Teams gear up for season's top draw
The organisers call it rockstar cricket. It certainly needs a name with a bit of spunk, because it's the only format of the game that draws a crowd in South Africa these days. While the SuperSport Series only plays out in front of a sprinkling of die-hards and the MTN40 is in its inaugural season, the Standard Bank Pro20 is the only competition with a loyal following among fans.
It has incentives for everyone: fans who are early at the gates get hard hats, those who feel like they need to be woken up can get dunked into a pool of water every time someone hits a boundary, the umpires can show a bit more than just the finger on the field as they do a jig in time to certain signals, and, for the players, there's the chance to book their tickets for the Champions League Twenty20
This competition has no clear favourite, having produced four different finalists in the last two years. The Cobras, who are defending the trophy, appear to have masterminded the art of the shortest form of the game the best, with coach Shukri Conrad at the helm. He also took the Lions to their only franchise trophy when they won the pro20 in the 2006-07 season. The Cobras reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in India, and although they will be without many of their national players for most of the campaign, they have a production line of talented players and big-hitting Justin Kemp as captain to bolster their ranks.
Another side that will be missing a large chunk of national players until semi-final stage is the Warriors. After earning their first piece of silverware since the franchise system began in this year's MTN40, the Warriors have momentum on their side. They also have, at the death, the bowling experience of Rusty Theron, who captain Davey Jacobs relies on heavily to inspire the team.
A team that will certainly need inspiration are the Highveld Lions. The franchise from Johannesburg have had a woeful time, languishing near or at the bottom of both the first-class and one-day competitions for over two seasons. They were also rocked by the news that their overseas player, Lasith Malinga, will not be joining them for the competition because of injury concerns.
The Dolphins were denied a Champions League spot because in the year where they were the losing finalists, the inaugural edition of the tournament was postponed because of the Mumbai attacks. They had hoped to have Shahid Afridi on board, but he couldn't secure his release from the PCB so the side will hope that David Miller can continue his big-hitting form from the MTN40.
The Titans were the other franchise who missed out on that inaugural Champions League, so there's no doubt that they will be eyeing revenge as well. The Titans have been the most successful franchise in South African cricket, winning six trophies, including two Pro20s. They boast the likes of Roelof van der Merwe, Hong Kong Sixes hero Farhaan Berhardien, and deadly seam bowler Basheer Walters in their ranks.
Next are the Eagles who were under the wing of interim national coach Corrie van Zyl until last season. This team has a host of talented young players like Rilee Rossouw and Dean Elgar and CJ de Villiers, who it will look to for fireworks in this competition. It's been a quiet season for the Eagles so far, but they do have two pro20 trophies already in their cabinet and will be looking for another.
Players to watch:
Charl Langeveldt's swing has made him one of the most effective death bowlers in the shortest form of the game. His picked 16 wickets at an average of 13.31 last season, and is among the bowlers spearheading the Cobras attack.
Makhaya Ntini has been described as a "joy to have in the team" by Warriors' captain Jacobs. The fast bowler from Mdingi has a point to prove after being dropped by the national team and if he isn't about to retire, this competition may be the ideal platform for him show he still has what it takes.
Albie Morkel is much loved as one of the country's favourite allrounder. He will be missing for the Titans for part of the competition, for he jets off to India for national duty. However, his presence, when he is around, will be valuable. He has over 1000 runs and 78 wickets in this form of the game and is a known match-winner.
CJ de Villiers is best remembered for his super-over heroics against Sussex in the Champions League, but he also claimed nine wickets in the best of three semi-finals against the Warriors last season.
Yusuf Abdulla set the IPL alight when he soared to the top of the bowling rankings midway through the tournament. Although Abdullah was sidelined on Brett Lee's return, his left-arm seam bowling made its mark on the national selectors. "The Heater", as he is known, is a favourite among the Dolphins.
Vaughn van Jaarsveld made a brief appearance in the national side during the 2008-09 tour to Australia, but has since disappeared off the radar. He holds the record for the fastest limited-overs century in the domestic circuit, but has been in ordinary form this season. Van Jaarsveld is a real team man and the Lions could make good use of his services in this campaign.
Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg