After a month of playing T20 cricket in the inaugural Mzansi Super League, South Africa's domestic cricketers returned to four-day mode. The transition appeared easier for some than for others.
Six of the Lions' XI (seven, if you count Wihan Lubbe, who filled in for one game before moving to Giants) were part of the victorious Jozi Stars team that lifted the MSL title, but the change in format brought a complete reversal of fortunes as they slipped to a massive 279-run defeat to Dolphins at the Wanderers.
Dolphins' win was set up by captain Khaya Zondo, who opted to bat first and then glued the first innings together with 114 - his 10th first-class hundred - along with fifties from Cody Chetty and Andile Phehlukwayo. The Dolphins bowling attack then sealed the result, bowling the Lions out for 134 and 106. The frailty of Lions' batting, with wickets shared around by Dolphins' seamers, and Eathan Bosch's 4 for 35 doing most of the damage in the second dig, meant that a 10-wicket match haul from Lions allrounder Dwaine Pretorius had little effect on the final result. Pretorius collected a career-best 6 for 38 after Dolphins had opted to bat first, and added 4 for 37 in the second innings, but no Lions batsman scored more than Rassie van der Dussen's 37 as they were blown away inside three days.
Titans secured a 65-run win at the Mangaung Oval in Bloemfontein, Tabraiz Shamsi's five-for building on Faf du Plessis' 84 and fifties from Heinrich Klaasen and Farhaan Behardien to secure a first innings lead despite a fearsome new-ball spell from Knights' Duanne Olivier. Jonathan Vandiar's second-innings hundred extended Titans' advantage, Vandiar's knock holding the innings together as seamer Shadley van Schalkwyk collected 5 for 80 at the other end.
Knights were left needing 315 in their second innings, and though they lost Keegan Petersen to the the second ball he faced, a 69-run second wicket stand between Grant Mokoena and Andries Gous put them back on track. Knights went into the final day needing another 152 for victory, with only four wickets lost, but committed spells from Chris Morris, Shamsi and Itumeleng Moseki broke the back of their chase. The was Titans' first win of the season.
Cape Cobras' fourth win, against Warriors at Port Elizabeth, kept them well clear at the top of the points table. Brothers Janneman and Pieter Malan gave Cobras an excellent start with the bat, putting on an opening stand of 124, before seamers Sisanda Magala and Lutho Sipamla clawed Warriors back into the match. Warriors also started well, with Edward Moore and Jon-Jon Smuts striking fifties, but they still conceded a slight first-innings lead.
The Malans continued their fine form in the second innings, putting on 130, with the younger Janneman reaching 168 - the eighth first-class ton of his career. With Hashim Amla and Zubayr Hamza also both passing fifty, Warriors were asked to chase a mammoth 418 in the fourth innings. Gihahn Cloete's 108 kept them hoping, and when Warriors passed 300 with Smuts at the crease and only four wickets down on the fourth afternoon, an unlikely victory beckoned. But Cobras captain Dane Piedt struck repeatedly with his offspin, and Warriors were nine down in the last hour. Magala and Sipamla dug in, but Piedt wouldn't be denied, trapping Sipamla lbw to claim his eighth wicket, finishing with a career-best 8 for 130.
On the national radar
Most of the national squad that will reassemble to take on Pakistan on Boxing Day were given good workouts in the latest round of domestic four-day fixtures. In Port Elizabeth, Amla recovered from a first-ball strangle down the leg side to register a second innings 61. Zubayr Hamza, who was also out for a duck in Cobras' first innings, likewise patched things up with 74 in the second innings.
In Bloemfontein, Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar were both given a thorough first innings working-over by Olivier, the only South Africa seamer not rested before the first Test as Knights' seam cupboard was bare without him. Markram and Elgar both required attention from the physio thanks to Olivier's pace and bounce in the first innings, the quick collecting seven wickets in the game and bowling 29.5 overs.
National captain du Plessis also got some important time in the middle in that match, while at the Wanderers there were positive signs from Keshav Maharaj, who collected three very cheap wickets in the win over Lions.
Dane Paterson, who has been called up to the Proteas squad as injury cover, had a quiet match with the ball against Warriors, but did show what he offers with the bat, striking 41 from 17 deliveries with six sixes in Cobras' first innings.
Spin isn't traditionally a weapon of choice on South African pitches, but the coastal tracks do usually turn a little more than those inland, and Piedt's offspin was just the trick for Cobras to secure their fifth win of the season in Port Elizabeth. Piedt still had to work hard for his wickets, twirling through more than 50 overs, and Magala and Sipamla provided doughty resistance at the end, but with the clock counting down, Piedt struck for an eighth time to secure the win, and career-best figures.
The Malan brothers also had a very good outing in that match, and Pieter currently tops the four-day batting charts with 625 runs at 56.81, including three hundreds and three fifties. Janneman is in his first season of four-day cricket, having started at the provincial level three seasons ago. His century against Warriors was his second for Cobras, and he is not far behind his brother in third place on the run charts with 562 at 51.09.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town