Big runs for Stephen Cook, and encouraging signs for Chris Morris

A change of captain brought a change of fortunes for the Lions, while the Cobras secured a nervy four-wicket win over the Knights

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
Stephen Cook punches the ball straight  •  AFP

Stephen Cook punches the ball straight  •  AFP

Results summary
The Lions have both a new coach and a new captain this season, and the change in personnel has brought immediate success as they opened their season with a nine-wicket win over Warriors in Port Elizabeth.
In 2017-18, the Gauteng-based Lions had finished the four-day tournament at the bottom of the table, with just a single win. But in the off season Temba Bavuma took over the captaincy from Stephen Cook, and in May, Enoch Nkwe signed a three-year coaching contract, with Geoffrey Toyana moving into the position of High Performance manager.
Freed from the captaincy, Cook was instrumental to their opening win over the Warriors, his 188 giving them a first-innings lead of 125 after the rain had washed out much of the second day's play. Medium pacer Malusi Siboto's 5 for 54 kept the Warriors to just 182 in the second dig, and Lions completed an easy 58-run chase.
The Knights also have a new captain in Pite van Biljon, who replaced Theunis de Bruyn at the helm after the latter returned to the Titans. On his first day in charge, Van Biljon started strongly with a century against Cape Cobras at Newlands.
Cobras rode on Pieter Malan's 129 to take a big first-innings lead, and though van Biljon added a second-innings fifty and Grant Mokoena added a ton of his own, the Cobras were left chasing just 194 to win. They stumbled along the way, but fifties from Zubayr Hamza and Kyle Verreynne - as well as the broad bat of Rory Kleinveldt - secured a nervy four-wicket win.
In Centurion, the Titans and the Dolphins played out a tense draw. Keshav Maharaj's 4 for 71 brought some excitement to the final afternoon as he battled against Chris Morris, who threatened to take the game away with 46 before getting caught in the deep.
Alfred Mothoa's 5 for 55 had kept Dolphins to 269 after they had decided to bat first, and Farhaan Behardian then top-scored with 68 to give the Titans a slim first-innings lead of 39. The Dolphins' middle order was a little more firm second time around, and fifties from Vaughn van Jaarsveld and Calvin Savage gave the Titans a target of 277. They raced to 124 for 1, but then collapsed to 140 for 5 before Morris' hitting once again gave them hope. But once he fell aiming for a third six, the tailenders shut the shop down to cling on for a draw, stumps being called with Titans on 244 for 8.
On the national radar
Morris got through 30 overs in the match in Centurion, chipping in with five wickets and scores of 30 and 46. It's the sort of sustained, injury-free performance that he is hoping will not escape the attention of South Africa coach Ottis Gibson, who spoke recently about his desire for Morris to prove he could consistently stay "on the park" for his franchise.
Like Morris, Bavuma is not part of South Africa's immediate ODI plans but remains part of their thinking as they build towards the World Cup next year. Bavuma is also more of a fixture in South Africa's Test squad, and though he contributed just 35 runs to the Lions' win, four-day success with his franchise can only help to cement his position in the national side.
Maharaj got closer to South Africa's ODI squad against Zimbabwe than either of the above, being named in the original group before he was excused from national duty to captain the Dolphins in their opening match of the competition. But like Bavuma, it's in whites that he generally features for South Africa.
Elsewhere, Gihahn Cloete and Dane Paterson - both named in South Africa's T20I squad - are showing reassuring form in the longer format. Cloete, who had an excellent 2017-18, opened his season with 81 against Lions, while Paterson nipped out the top three in Knights' first innings, chipped in with 41 down the order, and then added 4 for 68 to help set up the Cobras' victory.
Top performers
The first round saw five hundreds and two five-wicket hauls (not to mention five four-fors), but the standout must be Cook's ton on a fresh, early-season pitch. His 188 was, remarkably, his 45th first-class hundred.
Special mention should also go to the pitches being played on. Last season's Sunfoil series went 12 successive games without a result, such was the blandness of the tracks, and the pitches used in the first two ODIs against Zimbabwe in Kimberley and, in particular, Bloemfontein have brought fresh scrutiny upon South Africa's groundsmen.
But if the first round results are anything to go by, the early-season surfaces everywhere else are behaving a little better, with two results and, generally, a good battle between bat and ball.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town