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SA20 hits the right notes as crowds flock to opening night

First impressions were encouraging on South African cricket's quest for renewal

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Performers at the opening ceremony of the SA20  •  SA20

Performers at the opening ceremony of the SA20  •  SA20

There were people. For the first time in three years, Newlands was filled with thousands of fans. And not just any kind of fans. Happy fans.
This is not a dog-bites-man story, but actually worth stating loud and proud up front because prior to this, the opening night of the SA20, there have been more than 1000 very difficult days in South African cricket. Unhappy days. And unhappy people.
The tough times started right here, at this ground, in December 2019 when a new CSA leadership was unveiled amid administrative chaos. In the weeks and months and years that followed, pretty much everything that could go wrong, on and off the field, did go wrong and public confidence in the game shrivelled and shrunk. Even the most dedicated supporters took up residence in negative town and talk on their streets was that nothing could interest them in anything CSA did ever again. But 20,000 of them were lured back into Newlands on Tuesday afternoon, two weeks before January's pay-day, and rumour has it the same number will turn up at Kingsmead on Wednesday and in Gqeberha the day after.
They liked what they saw in Cape Town. People smiled and took selfies as they slowly found their seats in the afternoon sun. Young children, still on school holidays, came in with their parents, and would doubtless be permitted a later-than-usual bedtime. As had been the case just before the pandemic silenced our stadiums, the crowd was diverse in age, gender and race - a heartening sight considering the polarised state of the game outside of this tournament. And then they sang.
The SA20 organisers have spent significant resources on the entertainment and brought out two of South Africa's best-known performers for an otherwise low-key opening ceremony. Sho Majozi, a rapper, and Master KG, famed for the lockdown hit "Jerusalema", performed on a stage just outside the newly built office development at the ground while dancers did their bit in front of the embankment. A clutch of pre-converted MI Cape Town supporters, with branded azure blue caps, flags and t-shirts, joined them, complete with all the right moves. The fireworks in the day time only managed to blend in with the bright blue sky and were lost on just about everyone but the presence of the who's who of South African cricket was not.
On the grass embankment, a fenced-off area functioned as a makeshift commentary box. Graeme Smith, now in his role as the league's commissioner but who has worn hats from national captain to director of cricket, was swamped by autograph-hunters. Smith has found himself loved and hated in equal measure over the last three years - for saving South African cricket after the terrible Thabang Moroe era, and for suspicions that he fostered a boys' club of sorts in the national team (which was also implied at the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings), but he still commands an audience. AB de Villiers was around too, and had a similar reception. But the biggest response was reserved for the men on the field. Specifically, the one we've called "Baby AB", now known as DB: Dewald Brevis.
He lived up to his reputation as the next big thing in South African innings with a match-winning knock in the tournament opener, after it seemed local players would be outshone. Cape Town's own George Linde was tasked with bowling the first ball of the new competition and would never have played in front of a crowd this big at home. His first two deliveries went well but this third was threaded through extra cover by Jos Buttler. He conceded eight in total and then switched ends to bowl the fourth over, where he conceded nine more.
In between that, Jofra Archer made a much-awaited comeback to competitive cricket, after 18 months on the sidelines, and he could not have asked for a better start. He removed Wihan Lubbe with his third ball, after swinging the first and zoning in on the toes with the second, and finished with a wicket maiden. The oohs and aahhs were admiring but probably also a little anxious. Remember that Archer will be part of the England ODI squad that plays South Africa in World Cup League matches later this month and if he's already getting his speeds up to 145kph, how dangerous might he be then?
The English performers continued to give South Africa plenty to worry about as Buttler found his groove with ramps and lap shots and then Olly Stone took out both his and Dane Vilas' middle stumps. David Miller provided a reminder of what South Africans can do with a 31-ball 42, including a glorious six over long-on off Sam Curran, but became the first of Archer's two-in-two. But then South Africa's new names dominated.
Brevis and Ryan Rickleton, both talked about as batters who should have been in the Test squad in Australia, made the target look small as in the president's suite some of the national rugby team, including scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, looked on. They batted with a freedom South African players have not had for the last three years, unshackled from the burdens of controversy and to some extent, expectation.
A sunset walk around the ground revealed that as much as people were paying some attention to what was going on in the middle, they weren't paying that much. This is, after all, a tournament that's about more than cricket and many of the people at Newlands were enjoying the other things on offer. They were catching up with their friends, eating too many hot chips, queuing at the bars and every now and then appreciating a big hit. So far, so successful then as the SA20 officially starts.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent