Lions, Titans gear up for Champions League via eKasi Cup
Mamelodi is a long way from Jaipur, not just in geographical terms. The streets of the township north-east of Pretoria are lined with small and medium sized houses in close contact with each other and makeshift shops which seem a world away from the palatial grounds of one of India's most touristy cities. So it was unexpected that the cricket pitch in Mamelodi so closely resembled a sub-continental one.
The surface, meticulously worked on for days to host the first franchise match in a previously disadvantaged residential area, had a hint of help for the seamers early on before becoming slow, low and difficult to score off. "It was ideal preparation for us for the Champions League. I actually wish we could play a few more matches here before we head off," Geoffrey Toyana, Lions' coach said.
Gearing up for one of cricket's most lucrative events was not the intended purpose of the first eKasi Cup match - it was actually about taking the game to the people - but it was a welcome consequence for the two franchises involved. Both Lions and Titans, who have qualified for next month's CLT20 competition in India added to their training by having their first competitive match since the winter break staged on a surface which required the skills they will need in the sub-continent.
"It was a beneficial experience for both the batsmen and the bowlers," Rob Walter, coach of Titans, said. "We started a little slowly with the ball but I think we came back well. The bowlers had to think about what's needed on a surface like this. Is it cutters, slower ball, that kind of thing? And the batsmen had to work for their runs too." Walter was South Africa's fitness and fielding coach before taking over at Titans.
For Titans, particularly, it exposed what they will need to work on with the bat ahead of their trip to India. Only three of their batsman got into double figures as they struggled against the pace of Hardus Viljoen upfront and the slower bowling of Aaron Phangiso and Jean Symes later on.
They were not helped by a stodgy surface which became more difficult to build an innings on as the afternoon wore on and their own bowlers conceding heavily upfront. Lions had two century stands upfront before losing their last eight wickets for 50 runs. Quinton de Kock, who had a torrid time on the tour of Sri Lanka recently, scored a century, which both Toyana and Walter think will help boost his confidence.
"He saw that he can score runs on pitches that are more difficult and slower," Walter said. Toyana also hoped this would start de Kock's second full franchise season off on positive note. "They always say the second season is the most difficult and I can see Quinton is prepared. Since he came back from the national team he has been hitting more balls than I ever seen him hit and working very hard. He is a gun player and an awesome talent and he is maturing nicely," he said.
De Kock will be an important part of the Lions' CLT20 ambitions but his record at the IPL and in Sri Lanka, where he appeared struggle outside the offstump suggested he would have work to do before heading there. With him finding his feet, Toyana was more at ease ahead of the Lions training camp, which will take place in Potchefstroom, where the tracks are spicier, early next month.
The conditions there were why Toyana jokingly said he'd prefer his team to train in Mamelodi, where the spinners came into play much more than they do at other South African grounds. Symes and Phangiso took eight wickets between them, with the latter enjoying a sensational return to the ground he once called home, when he played club cricket here just a few years ago. The schoolchildren, who like all in attendance were given free entrance, immediately recognised him and chanted his name with glee.
They also got behind their home team, Titans, and created a special banner for wicket-keeper batsmen Mangaliso Mosehle. Despite their heavy defeat, Titans will not be too concerned with their early preparations under a new coach, because they will welcome back big-name players AB de Villiers, Morne Morkel and Marchant de Lange, provided he returns from injury, for the CLT20.
Instead, for them the day was about reaching out to the community in a way South African cricket has not done before. Cricket is not traditionally played in predominantly black African areas such as this one and both teams did as much as they could to enjoy the experience to the full.
Lunch was a typical South African meal of pap, boerewors and chis a nyama (maize meal, sausages and barbequed meat). Toyana encoruaged his players to engage with the schooldchildren, pose for pictures and hand out cricket balls.
Walter did the same. "I want to get my boys out there, whether its here in Mamelodi or somewhere else in Pretoria. We want to become involved in new markets and get the local fans behind us," Walter said. They will need a much better showing in places like Hyderabad and Jaipur to do that but at least they've got their eye on what to expect from conditions early and they will get an opportunity to improve on them when they play a practice match against the Cobras at the same venue next Saturday.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent