South Africa basks in sporting spotlight again
When the first ball of the match between the Highveld Lions and the Mumbai Indians is bowled on Friday, Cricket South Africa (CSA) will become the only international cricketing body to have hosted every major, multi-team tournament the sport has to offer. They've achieved that feat in just eight years, starting with the World Cup in 2003, the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007, the IPL and ICC Champions Trophy last year and now, the Champions League Twenty20.
Gerald Majola, chief executive officer of CSA, has led the organisation since 2001 (when it was still called the United Cricket Board) and has been at the helm for all the major events. Despite recently courting controversy surrounding bonus payments, Majola is in good spirits ahead of the big event. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be the only CEO in world cricket to have hosted all major events," he said. "In fact, in my cricket playing days I never even thought I would be a CEO. I am very proud."
He certainly can be, as in the last 18 months, South Africa have been the darlings of two major sports, cricket and football. The buzz has been centered around the latter, with many locals harbouring fond memories of how their country became the world's capital two months ago during the football World Cup. The Champions League can hardly measure up that scale but there is still plenty of interest around it.
Three weeks ago, the Champions League was launched with a glitzy event at a Johannesburg nightclub called Taboo. Enrique Iglesias, the headline act and the man who song is the theme of the event, is hosting a sold-out concert on Thursday night at the Botanical Gardens. For the moment, the cricket itself is taking a backseat and there are still tickets available for the opening match and final but South Africans are known for picking up the hype after kick off.
Perhaps some are still recovering from the footballing showpiece and haven't had time to take in the fact that the country is, once again, the stage for an international show. "There are three main reasons that South Africa is awarded big events," explained Majola. "The spirit in which our people embrace sport is unmatched, we have good facilities and we receive a lot of government support to host sporting events."
The last of those three reasons may surprise locals, particularly because the government is often criticised for slow service delivery, corruption and has just come out of a crippling three-week public servants' strike. However, Majola insists on "giving accolades where they are due" and cited an example to back up his claims. "The government provides us with police services for free during tournaments like these, which a lot of people don't know."
Besides the resident police, local firm Nicholls, Steyn and Associates, who provide security for many sporting and other events and the ICC's anti-corruption unit will all be in operation through the tournament. Preparations at the four venues are complete and with all of them being well versed in hosting major competitions, there's no need to question if any of the facilities are ready, they always are.
For one of them, the Gauteng Cricket Board at the Wanderers, there is something different about their status in this tournament. On Monday, they ushered in a new CEO, Cassim Docrat, to end months of infighting and a CSA commission led by a former Chief Justice, Pius Langa, to look into the affairs of their board.
While the union has battled through a management crisis, the team has fared little better and has been in decline since winning the 2006-07 Standard Bank Pro20. They surprised most by reaching the final of the competition last season and are considered the competition's biggest underdogs. Docrat said that tag will be their advantage. "The Lions may not have many big stars but we are a balanced team where everybody contributes," said Docrat. "We have two top coaches in Dave Nosworthy and Kepler Wessels and on home ground, we hope to do well."
Majola also hopes the Lions will be the "surprise package" of the event but is putting far more pressure on the Warriors, who hail from the same province he does, the Eastern Cape. "I'll be surprised if the Warriors don't at least make the semi-finals especially after they won both the twenty- and forty-over competitions in the last domestic season," he told ESPNcricinfo.
Johan Botha agrees, admitting that the final four is his team's goal. "We had initially targeted 2011 as the year that we wanted to compete against the world's best and it's come a bit earlier than that, but we've worked very hard for this," said Botha. "We know that the other teams, who are away from home may be more up for it because they are away, but for us, it will also help to have a home crowd behind us."
They won't have all the advantages though as the Warriors, like the other southern hemisphere teams, are coming out of the off season and have not played together for almost four months. Despite that, Botha is confident the Warriors have prepared sufficiently. "We've done the hard work. It's a short tournament, so we have to start well and we know we have to win at least two group stage matches to progress so that's our first focus."
Botha also said the incentives on offer will provide some inspiration. "The exposure the guys will get from this is invaluable and a lot of players will be hoping to get a look-in for next year's IPL auction." Earning a lucrative contract in the sport's richest league may be on the mind of some but the new South African Twenty20 captain may also be interested to hear what Majola's post-tournament goal is as motivation. Majola was asked what CSA will target next. "Now we need not just to host major events successfully, but to win a major trophy."
Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg