Close contest expected in derby final
There have been 31 matches. Seven were decided in the last two overs and three others finished with a result margin of one or two runs. And now there are two teams left.
South Africa's domestic one-day title will go the way of either the Titans or the Cobras in a north-south derby that, if recent records are to be believed, will be closely contested. They've already played each twice in the tournament, the Cobras winning both matches, once by two runs and the second time in the final over.
"We've had two great battles already so whatever happens, I think we'll have another one on Friday," Rob Walter, the Titans coach, told ESPNcricinfo. "Of course, it would be nice to be on the right side of things if we do."
In his first season as a franchise coach, Walter has already had his fair share of nerves. After losing four of their first seven fixtures, the Titans seemed destined to end in the lower half of the table. They needed wins in their last three pool matches and pulled them off. Then, they needed a win against the team Walter described as the "best side in this competition", the Dolphins, in the play-off and pulled that off too.
In the process, they lost their captain Henry Davids to national duty, their senior-most player, Jacques Rudolph, to a broken hand and yet, still, three of their batsmen are in the top five run-scorers of the season.
Leading the list is Heino Kuhn, the wicketkeeper-batsman who has made five Twenty20 appearances for South Africa but has since been overlooked. He is followed by Davids, who won't be able to finish what he started because he is in the UAE with South Africa's T20 squad and another national discard, Farhaan Behardien. Walter believes all three are ready to stake a claim for regular places in the national team.
"We had discussions about developing their games to put them in positions where they could compete for places at international level," he said. "With Heino, it was about going from being a keeper who can bat to showing he is a high-quality batsmen. With Henry, it was about taking good starts with beautiful shots and then getting out to having the responsibility to bat deeper; and with Farhaan it was also about conversion."
Kuhn has handed the gloves to Mangaliso Mosehle and is focused on his role as an opening batsmen. He scored back-to-back hundreds in the last two matches to put the Titans in winning positions. Behardien, who Walters said "stands out as a leader", has taken over the captaincy in Davids' absence and blossomed under the burden. He has a century and two fifties so far and has been working on the things that saw him dropped from the South African side, such as his shot selection.
While moulding men who can turn out on the international stage, Walter has also had to concentrate on filling a trophy cabinet that remained empty last summer - a rare lack for the Titans. He has had Roelof van der Merwe to help in that mission. The left-arm spinner is the team's leading wicket-taker and fourth overall. "He knew he had to go from being a containing bowler to an attacking one," Walter said. He has taken nine wickets in the last four games as proof.
All that individual brilliance will come up against a Cobras unit that have played like a team. Only the veteran Charl Langeveldt, who is likely to recover from a hip injury to play the final, is among the top five bowlers in the competition while none of their batsmen feature on the corresponding list.
"It was never one individual getting us home. We've had performances spread all around," Paul Adams, Cobras coach, said. "And I think it's really shown in our fielding, where we've picked up a lot of run-outs. In pressure games, the younger guys have learned to step up and the more experienced ones have shown their quality."
Justin Ontong top-scored with 97 in their second win against the Titans, Langeveldt took four wickets at the death when they beat the Lions, Andrew Puttick scored a century against the Warriors to set up a win but it was up to the newer players like Dane Piedt and Lizaad Williams to bowl the Cobras to victory. Adams said tense situations like those helped ready the team for a final. "Guys are really focused now, they know what to expect."
This is the second successive season in which Cobras will feature in the one-day cup final. Last summer, they shared the trophy with the Lions, after two washouts. This time, the Lions finished bottom of the table while the Cobras have maintained their impressive run.
"The most important thing is to have a big crop of players to call on and then managing them well so they can pace themselves through the competition," Adams said when asked how he was able to continue that run. Those stocks will be added to with the inclusion of Vernon Philander and Robin Peterson for the final game.
Adams, who is in his second season in charge admitted "the nerves are always there" but said he does his job by "looking for ways to inspire people". And the ones he wants to influence ahead of the final are the fans.
Despite the high quality of cricket, stadiums have been starkly empty throughout the tournament. Matches on school-nights and late finishes are the main reasons for the dampened interest but with no New Year's Test at Newlands, Adams hopes people will go and watch their domestic team tussle it out on Friday.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent