It took a legal challenge, a consultation process headed by former ICC CEO David Richardson and 75 job losses, but finally it's here: South Africa's new domestic system. Gone are the complications of franchises and back is the simplicity of a provincial structure, with some additions.
Not only are each of South Africa's nine provinces represented in the new system, but some of them have multiple teams. Gauteng has three: the Johannesburg-based Lions, Northerns in Centurion and Easterns in Benoni. The Western Cape has Cape Town's Western Province, the Rocks in Boland and South-Western Districts in Oudtshoorn, while Eastern Province has teams in Gqeberha and East London, and Kwa-Zulu Natal has a coastal and inland team. Each of the Northern Cape, Free State, Limpopo, North-West and Mpumalanga also have their own teams, ensuring that cricket crosses the length and breadth of the country to broaden the talent pool available to the national selectors.
All 15 sides, along with the South African under-19 team, will be in action in the first competition of the season, a T20 tournament, that kicks off on Friday. It's a fitting start because September 24 is a public holiday; the day on which South Africans celebrate their diverse heritages. The only drawbacks are that none of the members of the T20 World Cup squad will be involved as they go into a camp to prepare for the tournament, and then to quarantine in the UAE. While this competition competes with the IPL for eyeballs, it still signals the start of summer in the southern hemisphere. To mark the occasion, we take a look at five major talking points ahead of the South African domestic season.
Same, same but different
South African domestic cricket has, for the last 16 summers, been fairly confusing for outsiders to understand, because of the franchise system. The six teams were amalgamations of provincial teams, some of whom would never have imagined joining together to form one unit, but did anyway. An example is Northerns, who play in Centurion - as the name would suggest, to the north of Johannesburg - who partnered with Easterns, who play in Benoni, to the east of the city, to become the Titans. Inevitably, most of the Titans activity took place at SuperSport Park while Willowmoore Park was the forgotten cousin. All of that has been restructured away, even though some of the provincial unions will keep their franchises names, so each province plays independently.
Northerns, the bigger of the teams that became the Titans, keeps the Titans name and Easterns will be known as Easterns. The Lions' name has been retained by Gauteng, the Dolphins by Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Warriors by Eastern Province and Knights by Free State. The Cobras name has been dropped entirely and Western Province will be known as such. The Titans, Lions, Dolphins, Warriors, Knights and Western Province are joined by the Rocks (based in Paarl) and the North-West Dragons (based in Potchefstroom) in Division 1. Border, Easterns, Northern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal Inland, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and South-Western Districts make up Division 2.
What hasn't changed is that there is still a hierarchy in the domestic system but it is no longer based on professional franchises and semi-professional provinces as was the case before. Now, it's simply Division 1 and Division 2 but actually, that's all just semantics. Teams in Division 1 have the budget to contract more players (16) than teams in Division 2 (11), have the nationally contracted players on their books and, when first-class and one-day matches are televised, it will likely be Division 1 on the silver screen. But, these divisions are not set in stone and a promotion-relegation system will be in place from the 2023/24 season, though it is yet to be decided if one or two teams will be moved between divisions. Both divisions play in the season-opening T20 competition.
While many players have stayed with the provincial unions attached to their former franchises, there have been some notable moves - most obviously in the formation of the two new top-tier teams, Boland and North-West. Boland have acquired the services of international batters, Janneman and Pieter Malan from the Cobras (now Western Province) while North-West have signed Dwaine Pretorius, who played at the Lions, and Senuran Muthusamy, the third-leading wicket-taker in last season's four-day competition from the title-holders, Dolphins. Thando Ntini has moved from the Titans to the Dolphins, having started his career in Cape Town, Beuran Hendricks has gone from the Lions to Western Province, and Dane Paterson will play for Eastern Province after spending the bulk of his career in Cape Town before a stint as an overseas player for Nottinghamshire.
The South African domestic set-up also welcomes back several players who ended their international careers to take up Kolpak deals. Boland are the biggest beneficiaries and have secured the services of batter Stiaan van Zyl and fast bowlers Hardus Viljoen and Kyle Abbott. North-West have also laid claim to a share of the returnees and signed Heino Kuhn. Duanne Olivier will play for the Lions, Simon Harmer for Titans, and allrounder Wayne Parnell returns to Western Province, where he will captain the team in the T20 tournament. The Kolpak system no longer exists, which also makes these players eligible for South Africa again.
Involvement of former internationals in coaching structures
Though South African cricket has suffered a brain drain with the loss of Cobras coach Ashwell Prince to Bangladesh as a batting consultant, and Vernon Philander, who was due to play for Western Province, to Pakistan as a bowling coach, there are still former players in the system. For instance, Imraan Khan, who played one Test for South Africa in 2009 and was a stalwart of the domestic set-up, won the first-class tournament with the Dolphins last year and remains their head coach. Robin Peterson head Eastern Province, Allan Donald is in charge at Free State, and Paul Adams has landed a role as head coach of Border, after last coaching at the Cobras in 2016.
There's also a big-name among the support staff. JP Duminy, who retired from international cricket after the 2019 World Cup, is the batting consultant for the Lions and has been seconded to the South African team for the T20 World Cup.
Other former players, albeit not internationals, who are involved are Adrian Birrell, former Ireland coach and South African assistant coach, who will be in charge of Boland, former Lions player Richard das Neves, who will coach Easterns and will join Namibia for the T20 Word Cup, and Dumi Makalima, former Border and Gauteng player who will take charge at Limpopo.
Commentary in isiXhosa
The high-profile names don't stop on the field. Three former international bowlers will be behind the microphone for dedicated isiXhosa commentary. Makhaya Ntini, Monde Zondeki, and Mfuneko Ngam make up a five-person team which also includes seasoned broadcasters Mluleki Ntsabo and Sixolele Sotyelelwa. Though this is not the first time commentary will be offered in isiXhosa, it appears to be the start of a more regular offering in a language outside of English or Afrikaans and will hopefully be the trend throughout the summer.
Stiaan van Zyl
Richard das Neves
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent