Season begins with one eye on T20
South Africa's first-class competition will start on Thursday with two of the franchises opening their campaigns with the Champions League T20 not far from their minds. The Lions and Titans will play two rounds each before beginning the lucrative multi-team tournament and both see the early start to the season as an advantage ahead of the 20-over championship.
"It will be quite good for us and gives us a base going into the competition," Lions captain, Alviro Petersen, said. Lions played in the last CLT20 to be hosted in South Africa, in 2010, and will again play most of their matches at their Johannesburg home ground, the Wanderers.
Titans coach Matthew Maynard admitted his squad is "match shy" after their pre-season plans were rained on at their training camp in the country's north-eastern Mpumalanga province. In order to get as much time in the nets as possible one of their quicks, Ethy Mbhalati, was married on Tuesday and resumed training shortly after the ceremony.
Maynard said he is unconcerned with their lack of preparation and said he would rather the team "start undercooked than get overdone at the business end of the season".
Titans won last year's first-class competition in exactly that fashion. After starting badly, they peaked in the mid-section of the tournament and sealed the title on the final weekend with a massive victory over Dolphins. Maynard said they have every intention of repeating their feats this summer. "We are not trying to defend our title, we are trying to win the competition - that's a slightly different mindset," he explained. "It's all about how well you play in the last third of the season."
Titans start the campaign against Knights, who have prepared with two warm-up matches. They played North-West Dragons in a day-night first-class match, a pioneer of its kind in South Africa, where Morne van Wyk and Johan van der Wath scored hundreds in that game and van der Wath was among the wickets as well. "Our plans have gone quite well. Our bowlers were able to clock overs in the middle which they needed and the batters got plenty of runs," Knights coach Sarel Cilliers said. "So at this stage, I'm quite happy."
Cobras, last season's runners-up, will start their summer in Potchefstroom against Lions. Both teams have new coaches, who are each taking charge of a franchise for the first time. Paul Adams, Cobras coach, is in charge of a team who ended last season fractured after Richard Pybus resigned. Adams said he understands he has a "responsibility to provide an environment in which the players will thrive and keep growing," and he also wants to ensure trophies end up at Newlands.
Lions find themselves in the same position, having last secured silverware five seasons ago. Petersen thinks their development phase is over and that the squad of players they have are ready to blossom. "The guys have matured over the last couple of years," he said. "We've spent time trying to build a team that can win and we think we have got there."
Under Geoffrey Toyana, who Petersen describes as "relaxed", Lions will look to play a new brand of cricket. "The way we are going to play four-day cricket has probably changed a bit because we're going to be playing two strike bowlers," he said.
A lack of firepower has been Lions, and at times the competitions', main problem. That is set to change, especially as it is the place from where South Africa will have to produce players to help them retain their No. 1 Test ranking. Cricket South Africa are pouring resources into giving it a higher-profile, including securing the pay television broadcaster SuperSport to air hourly highlights and post-match interviews.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent