The Dolphins and Titans capped another successful Standard Bank Pro20 season at Kingsmead last night and the competition continues to set the benchmark for domestic cricket.
Despite being shoved to the fag-end of the season, the Pro20 still managed to capture the imagination of South African cricket fans like no other and the Titans emerged as the winners, making sure they did not waste the services of their returning international stars. The men from the coast were the surprise packages of the tournament and, although the Dolphins often won "ugly", their combination of superb bowling and gritty batting almost took them all the way.
Being scheduled for April could have been awkward for the Pro20, but the success of the format allowed it to overcome the absence of the South African stars until the knockout rounds, cold weather in the evenings and the competing attractions of the Super 14 rugby and even the Indian Premier League, which has borrowed many of the ideas used in the local Pro20 competition. But the fact that Friday night's final was played in front of a full house in Durban and there were close-to-capacity crowds at the semi-finals at Kingsmead and Newlands augurs well for the continued success of the Pro20.
Batsmen, however, did not enjoy the same amount of success in this year's competition as in previous seasons. Bowlers, having tasted remorseless punishment in the first four seasons of Pro20, enjoyed a much better campaign as the batsmen's crown slipped somewhat. After four seasons of steady growth in the average total - 143 in the first season in 2003-04, followed by 148, 152 and then up to 165 last season - the average score plummeted to 134 in 2008.
It would seem the bowlers have really stepped up their skills, although only the first two competitions were staged so late in the season, bringing into play worn out pitches and more movement due to cooler climatic conditions.
The Cape Cobras dominated the round-robin stage with an unbeaten run of five wins and one no result but, perhaps distracted by the controversy surrounding their decision not to call up Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, they suffered defeat for the first time in the semi-finals when the Titans beat them in Cape Town.
The Titans batsmen were unusually flaky in this season's Pro20, but the one area the northern Gautengers excelled in, in a competition dominated by the ball, was bowling. There was no better balanced attack in the competition: if Ethy Mbhalati struck more often than not with the new ball, Albie Morkel gave nothing away with his seamers,and the spinners took control as well. Left-arm spinner Roelof van der Merwe was undoubtedly the find of the competition, bringing a no-fear approach to both bowling and batting. Mbhalati's method of hitting the deck hard and getting steepling bounce made him the second-most successful bowler in the competition, behind the Cobras' Charl Langeveldt, whose phenomenal season highlighted what a loss he will be if he heads for northern climes. The pair took the first two hat-tricks in the competition's history, just two days apart.
Garnett Kruger was the other outstanding fast bowler in the competition, but the Highveld Lions wasted his superb efforts, winning just one of their six matches. Loots Bosman was once again the leading batsman, although the Eagles lost out to the Dolphins at the semi-final stage.
KwaZulu-Natal, the province hit hardest by defections to the Indian Cricket League, had a largely young, inexperienced side as a result. But they had some aces in the deck in the form of left-arm seamer Yusuf Abdullah, skilful seamer Johann Louw and tenacious batsman Pierre de Bruyn. And, of course, not forgetting Daryn Smit, who had his hands full supplying vital lower-order runs, keeping wicket and being one of the most successful spinners in the competition.
Apart from amping up the sportainment aspects of the competition with pimped up transport for mascot Hardy, installing bigger dunk tanks and DJ booths and introducing dancers for the first time in all domestic matches, Standard Bank also added another unique feature to their highly successful sponsorship. Marketing the competition on social digital media platforms was added as the Pro20 enjoyed a formidable presence in cyberspace, with Facebook, standardbank.mobi. MXit and Twitter added to the chain of sponsorship levers.
With Jonty Rhodes' live blogs proving almost as popular as the wonderfully cheap ticket prices, the Pro20 is the one domestic competition that is certainly not limping along. Even older generation traditionalists must surely now approve as the initial shock has worn off.