South Africa's domestic spinners eye their chance
South Africa's continued excellence on the international stage - they are ranked top of the Test table and considered World Cup winners in waiting - is the result of a strong domestic set-up. Unlike the English county circuit, or the plethora of premier leagues that headline other country's competitions, South Africa's local game is understated and under-supported, but it cannot be underestimated.
The 2014-15 season will be more closely watched than some of its predecessors, not just because it celebrates a decade of the franchise system but because of South Africa's sparse international calendar. They only host one team, West Indies, from mid-December, and will play just three home Tests this season, so the international players are likely to be available for significant parts of the one-day and 20-over tournaments.
The four-day contests kick off on Thursday, when the four franchises who did not qualify for the Champions League play the first of two fixtures before the focus shifts to limited overs. The two matches are the only long-form cricket the national players will have before West Indies arrive for a three-Test, three T20 and five-ODI visit. If the selectors are looking to tinker with the Test side it will either be on the basis of this small sample of matches or last season's performances.
Although South Africa recently won their first Test series in 21 years in Sri Lanka and enjoyed a successful trip to Zimbabwe, there are areas they will want to strengthen: there is scrutiny over the opening batting position, the choice of spinner, and the reserve bowlers, and the first-class competition could provide some answers.
At the top of the order, Alviro Petersen's middling form and run of 23 innings without a century could mean he faces pressure from a clutch of younger players, one of whom is already in the national plans. Stiaan van Zyl was part of South Africa's Test squad over the winter but as a No. 3.
Reeza Hendricks leads the queue, although last summer was not one of his stand-outs. Hendricks finished 12th on the first-class batting charts after scoring 543 runs at 36.20 with two centuries and a fifty, but he has consistently been among the top performers and a regular in the South Africa A team.
Along with Rilee Rossouw, who recently made his ODI debut for South Africa, and Test opener Dean Elgar, Hendricks has been made to wait for an opportunity. But his franchise coach, Sarel Cilliers, believes it serves to confirm his ability.
"Reeza, like Rilee, is ready for international cricket. They both need to string together a couple of good performances at the start of the season to maybe put some pressure on some of the guys that are there," Cilliers said. "They can see people who perform well domestically don't just get called up because the national team is doing well. That is healthy for the system. The important thing is to make sure that when they do get called up, they are ready. So they have to keep doing well over a long period of time."
Maintaining players' form is also on the mind of Warriors coach Piet Botha, whose opening batsman David White will be closely watched by the national selectors. White, schooled at Grey High, the alma mater of Graeme and Peter Pollock and Wayne Parnell, was the third-highest run scorer last season. His 882 runs at 49.00 included three centuries and five fifties and broke the Warriors record for most runs in a season.
White managed the feat in his first season as a franchise cricketer, so there are great expectations ahead of his follow-up year. "He's proved he can do it and people will take him seriously now, but we always say it's about how it goes the second time around," Botha said. "He will have to make sure he can handle the challenges that get thrown at him."
White broke a finger during training and will sit out the first few matches, which will likely rule him out of contention for a Test spot in the immediate future, but Botha believes he will be one to watch as the summer progresses "He has a good technique and has shown himself to be very capable off the back foot. His patience is immaculate and he has shown a lot of maturity. For a young guy, he knows when to do to what."
The same was said of Cobras offspinner Dane Piedt, who made his Test debut against Zimbabwe after topping last season's wickets list. Piedt's eight wickets from the one-off Test will reduce Imran Tahir's chances of a comeback.
It will also demand more of Warriors' Simon Harmer, who finished just below Piedt, with 40 wickets, last season.
Another spinner the selectors will be keeping an eye on is Aaron Phangiso, after Lions coach Geoffrey Toyana confirmed the left-armer will be given more four-day game time following his impressive showings for the national one-day side.
Tahir has left Lions for Dolphins, which will create room for both Phangiso and legspinner Eddie Leie in their XI. "There's some talk that Phangi can become a Test option, because he really performs that holding role, so we will give him an opportunity to show that. Our job as franchise coaches is to produce players for the national team," Toyana said.
Toyana's other bowling project is to get left-arm fast bowler Lonwabo Tsotsobe back onto the international stage now that he has recovered from ankle surgery. "He has been left behind a bit and he is aware of that and he wants to put it right," Toyana said. "He is fit, he is ready, he has lost weight and he is raring to go."
Tsotsobe is also focusing on making the World Cup squad - a goal Toyana thinks is realistic despite how settled South Africa's ODI outfit appears to be. "February is still a long way away, and if he does well, he will be on that plane. Australian pitches suit his style of bowling. All he needs is to show that he can."
South Africa's seam bowling stocks have always been considered healthy and Tsotsobe will face competition from the likes of Kyle Abbott, Rory Kleinveldt, who has also recovered from injury, and Marchant de Lange, who, back to his quickest, played for the South Africa A side and made a comeback to the ODI side.
De Lange's coach at the Titans, Rob Walter, is hopeful an extended run lies ahead.
"I wouldn't be surprised that is the last of his injuries," Walter said. "He has played extensively recently and he is doing well. His workload will need to be managed, but we will give him the best chance to stay on the field for as long as possible. It's good for South African cricket to have him waiting to be unleashed."
The franchises' focus on developing international cricketers will not detract from their desire to win a trophy. But this summer they also have another mission: to redress the racial imbalance as South African cricket goes into a fourth year without a black African in the Test team. All six franchises have will have to field five players of colour, two of whom must be black African, in an aggressive move to address South Africa's divided past and push for a more unified future.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent