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SA20 aims to bring light to dark times

South African cricket has not exactly been switched on for the past few years, but there is every hope that could slowly change

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
SA20 team captains pose with the trophy  •  SA20

SA20 team captains pose with the trophy  •  SA20

When the lights come back on after a power cut in South Africa - and they happen as often as four times a day - people cheer. They don't do it because they're particularly pleased (who would be, given that the country is into its 16th year of rolling blackouts?), or even with a sense of irony - they do it because they're relieved that their two-and-a-half hour outage has ended on time, and in the light.
"People feel it's a dark time right now," Faf du Plessis, in his role as captain of the Joburg Super Kings said, and he wasn't talking about the electricity.
Just like its power utility, South African cricket has not been switched on over the last few years, and their problems are worsening. The Test team is currently in Australia, facing the possibility of being swept 3-0 there for the first time since 2001. Less than two years ago, du Plessis was the most experienced batter in that side. Now, he is a T20 league specialist and part of the brigade that has promised to bring the light back into the country's game through the SA20. "We need this competition for the game to grow," du Plessis said. "Hopefully it will make people very optimistic about the future of South African cricket."
It has already made people more interested in the game. The opening match between MI Cape Town and Paarl Royals on Tuesday - which is also the first match with fans at Newlands in the post-Covid-19 era, is a sell-out. More than 20,000 people have bought tickets to the game. Who knows if the same number of South Africans woke up at 1 AM to watch their already-defeated Test team try to save face in Sydney?
Ask around and you'll hear that interest in the national team is lower than ever before. The combined embarrassments of losing to Netherlands and being booted out of the T20 World Cup, teetering on the brink of not being able to automatically qualify for the ODI World Cup and two successive Test series defeats - including seven innings where they could not cobble together 200 - has taken its toll.
"That's been the state of South African cricket for a while now," Graeme Smith, SA20 league commissioner, told ESPNcricinfo.
But Smith and the tournament he is putting together have taken it on themselves to change that.
"One of the things we really wanted to do was to re-energise and revive the cricket fan. It's a hard job in a negative climate," he said. "Season one and that first week for us around the country is going to be big for us. I'm not sure when last we had a full house for a domestic game."
And for an entire competition? Maybe never.
"Trying to sell out 33 games almost back-to-back is different for South Africa but we are seeing a very positive response," Smith said. "The goal for us is to bring the cricket community together and to revive those dormant fans."
But they're also looking to lighten the mood, after three heavy years that saw CSA fall into an administrative abyss, grapple with the much-needed Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings, and begin to rebuild, from the ground up. It's been a time of introspection and angst, two words that were nowhere near the SA20 captain's press conferences.
Instead, there were jokes about du Plessis wearing a normal-sized (not "mannequin-sized", as he likes to call the rest of his wardrobe) yellow-shirt, and being envious of David Miller in pink. "This feels like a fashion press conference," du Plessis quipped at one point.
There were giggles when Rashid Khan, the only foreign captain in a team, was asked a question about the Stormers (the Cape-Town based domestic rugby team) and whether MI Cape Town could draw on them for inspiration. "What is that?" Rashid asked, as he looked around at the other captains. "A ballerina," du Plessis told him. Happily, Rashid was not fooled.
Quinton de Kock brought his dry humour when he said his only hope for the Durban Super Giants team he will lead is that they "get some game time in," referring to the rain that often cancels play at Kingsmead at this time of year and revealed his partnership with coach Lance Klusener has not yet involved much talking. As two of the least chatty cricketers about, they will know that that's probably not likely to change. "We like to keep things relaxed," he said.
Wayne Parnell temporarily shed his identity as an out-and-out Cape Town influencer to head up the Pretoria Capital and already understands what's expected of him.
"Centurion is a place where there has been a lot of success. There's pressure from the people of Pretoria to do well and we hope we can live up to that," he said. And Aiden Markram admitted to being "refreshed" (and may also slightly relieved) after being dropped from the Test side and is ready to take a new role as the skipper of the Sunrisers Eastern Cape. Markram has cut a particularly dejected figure in his last few international outings and to see him upbeat was something of a metaphor for the new frame of mind.
The six captains and Smith then headed off to the colourful Bo-Kaap, where they posed with the trophy, which has been designed by the same people who made the Test mace. In a video explaining the process by which the SA20 cup was conceptualised, there was an image of Smith, a decade-younger, holding the mace after South Africa became No.1 in the world in England.
"We want to play our role in reviving cricket. We want to get people into the stadium and cheering again."
Graeme Smith hopes the SA20 can do for South Africa what the IPL did for India
For a moment, time stopped.
We were taken back to the glory days, when South Africa won series in England and Australia, challenged India at home, and looked as though they were heading towards a World Cup trophy. The 2010-2016 period was a golden age in the country's game but they missed one massive step. CSA was slow off the blocks to launch a T20 league and then failed in their attempts to do so, twice. That meant the country's domestic cricketers, in particular, were not exposed to the innovative thinking of league cricket, and the system has stagnated to the point where the players it produces cannot make the step up to the international stage successfully enough. The Test top six is a clear example of this but now, with them at their lowest ebb, that could start to change.
"The professionalism that's going to come from the franchises, who are the most experienced franchise teams in the world, brings huge credibility on and off the field in terms of coaching, management, medical staff, media," Smith said. "All of that is now coming into South African cricket."
Much like the way the IPL allowed India to deepen and develop its talent pool, Smith hopes the SA20 can do the same for South Africa. "My wish is that there's one or two great storylines that come from younger players, that they put in great performances and use this platform and make a name for themselves," Smith said. "We want to play our role in reviving cricket. We want to get people into the stadium and cheering again."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent