Cape Cobras have already racked up more wins in the opening rounds of this year's 4-day competition than they did throughout last year's competition and they solidified their position at the top of the points table with a fourth victory over Dolphins at Newlands. Under a blanket of cloud and the odd break for rain, Cape Cobras took control of the game in the first two days, first through seamer Mthiwekhaya Nabe's maiden five-wicket haul and then via a record 228-run sixth wicket stand between Pieter Malan and Vernon Philander, on his return from an ankle injury that flared up during South Africa's trip to Sri Lanka in mid-July and had kept him out of action since then.
Both men reached hundreds, breaking the previous Cape Cobras record stand for that wicket - 176 set by Ryan Canning and Owais Shah in 2011 - and allowing Cape Cobras to recover from 65 for 5 to take a first innings lead despite Robbie Frylinck's 5 for 86. Dane Paterson's 6 for 63 left Cape Cobras chasing 171 to win the game, and though Malan fell first ball in the second dig Philander helped to guide his team to a five-wicket win with an unbeaten 15.
Apart from Malan and Philander's twin tons, there were five other hundreds as well as a couple of near misses as elsewhere the fourth round of the competition was dominated by the bat.
Lions lost Stephen Cook to the very first ball of their match against Titans in Potchefstroom and were 12 for 3 before Wiaan Lubbe and Rassie van der Dussen combined for a 350-run fourth wicket stand - a record for this competition - to propel the team to 530 all out after captain Temba Bavuma decided to bat first. Van der Dussen's 175 was the 15th first-class century of his career and surpassed his previous best of 166, while Lubbe's 166 was also a career best effort. Dean Elgar's 128 lead Titans' response, with Jonathan Vandiar and Shaun von Berg also contributing 80s as they reached 419. Cook made up for his earlier lapse with a second innings fifty on the fourth day before the match drifted towards a draw.
There was also no winner in the game between Knights and Warriors at St George's Park in Port Elizabeth, with Warriors unable to capitalise on a 178-run first innings lead. Andries Gous' maiden franchise four-day hundred and Ryan McLaren's 76 carried Knights to 279 in their first innings, the rest of the line-up struggling against Anrich Nortje's pace as the fast bowler collected 6 for 66. There were runs all through the order for Warriors as they notched up 457 in response, 19-year old Sinethemba Qeshile falling one run short of what would have been a maiden first-class century, and Colin Ackermann and Edward Moore both passing fifty. Knights were wobbling at 23 for 2 in their second innings, but Knights captain Pite van Biljon's second ton of the season and 92 from Gous closed out the match on the fourth day.
On the national radar
Philander's main contribution on his return to competitive cricket was with the bat, and he showed his all-round value with a third First Class hundred in Cape Cobras' game against Dolphins. Importantly, Philander also got through 35 and a half overs with the ball during the game, taking three wickets and maintaining a miserly line and length to keep to an economy rate of under three runs an over in both innings. He did so without any discomfort in the troublesome ankle that has kept him out of cricket since South Africa's Tests against Sri Lanka in July.
While he remains an outlier in South Africa's white-ball plans heading towards the World Cup, Philander was picked up by Durban Heat in the Mzansi Super League and is expected to make his return to the Test side in the Boxing Day match against Pakistan in a couple of months.
Elgar is also likely to feature in that match, and his century against Lions will have eased the selectors' worries after a string of single figure scores so far this season. With scores of 10 and 34 in the same game, Bavuma struggled to make an impact with the bat but his stint as Lions captain has so far been a reasonably successful one. Lions finished at the bottom of the table last season, but they're currently in a comfortable second position after four rounds.
Another player who may be hard to ignore when South Africa return to red-ball cricket at the end of December is Cape Cobras seamer Dane Paterson. He took seven wickets in Cape Cobras season-opening win over Knights at the beginning of October before leaving for national duty against Zimbabwe, picking up the Player of the Match award in the 2nd T20I in Potchefstroom. He added another seven scalps in the eight-wicket win over Titans at Centurion, and seven more in Cobras' most recent win, including a decisive 6 for 63 in Dolphins' second innings. Paterson now sits atop the competition wicket tables, alongside Beuran Hendricks, with 21.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town