Old rivalries renewed for final
Lions coach Geoffrey Toyana has experienced defeat at the hands of a Cape Town-based team many times during his playing days, but still has one encounter that provides him with some of his favourite memories. We'll have to go back to the summer of 2002 to remember.
Toyana was part of the Easterns team, a Cinderella-type side who surged back from 27 for 5 to earn victory over a Western Province team who fielded a South African top five and then some. Easterns won the last provincial first-class competition before the franchise system formed. It remains one of Toyana's proudest achievements.
Paul Adams, who was a Western Province player, was not part of that match. He remembers being "either injured or away," during the clash but hearing of the result in near disbelief.
Ten years have passed since then. Toyana and Adams have crossed paths many times and on Friday will have their most important meeting yet.
Both, in their first seasons as franchise coaches, have taken a team to the final of the domestic one-day cup. Much as it stake for the two rookies who have both designed their coaching styles on combining player responsibility with old-fashioned fun.
"The biggest thing I noticed when I took over was that the guys were not enjoying their cricket," Toyana told ESPNcricinfo. "So the thing I brought in was the fun-factor. I told them I will back you but I want you express yourselves. It started happening and the senior guys also took up mentoring roles for the junior guys."
Life as a Lions player was not all that pleasurable before this summer. The franchise last secured silverware five seasons ago. Coupled with board turmoil and a player exodus, the Wanderers was not a happy place. The few who remained - Neil McKenzie, Alviro Petersen, Stephen Cook and Zander de Bruyn - tried to make things better often to no avail.
Those senior players all said they felt things "relax," when Toyana took over. "The team carried baggage when they lost so we decided that this season that if we lose games, we'll take it on the chin and move on, come back and be better," Toyana said. It showed when Lions lost the Champions League T20 final against Sydney Sixers and returned to beat Titans by 269 runs four days later.
Under Toyana, Lions have had three players, Aaron Phangiso, Chris Morris and Quinton de Kock, selected for the South African Twenty20 squad and another, Hardus Viljoen, is in the national A team. Previously, they had none. He has asked the players to be accountable for their own performances and almost all of them have responded.
"The players know that you are not going to win every time and you won't have your day every day but if it's your day, you must make the play for the team," Toyana said. "Guys are playing with a bit of spice now. I've told them that it's a privilege to come and play here because they could be in a dingy office somewhere. So just have fun."
Toyana knows exactly how much of an honour it is to play cricket. He spent 13 years playing at Easterns and then Titans before giving it up in 2008 to become a coach. "Easterns wanted me to be a player-coach for them but at the time I didn't think a player-coach would work in cricket as it does in football," he said. "It's a hard one to judge because if I not getting runs it will be hard for me to tell guys you should be getting runs. I made the call there to coach only."
He was part of the management team of South Africa's under-19 side in 2010 and the A team the following year before being appointed at the Lions this season.
Adams, too, has experienced enough of the emotions of being in the middle to know that it plays a role. He took over an unhappy Cobras camp after they had split from their previous coach Richard Pybus in acrimonious circumstances. With a new captain, Justin Ontong, Adams worked to rebuild the culture that has made Cobras one of the most successful franchises of the current crop.
"It was all about unlocking the guys and creating an environment where everyone could enjoy themselves. Identifying roles is a key factor in that, having the mix between youth and experience and making sure players take responsibility," Adams said.
After a poor start to the competition with three defeats in their first four matches, things came together for Cobras who also lead the first-class points table. "We were really tested then but there's been a whole new energy since then and we picked up nicely," Adams said. As defending champions in this format, Cobras will have wanted nothing less than a play-off place.
Having qualified for the knock-out one-day match against Titans, they also had the luxury of a crop of national players, including Dale Steyn, Robin Peterson and Rory Kleinveldt at their disposal. Instead of creating problems, the big guns fitted in seamlessly and put in telling performances, such as Steyn's five-for, to get Cobras through to the final.
The match will be a traditional north-south derby, as in the days of Transvaal taking on Western Province. Toyana will look to the Easterns match for inspiration for his Lions side to finally fill their trophy cabinet. "We were the dirt-trackers then and we won," he said.
Adams, however, will not look to his team's many other successes. "This franchise has always been very successful; we just need people to put their hands up." It's difficult to say the best coach will win, because both have done more than was expected of them so far.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent