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Maharaj, Markram to the fore again as Dolphins and Titans reach final

With CSA's domestic structure changing, this means the Lions, Knights, Warriors and Cobras have played their last matches

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Aiden Markram has struck a rich vein of form  •  AFP via Getty Images

Aiden Markram has struck a rich vein of form  •  AFP via Getty Images

The Dolphins and Titans have qualified for South Africa's first-class final, which will be played over five days in Durban next week and marks the end of the franchise era.
That means the four other teams that have made up the top tier of the domestic structure for the past 17 summers - the Lions, Knights, Warriors and Cobras - have played their last matches. From next season, South Africa will return to a provincial set-up with 15 teams competing in two divisions.
The Dolphins have reached the final in all three formats this season, sharing the one-day cup with the Lions and losing to them in the T20 tournament.
Results Summary
The Dolphins leapfrogged the Knights into top spot in Pool A with a seven-wicket win over the Warriors in Port Elizabeth to qualify for a home final. With rumours of rain around the Eastern Cape coast, the Dolphins were in a hurry to assert themselves and bowled the Warriors for 124 in the first innings. Wickets were shared between the five-man attack, with Eathan Bosch's 3 for 18 the best return.
In reply, Khaya Zondo's 111 ensured the Dolphins built a healthy 234-run lead. But the Warriors knocked that off with nine wickets standing after a 145-run opening stand between Edward Moore and Gihahn Cloete. Moore went on to score 155 before the middle and lower-order collapsed. They lost 8 for 80, with Keshav Maharaj taking 6 for 93 to set the Dolphins a target of 112. They were 34 for 2 at one stage but polished off the score on the fourth morning.
They will play the Titans, whose draw against the Lions in Johannesburg was enough to keep them at the top of Pool B. The match was studded with superstars including new Test captain Dean Elgar, new white-ball captain Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada, Aiden Markram and Quinton de Kock, who made his return after a mental health break, and it lived up to the billing.
New white-ball call-up Lizaad Williams led the Titans' attack in taking 3 for 54 to dismiss the Lions for 206. Dominic Hendricks was their top-scorer and fell one short of a century, lbw to Okuhle Cele for 99. In a thrilling second innings, Rabada and Lutho Sipamla took 5 for 51 and 5 for 37, to give the Lions a four-run advantage while Markram stitched together his seventh century of the summer.
The Lions built on their lead thanks to their other Hendricks, Reeza, who scored 96 and Wiaan Mulder's unbeaten 56 and declared on the fourth day on 308 for 9. They set the Titans 313 to win. Elgar and Markram put on 125 for the first-wicket and scored half-centuries but their dismissals before tea put the brakes on the scoring. With the possibility of victory for either side appearing unlikely in the final session, the teams shook hands on the draw shortly after the break.
In Cape Town, the Cobras won their first red-ball match since January 2019 when they beat the Knights by an innings and 215 runs. Nandre Burger and Tsepho Moreki took four wickets each to dismiss the Knights for 181 before Pieter Malan's career-best 264 took the match away from the Knights. Malan and Kyle Verreynne shared a 217-run fourth-wicket stand, with Verreynne bringing up his second century of the tournament.
The Knights had spent 176.3 overs in the field when the Cobras declared on 523 for 8 and seemed in no mood to make their hosts bat again. They were bundled out for 127, with George Linde claiming his best, 7 for 29, to finish as the competition's joint-fifth wicket-taker.
On the national radar
Despite missing on leadership positions within the national structure Markram has taken ownership of the opening spot in his comeback season after several hand injuries. His century against the Lions further extended his hold over top spot on the batting charts. Markram has scored 945 runs from seven matches, at an average of 94.50, including five hundreds and two fifties. More's the pity there are no Tests scheduled in South Africa's immediate future.
Elgar's second innings half-century may not have been as much as he wanted but keeps him in the batting top 10. Verreynne, who may be eyeing a middle-order spot especially after Faf du Plessis' retirement, is in third place, one ahead of Malan who has probably been squeezed out of Test contention by Markram's good form.
In the bowling department, the hauls from Rabada, Sipamla and Linde would have been pleasing for the national selectors but enough cannot be said about Maharaj. He leads the wicket charts with 34 from five matches at an average of 20.47, has taken four five-fors in this competition and has been the stand-out performer for the Dolphins.
Top performers
Malan ended his domestic season in the most emphatic way possible, with his highest first-class score and the highest for the Cobras in their history. Although it seems unlikely he will add to his three Test caps in the foreseeable future, Malan still has plenty to offer both at home and abroad. He has been signed as an overseas player for Warwickshire for the 2021 county season. Important runs were also scored by Zondo and Senuran Muthusamy, who contributed a century and twin fifties respectively for the Dolphins.
Williams' seven wickets for the Titans makes him the leading seam-bowler in the competition with 27 wickets at 25.14, three ahead of Migael Pretorius. The combination of Williams, Cele and Thando Ntini will make for an exciting battle of pace against the Dolphins' spin in the final.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent