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Luke Alfred

Down to the pointy end in South Africa

The domestic season is coming to an end and familiar scenarios are playing themselves out

Luke Alfred
Morne Morkel and other Titans players celebrate a wicket, Lions v Titans, Ram Slam T20 Challenge final, Johannesburg, April 7, 2013

Titans: up against familiar foes Lions again  •  Getty Images

Four seasons ago, under the stewardship of Matthew Maynard, Titans' batsmen failed to score a first-class century. Last season they scored ten, and with two matches to go in this season's Sunfoil Series, they have scored ten already.
"We're aiming for 13," says coach Rob Walter breezily. "There's no science to it. We just wanted to do better than last season and felt 13 was within reach. Heino [Kuhn] has scored three of the ten, and six batsmen in all have scored centuries, which we're pleased with."
On Thursday, Titans host their neighbours, Lions, in the penultimate round of the four-day competition. With Titans on top and Lions, the holders, in third spot, the match is a final in everything but name.
Finals come around fairly regularly for Titans nowadays. In December, for instance, they smashed a win in the final of the Ram Slam T20 against Cobras. It had a pleasing symmetry about it because it was a repeat of what they did this time last season, when they stole into Cape Town in the final of the Momentum One-Day Cup. Chasing Cobras' 285 (Richard Levi 104, Andrew Puttick 69, in an opening stand of 180) Titans got over the line with five wickets and 17 balls to spare. The scaffolding around which they coloured their chase was provided by Dean Elgar and Albie Morkel, who scored 100 and 134 not out respectively, and the kudos rightly went to Morkel, who scored his runs in 103 balls, hammering eight fours and seven monster sixes.
At the same time, you rather felt that there was something a little too polite in the way Cobras surrendered the initiative. It was as though they invited Titans to an expensive restaurant, allowed their guests to eat their helping, and paid the bill. Then they walked home while Titans took an Uber for a night on the town.
That Titans victory was not only significant because it rescued what, in truth, had been a fairly rum season, it signalled an important shift in the balance of domestic power. For many years Cobras whistled the tune and others followed. They had good nurseries, a seemingly bottomless talent pool, and the city managed to attract players like Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, who were only nominally Cobras but could always be conveniently relied upon to grace the odd final.
Much good remains, except things are fraying around the edges. Cobras have won only four out of their last 18 Sunfoil Series matches, finishing fourth last season and currently lying becalmed in fifth. No wonder Paul Adams, their coach, looks increasingly like a grumpy Jabba the Hutt. Rory Kleinveldt, until recently an international cricketer, looked terminally out of shape earlier this season, and there are dark mutterings aplenty. Here is a franchise that isn't exactly exuding joie de vivre.
While Cobras battle to find a sponsor, so, in fairness, do Titans. Their current deal with The Unlimited, a financial services provider, will come to an end shortly, and it isn't as though there will be anyone sitting under the plane trees on the grass embankment come Thursday against Lions. This aside, the University of Pretoria is providing a steady raft of young players; Jacques Faul, the franchise chief executive, believes that the university 1st XI could probably beat the Titans semi-professional team.
After slow beginnings, Walter has also come of age. By his own admission he has "grown exponentially" partly because the unique demands of South Africa require him to be everything from a racial-sensitivity advisor to a father figure and a psychologist, and partly because he has needed to adapt or die. His biggest concern for Thursday is whether to take a punt on wristspinner, Tabraiz Shamsi, the fourth-highest wicket-taker in the first-class competition at the moment. Titans management has always stressed a "horses for courses" type approach to selection, so Shamsi's 12 wickets in the match against Warriors in Port Elizabeth ten days ago might not carry the weight it deserves.
SuperSport Park will not be as conducive to spin as St George's Park was, and Lions have a strong batting spine. Titans will need to take 20 wickets against a side that contains Stephen Cook, Alviro Petersen and the in-form Dominic Hendricks. Shamsi has never been shy to step forward and peddle his wares. He might need to do so again on Thursday.
As for Lions, you wouldn't know that they are in the midst of a prolonged domestic match-fixing investigation. Lions chief executive Greg Fredericks is taking the prudent line that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, although he's clearly planning for the future, having signed Titans' young wicketkeeper-batsman Mangaliso Mosehle as the new round of contracting comes to an end.
The show must go on, even when there's no one there to watch it.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg