The Bizhub Highveld Lions will be keenly aware of the dangers of the “sophomore slump”.
The phrase, which originated in the US, refers to a dip in form the year immediately following a successful period, particularly for teams featuring a lot of new players or a side who came out of nowhere to win.
Last season the Lions had a first-year coach, and off the back of years of mediocre returns in terms of winning trophies, suddenly found themselves challenging on all fronts.
Runners-up in the Champions League T20, they then went on to share the Momentum One-Day Cup with the Cape Cobras, finished second in the Sunfoil Series and ended the season by winning the RamSlam T20.
It was an astonishing season which saw the Lions receive further recognition when Geoffrey Toyana, their coach, was named Cricket South Africa’s Coach of the Year last month.
This summer, however, they’re no longer the team people expect to fold when the going gets tough. On the contrary, the Lions are expected to build on their achievements of last season, and Toyana must show how he has improved as a coach and how he can continue to get the best out of players who tasted success somewhat unexpectedly last season.
Already there’s been disappointment this season following their early exit from the Champions League. Now, for their opening Momentum One-Day Cup match against the Sunfoil Dolphins, they’ll have to do without Neil McKenzie (stomach muscle), Dwaine Pretorius (side strain), Cliffe Deacon (knee) and Pumelela Matshikwe (shoulder).
Gulam Bodi is also sidelined with a broken wrist.
They’re already without Alviro Petersen and Imran Tahir – the latter such an important part of their charge to last season’s final – who are with the national team, forcing Toyana and the selectors to dig deep into their reserve pool.
“These injuries have definitely had an influence on preparations but we are not weaker because of it. We have made sufficient provision for situations like these and my players are ready for the battle ahead,” Toyana said.
The Lions have called up Devon Conway, 22, medium-paceman Matt McGillivray, 23, and Shaylen Pillay, 19. Among that trio Conway’s the only one with franchise experience and will be asked to fill a spot in the middle order where McKenzie is a major influence.
The batting, in the absence of McKenzie and Petersen, looks decidedly weak and there’ll be far greater demands on skipper Stephen Cook and the experienced Jean Symes to keep the youngsters composed.
The Lions’ strength is their bowling, where Chris Morris – following a stint with the Chennai Super Kings in the Champions League – returns alongside Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Hardus Viljoen to make up one of the more potent attacks on the domestic circuit.
Cook said earlier this week that this season the Lions could no longer rely on their opponents underestimating them. “Last year we weren’t marked at the start, but as we went along people started noticing us. The trick will be to keep it fresh and to be innovative,” he said.
Today’s other match is a vehicular derby in Kimberley, where the two teams sponsored by Chevrolet, the Knights and the Warriors, meet at the Diamond Oval. The match starts at 10am. - Saturday Star