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Match Analysis

SA20 booming as Sunrisers do the business again

It all came together for the competition's entertainers, with Stubbs, Baartman to the fore

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Aiden Markram and Tristan Stubbs had an unbeaten 98-run stand  •  SA 20

Aiden Markram and Tristan Stubbs had an unbeaten 98-run stand  •  SA 20

Sunrisers Eastern Cape heard Durban's Super Giants captain Keshav Maharaj's assertion that character, not skill, wins trophies and decided to simplify it. "Bowlers win you trophies," Sunrisers skipper Aiden Markram said on the eve of the final. "But I'm a batter, so I sort of disagree."
Markram was proved half-right when his line-up posted 204 - well above the first-innings average of 172 at Newlands - and more than enough to defeat Super Giants. But his earlier point held too. Sunrisers got to the final on the back of their bowlers and had the top three wicket-takers in the competition in their squad. Their varied and skilled attack had someone for every condition and carried a batting line-up that Markram admitted was "bits and pieces but just found a way to get us over the line" - apart from the day that it really mattered, when they blasted Sunrisers to a second trophy.
Over the last month, Sunrisers have played and paced the perfect championship run, in both results and entertainment terms. Of the 11 close games in the competition (matches won by 10 runs or fewer or with six balls remaining or fewer), Sunrisers were involved in five and won four, which meant they were consistently entertaining. But on the flip side, and more importantly, their entertainers were inconsistent. "If you look at our player-of-the-match performances, it's been a different person every time and that says the environment is good," Markram said.
In each of their seven league victories, a different player was recognised as the game-changer. There can be no better indication of a unit that is more than the sum of its parts than that, and the person responsible for creating that is veteran coach Adi Birrell. He is a crafty campaigner who compiles squads without any stand-out T20 franchise superstars but gets the most out of them. Last season, it was Roelof van der Merwe and Adam Rossington who were among the team's leading lights; this time it's Ottniel Baartman, Daniel Worrall and Tom Abell and you'd have to be among the more knowledgeable and passionate fans to know much about them, especially Baartman.
A medium-pacer from the Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, Baartman spent the early part of his career in the country's then semi-professional tiers playing for South Western Districts and Northern Cape. Ironically, it was a move to Durban that put him on the national radar and he was part of the Test squad that traveled to Pakistan in 2021, and recent white-ball squads but remains uncapped. Now, with his haul as the SA20's second-leading wicket-taker, he has put his hand up as a candidate for the T20 World Cup and with an arsenal of slower balls, South Africa could do worse than give him a run, especially for the Caribbean leg.
The same kind of responsibility could now be conferred to Tristan Stubbs, whose match-winning unbeaten 56 suggests he is ready for a bigger role in the national T20 side, where he has yet to kick off. In 17 international games, Stubbs has only scored one fifty and has not gone past 27 in his last 10 completed innings. Over the last year, he has needed a knock that could show he can translate his reputation into important runs in big games and that is what he did at Newlands. His moment came after a mid-innings lull which brought only 44 runs between overs 10 and 16, as Sunrisers entered the last phase of the innings. They scored 59 runs in the last four overs and Stubbs contributed 34 of them.
Stubbs had his captain - and the leader of national T20I side - Markram alongside him, and the latter also made a statement about his abilities in this tournament. Markram is an understated but astute leader, who can take charge of a diverse group of players and manage them well both tactically and personally. That's what he will hope his IPL franchise, Sunrisers Hyderabad have seen because, with the additions of Travis Head, Pat Cummins and Glenn Philips to their books at the most recent auction, Markram is not even guaranteed a spot in the starting XI, never mind his captaincy position. While there's no arguing with Cummins' suitability as a skipper or Head's quality in the line-up, the way Markram led the namesake team in South Africa must have bought him some currency.
And if it didn't, he can take heart from knowing he has definitely won over his own people. Markram's two wins in two seasons will give South Africans hope he is the right person to take them to the T20 World Cup, evidenced by the warmth with which his team was received around the country and especially at Newlands. Markram thrilled Capetonians when he grabbed a one-handed stunner to dismiss JJ Smuts in the qualifier earlier in the week. Locals were heard calling it the best catch they'd seen at Newlands. And so it's no surprise that even with the home team out of the tournament, Capetonians packed out the final, largely in orange, and stayed until the very end of a one-sided encounter to celebrate cricket's resurgence in the country.
Overall, the SA20 will remember season two as a success. Data from the South African viewership of the first 17 days of the tournament showed a 36% increase on last year and, surprisingly, that almost two-thirds of the audience is over 50. So much for Gen Z, huh? A quick first-person glance around Newlands this week (over both the qualifier and the final) also revealed an older-than-expected crowd. And only a sprinkling of them took in the displays at the recently created Western Province cricket museum, which occupies the ground floor of the new development in the stadium's precinct, and presents a sprawling history of cricket in the area. Perhaps another time, maybe even soon.
Though all South Africa's high-profile cricket has been played this summer, including the international fixtures, this week, the domestic four-day competition resumes before the domestic T20 competition (yes, another one!) will be played over March and April. Therein lies the opportunity for CSA to cash in on what they achieved over two seasons of SA20.
Although the provincial teams do not have the same brand identities as the SA20 teams, there are geographical links and the interest in the format, along with the fact that it is a World Cup year, should prompt CSA into spending some money on marketing and making sure people attend matches. They don't need to have the full franchise tournament experience, with stilt walkers and live music and incentives to take crowd catches, they just need reasons to watch the cricket. And South African players, as the SA20 has shown, provide plenty of that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket