Young franchise coaches make their mark
In another coup for rookie coaches, the two teams battling it out for the first-class title in the final week of fixtures are both managed by men in their first season in charge.
Paul Adams' Cobras are top of the table and look likeliest to clinch the prize while Geoffrey Toyana's Lions must beat third-placed Warriors and hope Cobras do not win to claim the silverware. The two franchises shared the domestic one-day cup as well after the final was rained out twice to ensure Adams and Toyana made powerful statements in their opening summers.
While the two coaches celebrate their early success, South African cricket on the whole has reason to be pleased. Yet again, the first-class competition will be decided in the final round of fixtures and this season has been one of its most closely fought.
Of the 27 matches played, there have been only six draws and three washouts. Of the 24 which have been played, 13 went into the final day, 10 were completed in three days and one lasted two. The decrease in draws reflects South Africa's more aggressive attitude to cricket which is evident at Test level, especially since Graeme Smith's men claimed the No.1 ranking last year.
What it points to is that the level below international cricket is strong as South Africa continue to produce players ready to play Test cricket. "The depth of quality on the domestic circuit is huge," Toyana said. "If you look at the guys who play franchise cricket who make it to the national team and immediately perform, it is really impressive. Just look at Faf du Plessis who was magical in Australia."
Du Plessis is one example, Dean Elgar, who scored his maiden Test century against New Zealand in Port Elizabeth and Rory Kleinveldt, who replaced Vernon Philander twice due to injury, are two others. Bubbling under are Dolphins' paceman Kyle Abbott, Lions' allrounder Chris Morris and Warriors' offspinner Simon Harmer.
Kleinveldt has been made available for the Cobras match by South African team management, and will be a big boost to the team. They have had to replace batting allrounder Alistair Gray with Richard Levi after the former broke his arm and although Kleinveldt cannot make up for Gray's absence, the presence of a national team member is always regarded as a bonus.
Cobras are a team used to success and want more of it. "We need tunnel vision for the match against the Knights. Our focus is on winning the match, not on the cup," Justin Ontong, their captain said, while Adams added that his team need to produce "top-class cricket," to win the tournament.
For Lions, the approach is more measured. They have not won a first-class competition since the turn of the millennium in 1999-2000 and are pleased to have come this far. "It's been a great experience for me and the boys. They've responded well to my coaching style and I'm quite happy with where we are. It's a photo finish in the Sunfoil Series," Toyana said.
However, amid the back-slapping, Boeta Dippenaar, the former South Africa batsman and current commentator, sees cause for concern. "Is this an indication of a more attack-minded playing mentality and 'win at all costs' attitude within the four day game? Or is it an indication that the players are playing too much one-day cricket, with the effect that the need for patience in building an innings is no longer of importance," he asked.
"I also wonder whether wickets are being prepared for a true battle between bat and ball, or are they being purely prepared for an outright result."
As a possible answer to Dippenaar's questions is that this season there have only been seven scores of over 400, compared with 18 last season and 20 the season before. That could be an indication of conditions becoming more seamer-friendly across the board, especially as South Africa claim to house the best pace attack in the world and want to ensure they have adequate replacements. Or it could be a reflection of a wetter summer which has left surfaces under-prepared.
While the administrators and pundits ponder the reasons why South African cricket has become more cut-throat, the teams involved are looking for one more big push. "It's always been good to see the sides play competitive and winning cricket. It's exciting to not have had so many draws and it's improved this season. Our depth is good and the youngsters coming through are all really impressive," Toyana said. The Test team can only benefit from that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent