‘This season? An absolute shocker! Shambolic, shambolic season,” is how Geoffrey Toyana described the Highveld Lions’ summer of 2013/14.
Four wins from 35 matches across the three formats in four competitions, underlines Toyana’s sentiments.
Just over a week out from the season ending, and having engaged in various meetings with players, the CEO and the franchise’s cricket committee, Toyana wants to draw a line under a summer which stood in stark contrast to the one that preceded it.
The 2012/13 season saw the Lions reach the Champions League T20 final, finish second in the Sunfoil Series, share the Momentum One-Day Cup and win the RamSlam T20.
“We tried to keep all the structures the same, but we just couldn’t get going, in any of the formats.”
Poor form, injuries and internal squabbling further undermined efforts to build on the success of the 2012/13 season. “There was just too many times, where I was putting out fires instead of focussing on my job, to coach,” said Toyana, pointing to the controversy that followed Alviro Petersen stepping down as captain.
That episode was an embarrassing one for the franchise, with allegations of interference from selectors coupled with Petersen’s position being undermined by other players, was an unedifying one for the Lions.
“After meeting the Cricket Committee last week, I’ve been given carte blanche to move forward with the franchise. Hopefully that will mean cricketers being able to concentrate on playing cricket,” Toyana explained.
The Lions finished bottom of the table in the two limited overs competitions, mustering just two wins. For much of the Momentum campaign they were without veteran Neil McKenzie – his influence on the team no more clearly illustrated than in the Lions’ sole win in the competition at Newlands against the Cape Cobras where he made a typically intelligent half-century.
The RamSlam defence never got going, with in-fighting hampering the team from the start.
In the Sunfoil Series, the batting was far too inconsistent – “we picked up just eight batting points in eight games, you can’t do that,” grumbled Toyana – while the bowling lacked the necessary fire, with Hardus Viljoen’s action deserting him and Chris Morris’ ankle compromising his season and eventually leading to him having surgery.
There is, however, no point in looking back. Toyana is already plotting the pre-season preparations which will get under way in the first week of June, with a particular emphasis being placed on game management. “We have experienced two contrasting seasons and I think sometimes as coaches we take for granted that players just understand game plans and have them clear in their minds.
“We’ve got to spend more time talking about that in the off-season, understanding how patterns in a match work, bowling maidens and being patient.
“A lot of the batsmen come to me wondering why they are averaging 25 at the end of the season, but it’s because they’re just satisfied making a 50, then in the second innings they get two ... that’s just not good enough for first class cricket.”
The Lions have lost Zander de Bruyn who has retired, while Imran Tahir is moving back to KwaZulu Natal this year. Young fast bowler Junior Dala has been signed up by the Titans while Grant Mokoena and Ethan O’Reilly won’t be contracted for next season. Veteran Cliffe Deacon will hold negotiations next week over a “pay-for-play” contract with Toyana feeling he is still capable of providing value for the franchise.
Crucially, though, the Lions have hung on to Kagiso Rabada, the young quick bowler who made an impression at the Under-19 World Cup.
“He has shown in the two (Sunfoil Series) games at the end of the season that he really belongs at this level.”
Rabada will be part of Cricket SA’s winter High Performance programme, with Toyana wary about overworking him at this early stage of his career. “He’s got such a bright future, it’s key for all of us that we look after that young body.”
Eddie Leie has also been given a two-year contract and with Tahir having moved, he can expect to get more game time in the four-day competition next season.
Among the only bright spots for the Lions this season was Temba Bavuma who finished with the sixth highest aggregate in the Sunfoil Series – 714 runs – and cemented the No3 spot in the batting order. “We did ask a lot of him this season, put him under pressure in that No3 spot, but he came through brilliantly.
“We just didn’t have enough depth.We lost Quinton de Kock for a big part of the season. He was such an important player for us, in all the formats, so losing him hurt us.”
What will be important now for the Lions and Toyana is to use the off-season to create stability within their ranks. That won’t include signing an overseas professional for the RamSlam – “Overseas pro is like a swear word around here,” quipped Toyana – but building on what there is within the franchise ranks.
“We’ve had one shambolic season. We’ve had one great season. We can’t swing so wildly, we’ve got to find some middle ground somewhere.” - The Star