North West, he managed only 1 and 0 for 23 in his next game against Eastern Province. That fixture took place in Parnell's original home-town Port Elizabeth and five days later, in Potchefstroom, his outing for Warriors, did not go too well. In a single appearance, he managed just one run, opening the batting and bowled one over, which cost 14 runs. Parnell did not play in the final round of fixtures and it remains to be seen if he will feature in the knockouts. South Africa move into a domestic one-day cup in 10 days' time, where he may feature more regularly as the national report for duty against Zimbabwe and India.
Again, very little to report on this front, adding to ongoing concerns that the gap between domestic and international cricket remains substantial. Hendricks though can be pleased with his returns. At the end of the group stage, he is the top run-scorer with 361 runs, five more than JP Duminy, including a century and two fifties.
Beyond the boundary
Cricket fans will remember this week for being the one in which de Villiers' return to Test cricket became a reality. De Villiers was named in the South African Invitation XI to play a three-day warm-up match against Zimbabwe next week, with a view to making a return in the Boxing Day Test. And it seems de Villiers is saving himself for the longer format. He has not played in Titans' last three matches but may return for the business end this week.