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November 19, 2013
Sunfoil Series - Better contests anticipated
It does not have the cult following of the English county circuit or the scale and speed of the Indian system but South Africa's first-class competition is a competitive breeding ground that continues to supply the No. 1 Test team with players ready to make the step up.
Last summer was a bowler's tournament. The top three wicket-takers claimed 134 scalps between them, the most in the last four seasons, while the top run-scorer made only 776 runs. South Africa's stock of seamers rose with Kyle Abbott making a Test debut, Wayne Parnell finding form and the likes of Beuran Hendricks and Ayabulela Gqamane coming to the fore.
Naturally, that left South Africa a little short on batsmen, particularly in the top order. The playing field is expected to even out this season. With the competition starting later in the year, when pitches have calmed down a touch, it should provide the perfect contest.
The defending champions have already enjoyed a good start to the season, having shared the one-day cup with Titans. They are led by the experienced Justin Ontong, who is now in his 17th season, and have the likes of Justin Kemp and Andrew Puttick to mentor the younger players. With the frequency at which their players graduate to the national team, this will again be a tournament to blood a fresh crop.
Watch out for
An exciting selection of players in all departments has given Cobras some interesting options this season. The focus will be on batsmen Yaseen Vallie, quick bowler Lizaad Williams and offspinner Dane Piedt who will all look to secure regular places. Stiaan van Zyl, second on the run-charts last year, will hope to use this summer to push for national selection.
The Johannesburg-based team almost caught Cobras last summer but were too far behind to leapfrog them. They've struggled with a host of injuries at the start of this season and with some of their players on national duty, their depth has been under scrutiny. Having worked hard to clamber their way out of mediocrity last season, the Lions are unlikely to throw that away easily.
Watch out for
Imran Tahir was rehabilitated at Lions after his Adelaide nightmare and has become a feature in all three formats for South Africa. Lonwabo Tsotsobe will hope for the same for himself. The loss of his Test place coincided with the rise of Vernon Philander but Tsotsobe has intentions to get it back and hopes to show that this summer. Quinton de Kock will be hopeful of something similar. Now a firm fixture in South Africa's limited-overs team, the young wicket-keeper batsman will look to hone his longer form game and show he is capable as a Test player as well.
Lance Klusener's maiden season in charge in 2012-13 was about turning Dolphins into a competitive unit again. They finished in third place. In his follow-up summer, Klusener wants to win something. Dolphins missed out on a place in the one-day cup final after being the form team of the competition and will want to make amends. They are under a new captain in Morne van Wyk and seem to be responding well to his style.
Watch out for
Dolphins are the only team with an overseas professional playing in all formats and Graham Onions will be the focus of their campaign. He was instrumental in Durham's victory in the County championship where he took 70 wickets at 18.45, numbers not good enough to earn an Ashes place but numbers Dolphins would love replicated. His influence on Kyle Abbott will also be important as Abbott looks to earn himself more Tests for South Africa.
A shift in focus last season saw Warriors place more emphasis on the first-class format. They finished fourth, winning four games and losing four - with two drawn - which may not seem very fruitful but there were positives. They totalled 100 points in the competition, which Rusty Theron revealed was a first for them, "in a long time". Their bowlers were their strength but they are still in search of batsmen with the temperament to help them total over 400.
Watch out for
Ashwell Prince has a reputation for grinding it out and will have to serve as an example to the likes of Colin Ingram. Ryan Bailey's inclusion from the Knights should also bolster their batting. Parnell, who had a good season with bat and ball last summer, will try to use the campaign to show his Test worthiness while bowling talent in Gqamane, Theron and Simon Harmer will all be on the national selectors' radar.
Bloemfontein is known for being hot and dry but the Knights 2012-13 first-class competition was ruined by weather. Their home town was not to blame as all three of their abandoned matches were away from home. A lack of competitive edge saw them draw three others and finish with only one win. Having done well in seasons past piling on big totals rather than going for wins, they failed to adjust to the new allocation of points which rewards teams for victories far more than it used to, when high-scoring draws could still result in a good overall position on the table. They will need to get the balance right this time.
Watch out for
Dean Elgar is an opening batsman by trade and will be eyeing that position in the Test team, especially given the lack of form of Alviro Petersen. Rilee Rossouw and Reeza Hendricks can always be counted on to notch up big runs but there will be keen interest in Diego Rosier, an under-19 player looking to make his mark.
Last season's last-place team have already come back well this summer. They shared the one-day cup and are making big strides under new coach Rob Walter. They have an impressive arsenal of players that includes former international batsman Jacques Rudolph, the aggressive Roelof van der Merwe and the all-round skill of Albie Morkel. Combined with their younger hopes, they could be seen as serious title-contenders this time.
Watch out for
A stress fracture kept Marchant de Lange out of most of last season but he is back, bowling quickly and wants another shot at Test cricket. Farhaan Behardien is another player who is also keen to work his way back into the South African side while Henry Davids, who is part of the T20 squad, will want to display his longer-form credentials.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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