South Africa's depth shows in CSA T20 Challenge's last hurrah
With the domestic game set to be restructured next summer, several players made a strong white-ball claim
The Lions won the last edition of Cricket South Africa's franchise T20 tournament, with the domestic game set to be restructured next summer. The Johannesburg-based franchise are four-time champions in the format, two fewer than the record-holding Titans, and have claimed the last two titles. All of South Africa's six franchises have won the competition at least once.
This year's tournament was held in a biosecure environment in Durban where surfaces mimicked subcontinental-style strips in their spinner-friendly and tough-to-score-on nature. The average score across the 17 matches was 139, with no total above 181 and an average run-rate of 7.22. While the tournament has been unsponsored for the last four editions and does not have the profile of leagues around the world, it is an important feeder for the South African team. In this T20 World Cup year, it will prove particularly significant in finding solutions for the national squad, specifically in the death-bowling, top-order and spin departments. Here are some of the key takeaways from the final franchise T20 cup.
Sisanda Magala's death bowling
The leading wicket-taker of this season's competition, Sisanda Magala finished with 13 wickets from six matches, at an average of 12.84, and took most of those at the death. In the Lions' opening match against the Warriors, Magala took three wickets for six runs in eight balls. In their third game against the Knights, he took three for one run in the last over, and finished with a career-best 5 for 20. In the final, against the Dolphins, he claimed two wickets for six runs in a mid-innings burst that reduced the opposition to 60 for 5.
His clever use of variations including the knuckle ball has made it almost impossible to look past him for national selection, especially as South Africa have struggled to contain opposition tails in the past. Magala is clearly in the national selectors' plans and was part of the South African set-up for white-ball series against England and Australia in the 2019-20 summer but fell short of making his debut because he failed to meet fitness standards. Since then, he has worked on his conditioning, appears to have lost weight and has passed the required fitness tests to play in this tournament. As long as he stays on the park, all roads point to the T20 World Cup.
Reeza Hendricks' form
With 257 runs from seven innings at an average of 36.71, Reeza Hendricks was the competition's leading run-scorer and most fluent batsman. To date, Hendricks has not been part of a South African major tournament squad - he was particularly unlucky to miss out on the 2019 World Cup - and has made a strong case for inclusion for the T20 World Cup.
Hendricks' clean stroke-play and aggression was all the more notable because it came with a misfiring opening partner (Ryan Rickleton averaged 5.00 in the tournament) at the other end on pitches where free-flowing runs were rare. Hendricks formed useful stands with his captain Temba Bavuma, who was second on the batting charts, and shared in two half-century stands (84 against the Cobras and 93 against the Knights) and two partnerships of more than 35 runs. He may even provide South Africa with a hint of how to use the pair in the national team.
Bavuma has been earmarked as a potential opening partner for Quinton de Kock at the T20 World Cup, but another option would be for Hendricks to open with de Kock and Bavuma to slot in at No.3.
Keshav Maharaj's captaincy and white-ball credentials
It's difficult to tell if anyone took Keshav Maharaj's national captaincy aspirations seriously but he has made it difficult to ignore his enthusiasm for the job in some capacity. Maharaj led the Dolphins to a second table-topping white-ball run in two seasons and has shown himself to be an astute leader. Last season, Maharaj took the Dolphins to the top of the one-day cup log, and they were awarded the trophy after the playoffs were cancelled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. He also guided them through the group stage unbeaten in this competition, only for them to fall at the final hurdle.
Maharaj also appears to have blossomed under extra responsibility. He finished as the leading spinner, with eight wickets, bowled more overs than anyone else and had the second-best economy rate of 4.54. Even if that is not enough for Maharaj to seriously challenge for the national leadership, it has to put him front of mind for a T20 World Cup spot, although he has yet to play for South Africa in the shortest format. That could mean South Africa take five frontline spinners to the tournament with Imran Tahir available for selection, and the likes of Tabraiz Shamsi, George Linde, Bjorn Fortuin and Maharaj making up a new-look attack.
Depth across the board
While the top performers came from the two teams in the final - the Lions and Dolphins - there were impressive showings all round which bodes well for the national talent pool. Pite van Biljon and Raynard van Tonder from the Knights were in the top ten run-scorers and van Tonder's unbeaten 81 off 57 balls against the Warriors was among the tournament's most authoritative knocks while Zubayr Hamza made a welcome return to form with two successive half-centuries before injury ended his participation.
Warriors' medium pacer Mthiwekhaya Nabe was the joint, second-leading wicket-taker and his 4 for 21 against the Titans contributed to the biggest upset of the tournament. Lungi Ngidi took the same number of wickets, with consistent displays throughout while left-arm spinner Siyabonga Mahima, from the Cobras, announced himself in this competition. Linde was joint-fourth on the bowling charts and had the highest strike-rate (167.60) among anyone who scored more than 30 runs. But the best two-in-one player was Dolphins veteran Robbie Frylinck, who was the fifth-leading bowler and batted at a strike rate above 130.
All the extras, ill-discipline and an ailing Cobras outfit
Scores would have been even lower if more catches had been taken with spillages aplenty in this competition and if bowlers across all six franchise had been more disciplined. In total, 160 wides and 18 no-balls were delivered - an additional 29.4 overs all-told - and one team was responsible for more than a third of those extras. The Cobras sent down 59 wides and three no-balls, which lost them matches and added to a disappointing season.
Across all formats, the Cobras have won three out of 15 matches, fewer than any of the other franchises. They were without Janneman Malan and Nandre Burger, who were both injured, for this competition but that won't excuse a worrying trend. The franchise last won a trophy in the 2014-15 season, six summers ago, and though there are other teams that have not lifted a cup in that time too (notably the Warriors), a strong South Africa needs a strong team in Western Cape.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent