South Africa news February 10, 2013

Healthy competition, strength in depth

Future stars, experienced campaigners and fresh coaches made for a hard-fought Sunfoil Series. Apart from a lack of spinners, the signs are good for South Africa

The health of a tree is known by the fruit it produces. On the evidence of South Africa's recently completed first-class competition, the state of the country's cricket is as wholesome as an orchard in bloom.

A closely fought Sunfoil Series finished with the Cobras wining their third title, this time under the guidance of new coach, Paul Adams. Geoffrey Toyana, also in his first season in charge, took the Lions to second place and Lance Klusener's Dolphins finished third, with the former South Africa allrounder another to enjoy a solid maiden run.

There were more positive results than in seasons past, with six draws from the 30 matches. Three fixtures were so badly affected by weather that they had to be abandoned, meaning 21 matches produced a winner. Of those, 14 went to teams playing away from home, which Test captain Graeme Smith identified as one of the biggest positives in the competition.

They have been many others, particularly in terms of how franchise players stepped up to the international scene. Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar and Rory Kleinveldt are the three most recent examples of a system that just keeps on giving. Here are a few more lessons from the summer:

Quicks come through, batting remains tough
With only nine innings scores of over 400, compared to 18 last season, it seems run scoring has become more difficult. The most number of centuries any individual batman could put together this year was a mere two.

South Africa has always been a tough place to bat and with the Test team priding itself on the power of their attack, it is possible pitches are being prepared to suit the seamers. It is has also provided a showroom for the depth of pace bowling talent in the country, of which there is plenty.

Kyle Abbott led the list with 49 wickets at 15.36 and the ability to swing the ball. Statistics like that are what got Vernon Philander into the national team. Abbott has played for the national A side and must be next in line. Warriors' medium-pacer Andrew Birch should also appear on the radar for South Africa. His tireless efforts resulted in 40 scalps at 16.07.

Ayabulela Gqamane, who grew up next door to Makhaya Ntini, is attracting attention with his aggressive, accurate bowling style, as are the Lions duo of Chris Morris and Hardus Viljoen. The former is the latest IPL rich-kid and can bowl up to 145kph while Viljoen combines pace and intent well. Together they have been lethal. Cobras' Beuran Hendricks, a left-armer, and Warriors pair Gurshwin Rabie and Basheer Walters, complete the depth at domestic level.

But is there a spinner in sight?
National team discard Imran Tahir continued to boss the domestic scene. He played in nine of the Lions' ten matches and took 37 wickets at 22.35, including a best match haul of 12 for 106. Robin Peterson continues to be the first-choice spinner for South Africa but Tahir could come into contention for trips to the subcontinent. After his performance in Adelaide (who can forget the 0 for 260), Tahir has regained confidence and pride at domestic level.

Worryingly, there is little else on the tweaking front. Simon Harmer is the lead candidate to progress to national level. The Warriors offspinner finished the summer with 21 wickets at 42.42 and managed a five-wicket haul against the touring Pakistanis. Next on the list is Roelof van der Merwe, with just 12 wickets. Titans legspinner Shaun von Berg and Dolphins slow left-armer Keshav Maharaj are two worth keeping an eye on.

The gloves are still filling up
AB de Villiers' recent form has all but put to bed the debate over whether he can continue keeping wicket and batting at No. 5 in Tests but the administrators will not want to create the same vacuum that existed when Mark Boucher was still playing. It is vital to have competition in the system and this season showed that there is plenty.

Quinton de Kock was the highest-scoring wicketkeeper-batsman, with 559 runs in six matches at 46.58, and is being touted as the future national gloveman. The experienced Dolphins keeper Daryn Smit was not far behind with 513 runs at 34.20 to finish 10th on the run-scorers' list and Heino Kuhn, the Titans keeper, was 11th with 503 runs at 27.94.

What has happened to the Titans?
Last season's champions had a torrid time this time around. They did not win a single match, only managed to score over 300 in an innings three times and took 20 wickets in a match just once.

An obvious problem was the lack of an out-and-out strike bowler. With Marchant de Lange injured for most of the summer with a stress fracture and Viljoen poached the by the Lions (which proved profitable for them, as he took 31 wickets at 21.51), the Titans lacked a quick who could do damage. Ethy Mbhalati did what he could and managed 28 scalps at 22.53 but CJ de Villiers and Rowan Richards were not adequate back-up.

Their batting should carry some of the blame too. Not one of their line-up scored a century this summer, Jacques Rudolph coming closest with 94. They missed du Plessis, who was on national duty and did not play a single game, and Martin van Jaarsveld, who gave up the captaincy to Henry Davids and wasn't contracted for first-class cricket. Although van Jaarsveld was not a huge success on his first-class return last summer, his experience seemed much needed, especially when considering the next point...

The value of an old hand
Neil McKenzie is no longer the Lions' leader by name but he is undoubtedly their frontman with the bat. McKenzie finished as the competition's top run-scorer with 776 runs from his ten matches at an average of 51.73. His two centuries and four half-centuries played roles in getting the Lions out of trouble and helping them build big leads.

What's more telling than McKenzie's form - which has improved with age - are the numbers the batsmen around him finished on. Of his team-mates, De Kock played six matches and finished fourth on the list, Temba Bavuma, the serious middle-order man, was fifth and new captain Steven Cook was in eighth position. The Lions had more batsmen in the top ten than any other franchise and it may have had a lot to do with them feeding off McKenzie.

Toyana has acknowledged the mentoring role McKenzie plays with the younger batsmen but it is the also the silent way he goes about being a role model. The first to arrive, the last to leave training, often after doing the tidying up, and the consummate professional at all times, McKenzie has shown why it is important for franchises to keep the seniors around.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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