Lions reclaim lost loyalties

Sachin Tendulkar strokes through the off side AFP

It could have been the mighty presence of Sachin Tendulkar or the effects of IPL branding, which has people from all corners sprouting loyalty to some of its teams. Either way, Mumbai Indians must have felt they were playing a home game in their Champions League Twenty20 opener on Friday night. Pity the wrong team won.

The Wanderers is by no means the Wankhede, the DY Patil or the Brabourne - for a start, those venues are usually full when Mumbai play - but it welcomed the IPL runners-up with open arms. A paltry 15,500 people turned up for the first match, less than half the stadium's capacity but most of them arrived united on one front - their support for Mumbai.

The reason? Apart from wanting to cheer stars, the truth is that it's been difficult being a Lions supporter in the past three seasons. Since winning the 2006/07 Standard Bank Pro20, the team has been in free-fall. They've finished last in five out of nine competitions including two MTN40s, two Pro20s and a SuperSport Series, and have finished in the top two of any competition only once. The once-mighty sporting province became known as the whipping boys of the local league and the running joke was that they should be renamed the kittens. Crowds in domestic competitions, which are scant anyway, have been even thinner at the Lions' den in recent times and the people of Johannesburg had all but lost interest in domestic cricket.

It should hardly be surprising that they didn't come out in droves or that those who did attend the match were there to see the other team. In some ways it was reminiscent of the Apartheid days when non-white supporters would attend rugby matches and cheer for New Zealand instead of the Springboks. This crowd had no political reasons to not get behind the home team, they simply saw something more attractive in the other side.

The Lions' batsmen started nervously and the needless confusion that led to Alviro Petersen's run-out may have resulted in moans of "much of the same" from those that know the Lions well. By the end of the sixth over, with the score on 39 for 2, the rustling restlessness of a group that sensed a collapse was obvious. Then, Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl and the Bullring shook to its core with delight at seeing another hero.

They hardly noticed Jonathan Vandiar redeem himself, after the race with Petersen to the same end, with his highest score in Twenty20s or the favourite son of the team, Neil McKenzie, scoring a classy, confident half-century. At the end of their innings, the Lions had done as much as they could. They had put their third highest total in the format, 186, on the board. It was the same score that helped them overcome the Titans in the semi-final of the Standard Bank Pro20 competition, and qualify for the CLT20. They had also reached the highest score against an IPL team in the CLT20's short history.

Ten minutes later, the Lions started back-pedalling so fast, they may have ended up in Durban. Bowling to Tendulkar was going to be no easy task and the Lions let the crowd indulge as the master marched on. Tendulkar survived a loud Ethan O'Reilly appeal and two run-out chances, and while he was on fire, the crowd lit up. They cheered his every move, praised his every run and worshipped each of his nine fours with their decibels. As long as he was at the crease there was no doubt about which team the Wanderers wanted to win.

Then, the tide started turning. The relatively unknown Shane Burger grabbed his Big Mac with all the extras when he deceived Tendulkar with a slower ball. The Lions had started to roar and the people couldn't help but join in. It might have been the spark they saw when Burger, fizzing like an exploding cold drink, beamed after sending Tendulkar on his way, opening the tiniest window of opportunity.

With four overs to go and Mumbai needing 47, a sequence of clapping and the chanting of "Lions" was heard from a small section of the crowd. They were being coaxed over. But, the first ball of Burger's next over was slapped for six by Kieron Pollard and the amateur cheer-leading subsided. A four and another six followed before Burger dished up the supersize version, a perfect yorker, to dismiss Pollard.

"Towards the end of the match, the crowd really got on our side," said Petersen and he was right. The bunch of people watching the last three overs appeared a completely different one from those who had seen the 37 before as they now suddenly remembered that they were on the Highveld supporting the Lions. Zander de Bruyn and Frylinck, who bowled in that period, got the best of it, but the message was clear: the Lions have put themselves on the path to winning back the hearts and minds of their own fans. Suddenly, it felt very good to be behind them.