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MSL review - Promising start bodes well for future editions

In terms of audience, the response was mixed, but CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe hinted that future editions of the MSL could have seven or even eight teams

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
The Jozi Stars team celebrates with the inaugural MSL trophy  •  MSL

The Jozi Stars team celebrates with the inaugural MSL trophy  •  MSL

Put together on an extremely short timeline, the inaugural Mzansi Super League was not without its glitches but was nevertheless groundbreaking. As Cricket South Africa chief executive Thabang Moroe put it: "It's a plane that took off without wings, it managed to fly, and now it's landed safely."
CSA had a couple of months to pull the first season off, and they now have a year to prepare for the next one. Below are five of the talking points from the first MSL, and hints of where it could go from here.
Audiences were both better and worse than expected
That sounds confusing, but hear me out. Attendances at the grounds themselves tended to be between 4000 and 7000, which can make big stadiums like the Wanderers - at 34000 capacity - seem very empty. Even for the final, at the beginning of the school holidays on a beautiful summer day, only 11000 people turned up at the 25000 capacity Newlands. Those numbers point to a disinterest in the league from the traditional cricket-watching public, but the television numbers suggest a different picture. As many as 3.4 million people tuned in to SABC to watch the opening weekend of the league, and according to CSA, the average television audience per game was 1.6 million in South Africa. So there is an audience, but it's not the traditional one, and thanks to the legacy of spatial apartheid in South Africa, it's an audience that tends to live disproportionately far from cricket grounds which, apart from Boland Park, are in the wealthier, central urban areas.
As Cape Town Blitz coach Ashwell Prince pointed out on Twitter, even if entry to games was free, hurdles remain for the majority of South Africans. "The challenges that face a family of four or five, who doesn't own a car, just to be able to get to the ground that is most definitely not situated in their neighbourhoods/townships is a major major challenge", Prince wrote, adding "don't mistake empty seats with a lack of interest". In future, Cricket South Africa could look to partner with bus or transport companies to help overcome this challenge and subsidise transport to and from grounds.
AB ain't what he used to be
It's obviously way too soon to call time on AB de Villiers' greatness, but for a player with a reputation for being able to score in a 360-degree arc anywhere around the ground, the greatest innovation he brought to the league was that of communicating with his coach Mark Boucher via walkie-talkie in an early game - something that Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer tried 20 years ago. De Villiers' availability from the very beginning of the tournament, when many other teams were still missing their Protea stars, should have given Tshwane Spartans an advantage, but aside from his fifty in Spartans' first game and 93 not out in their last, de Villiers looked a little stale with the bat.
He wasn't the only one. Hashim Amla also looked horribly out of sorts, though he may still have been struggling to recover fully from the finger injury that he picked up in the Caribbean Premier League. Fortunately, there was talent brightly shining elsewhere to light up the tournament despite the fading senior statesmen. And don't discount a de Villiers comeback next season: he clearly has unfinished business.
There's talent on the fringes
Rassie van der Dussen picked up the best batsman award for his table-topping 469 runs at 58.62, at a strike rate of 138.75. He was remarkably consistent, scoring four fifties, and also displayed a particular nous for reading situations and pacing his innings accordingly. Elsewhere, Duanne Olivier was effective on a variety of pitches and conditions, leading with 20 wickets from 10 matches, while Spartans seamer Lutho Sipamla shone as a strike bowler both at the top of the innings and at the death with 16 wickets, showing a knack for knocking over big names in the opposition. Van der Dussen and Olivier have already played for South Africa, and Sipamla may well do so soon.
Then there is the story of seam-bowling allrounder Nono Pongolo, who was originally picked only as a backup option but ended up playing a key role in Jozi Stars' title-winning campaign.
Pongolo missed practice ahead of Stars' opening game against Nelson Mandela Bay Giants with a side strain, and it seemed he could spend the rest of the tournament in the commentary box as he'd bagged a gig with the tournament broadcasters SABC. Then, everything changed.
Pongolo was picked to play against Durban Heat and removed David Miller with his first ball. In the return game at Kingsmead, he smashed consecutive sixes off Marchant de Lange to seal a breathless, one-wicket win - Stars' fourth on the trot, turning their campaign completely around after a wobbly start.
He wasn't done there, taking 6 for 20 - the best ever figures in a T20 at the Wanderers, and the second-best by a South Africa bowler in this format - against Spartans to secure a home playoff for Stars. His last act was to pull off a remarkable, acrobatic catch parried back into play at the third-man boundary to get rid of Farhaan Behardien, Cape Town Blitz' last frontline batsman in the final, showing that he really can do it all. Pongolo's fairytale story is exactly the sort that CSA was hoping to create by presenting the MSL as a platform for the development of fringe talent.
Individual brilliance will win you games, but only a team can win a title
The exceptional form of Quinton de Kock was both a blessing and a curse for Blitz. So potent was his hitting, when de Kock got in he won games virtually single-handed. But his numbers - 412 runs in eight innings, including a century and three fifties - stood in stark contrast to those of his team-mates. That fed into a belief, no doubt picked up by opposition teams, that if you can get de Kock early, the middle order might struggle, and that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the tournament final, de Kock fell in the second over, and the rest of the batting limped to 113 for 7 without him.
Their opponents in that final, Stars, were also helped by the remarkable form of Reeza Hendricks and van der Dussen in their campaign, but vitally they also had players standing up in other areas.
Pite van Biljon and Daniel Christian, with strike rates of 196 and 194.05 respectively - ensured that the advantage given by the top order was not squandered. While teams were content seeing Dale Steyn off defensively - as his economy rate of 6.48 suggests - that tactic couldn't work against Stars. If Kagiso Rabada didn't get you, Beuran Hendricks would, and behind them Olivier, Christian, Pongolo and Simon Harmer were waiting. The most complete team won the tournament.
There's room to grow
Encouraged by the ability to pull this tournament off on such a short timeline and the presence of a television audience, Moroe has hinted that future editions could have seven or even eight teams.
"Why not?" answered Moroe when asked about plans to expand the league. "The plan is to expand by two more teams. We just need to re-do our calculations, have look at the budgets and forecasts, have a look at all the deals that we've signed and what is still there to be signed. Have a look at if we include the two teams in year three or year four, what does it really mean for us as CSA from a monetary point of view? What does it mean for the players? Which sorts of players would need to be involved? And then look at the cities that would be competing to host those two teams. Yes, we do want to expand by two teams. I don't have an exact date as to whether we'll do it in year three, year four, year five, but we definitely have plans for expanding."
Moroe also suggested that CSA would seek to include more foreign players next time around, including those from India who will be crucial in cracking the international market.
"It's definitely a reality, though I'm not sure how soon we can make that reality happen," Moroe said of the inclusion of Indian players. "We continue to work very hard with our Indian counterparts, and not only them, we work very hard with the Australians and the English. I have a very good relationship with the CEOs of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I'm working very hard with my counterparts to try and build what is a better picture for us and for this tournament. The bigger this tournament gets, the more it's going to benefit all South Africans. It's not just about what Thabang wants, or what CSA can possibly get out of it, it's for everyone in this country. For the first time, South Africans have access to it, which is something that nobody can take away from South Africa."

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town