South Africa review 2003-04

A mixed bag

Colin Bryen and Andrew Samson

While the national team struggled, with mixed results, to maintain South Africa's previously acknowledged position as the leading threat to Australia's supremacy, the country saw the beginnings of an internal revolution designed to transform domestic cricket. At the end of the 2003-04 season South Africans had a first taste of the new professional franchise system during a 20-overs competition, modelled on the English version so successfully introduced less than a year earlier.

More than 153,000 spectators watched 17 matches in the Pro20 tournament, which served a dual purpose, forging an identity for six new teams and reversing a fall in domestic attendances. The United Cricket Board hoped the crowds would return when the franchise system started in earnest in 2004-05, with the same teams playing four-day and 45-overs cricket. The new structure arose from a review prompted by South Africa's failure against Australia in 2000-01 and a perceived decline in provincial standards. Independent consultants recommended cutting the number of professional teams from 11 to six, with the aim of strengthening the game below Test level and providing better preparation for the national side.

Cricket SA, the body set up by the UCB to run the professional game, awarded six franchises, mostly incorporating the 11 existing teams, in February 2004. Northerns and Easterns combined as the Titans, based at Centurion. At Johannesburg, Gauteng and North West formed the Lions. KwaZulu-Natal won a sole franchise, and would play at Durban as the Dolphins. Western Province plus Boland covered the Western Cape from Cape Town. The Eastern Cape took in Eastern Province and Border, whose headquarters, rather unexpectedly, were to be at Border's ground in East London rather than Port Elizabeth. Free State and Griqualand West could not agree a joint proposal, and bid separately; Free State won and named themselves the Eagles, based at Bloemfontein, while Griqua supporters staged a peaceful but unavailing pitch invasion during a one-day game to protest against the decision.

First impressions from the 2004-05 season were that the new system seemed to be fulfilling the cricketing objectives without making much impact on the public.

Free State Eagles became the first franchise side to win a trophy. Led by Nicky Boje and including Loots Bosman and Deon Kruis, signed from Griqualand West, they beat Eastern Cape in the rain-affected Pro20 final. Bosman was named Pro20's "Master Blaster" after scoring 219 at a strikerate of 120.99.

The league phase was dominated by the Titans and the awkwardly titled Western Province Boland: the name, combined with the sponsor, took up so much space that the players had to let their shirts hang out of their trousers for it to be visible in full. With Western Province dominating the partnership, it was expected that "Boland" would eventually disappear. The Lions finished last, but drew the biggest crowd when 18,221 turned up at the Wanderers and saw them lose with a ball to spare against the Dolphins - who failed to reach the semis despite fielding Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener.

The true value of the new system would be tested when the sides played first-class cricket. A challenge for all of them, and a potential conflict with the principle of raising standards, was a UCB target for 40% of squads and four players on the field in each match to be "players of colour". Meanwhile, below the professional level, the 11 provincial unions affiliated to the UCB would continue to play amateur cricket with, for the time being, first-class status. Five further unions - Limpopo, Mpumalanga, South Western Districts, Border-Kei and KwaZulu-Natal Inland - would play in a third, non-firstclass tier.

Western Province were the last first-class champions under the old system, beating KwaZulu-Natal in the SuperSport Series final despite Klusener taking 12 wickets. It was a deserved victory: the business end of the season took place while five of their players were with the Test squad in New Zealand. They also headed the league in the one-day Standard Bank Cup, but were knocked out in the semi-finals.

Two left-handers, 23-year-old Andrew Puttick and Jean-Paul Duminy, who turned 20 in April, between them scored more than 1,200 first-class runs for Western Province. Left-arm seamer Charl Willoughby was the competition's leading wicket-taker, with 42 at 20, one ahead of Klusener, with 41 at 21 for KwaZulu-Natal. Claude Henderson, the left-arm spinner, took 38 but decided to move on after six seasons for a new career with Leicestershire. Also tempted abroad was Arthur Turner, one of the country's leading administrators, to be commercial director of Glamorgan after 11 years as chief executive at Newlands. And the captain, Gary Kirsten, retired. Test calls meant he took charge in only two first-class matches; in his absence, Ashwell Prince proved a capable leader.

KwaZulu-Natal started in rampant form, winning five of their first six SuperSport games before losing the last three, including the final. Bad weather washed away their one-day chances. All was not well in their camp: coach Eldine Baptiste, the former West Indies Test player, left, and Dale Benkenstein resigned the captaincy after eight largely successful seasons. Phil Russell, the former Derbyshire player who had stepped down when Baptiste took the job, moved up again, and the new captain was 21-yearold Hashim Amla.

Amla led the batting, with 647 runs; Benkenstein and opener Doug Watson also passed 550. On the bowling front, the Natalians gained immensely from Klusener's determination to play himself back into the national side, with support from West Indian Nixon McLean and fellow seamer Andrew Tweedie. Off-spinner Imraan Khan, who led South Africa Under-19 in England in 2003, showed promise on debut.

North West enjoyed their best season since elevation to the top flight in 1999-2000, finishing third in the SuperSix, but lost their first seven one-day matches. They greeted the franchise system without enthusiasm, as minor partners with Gauteng. Only two North West players, seamer Garth Roe and spinner Werner Coetsee, were offered contracts with the Lions; others were lured to rival franchises. Border were fourth, thanks to fast-medium bowler Tyron Henderson, who took 38 SuperSport wickets and had the season's highest first-class aggregate with 44. He was also an aggressive pinch-hitter in the one-day competition, where Border finished mid-table.

Free State, captained by Allan Donald who had retired from national duty, had hopes of reaching the SuperSport final until bad light denied them in their penultimate game, with North West eight down. Losing the last match to Western Province bumped them down to fifth, and they could not win a single one-day fixture before their re-emergence as the Eagles when the new system began. Griqualand West, who as Kimberley were the second winners of the Currie Cup in 1890-91, at the height of the diamond rush, were the big losers in the franchise shake-up; they did well to reach the Super Six but, disillusioned by rejection, lost their remaining games. Defending champions Easterns built some large totals, but failed to win in the pool phase and did not reach the Super Six. Three victories in the Shield Series for non-qualifiers placed them top of that table by more than 27 points, and they also got to the one-day final. New captain Daryll Cullinan and Zander de Bruyn were in prolific form. De Bruyn set an Easterns record with 266 not out against Griqualand West and, with 1,015 runs at 72.50, became only the second man after Barry Richards to score 1,000 in a season in Currie Cup/SuperSport cricket. De Bruyn scored 1,048 in all first-class matches. Sven Koenig, formerly of Western Province and Gauteng, appeared as an overseas player for Easterns, having joined Middlesex on a European passport.

Boland's last season as an independent professional team ended with farewells to some of their best players. Henry Williams, who had played seven one-day internationals in 1999 and 2000, retired, aged 36, while Justin Ontong joined the Lions. Bad weather and some bad luck contributed to a disappointing campaign by Northerns, without their three Test batsmen for much of the season. Seamers Alfonso Thomas and Ethy Mbhalati compensated for the failure of West Indies' Reon King, while all-rounder Justin Kemp regained some of the form which earned him international selection in 2000-01. Batsman A. B. de Villiers was one of the most promising newcomers to provincial cricket.

Eastern Province, whose time among the giants had become a distant memory, ended a streak of 18 first-class matches without victory when they defeated Northerns in March, but it was a rare highlight. Captain Carl Bradfield resigned mid-season and was replaced by Robin Peterson. Some problems were solved when a properly constituted board was elected in December; the union had been in "judicial management" for almost 18 months after endless wrangling between officials and the transformation monitoring committee. But there was a further unhappy incident when Kepler Wessels, the coach, was accused of racism by two disaffected players. An inquiry cleared him.

Gauteng did not have a single player in the top 20 of the batting or bowling averages and had not qualified for the Super group of the first-class competition since their last title in 1999-2000. They did win the one-day Standard Bank Cup. In the semi-final, an opening stand of 175 between Adam Bacher, nephew of Ali, and Stephen Cook, son of Jimmy, set up victory over Northerns, and they went on to beat Easterns in a final postponed for two days because of heavy rain.

Off the field, Diteko Modise, the United Cricket Board's financial manager, was suspended after an audit, arrested and, in May, charged with irregularities reportedly involving more than seven million rand (about £600,000).

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack