JOHANNESBURG – Just 18 points separate the first-place Warriors from the fifth-place Dolphins ahead of the penultimate round of fixtures in the Sunfoil Series.
Quite how all of this will pan out will make for an anxious and exciting two weeks as the domestic season concludes.
Besides form and even the weather, there are a number of factors at play that could impact on which team will be crowned South Africa’s first-class champions.
The most significant is the availability of “fringe” players from the national team.
For example, Heinrich Klaasen will be available for the Titans, who head to Paarl to face the Cape Cobras, for whom Temba Bavuma should also be available, while Wiaan Mulder should play for the Highveld Lions, who host the Dolphins.
However, Theunis de Bruyn is taking advantage of Proteas coach Ottis Gibson’s guideline that none of the players involved in the opening two Tests against the Australians should play in this week’s round of four-day fixtures.
For the Knights, who are playing the Warriors in East London, it’s a significant blow for it could be argued that De Bruyn, who’s been playing reasonably well, should probably have looked to maintain some sort of rhythm.
Then from a national and Titans perspective, there’s what to do about Dale Steyn.
The fast bowler is apparently unavailable for this week’s clash at Boland Park, but may be in line for selection for the final match of the season, next week at Centurion against the Knights, where the title could be on the line.
Steyn has to follow the national team’s instructions and prove his fitness for the last Test against the Australians starting on March 30 at the Wanderers by playing one first-class match – and the only one available to him is next week.
For all the experience he brings, there will be a nagging worry at the back of Titans coach Mark Boucher’s mind about Steyn, especially bringing him in for just one match of such grave importance to the franchise.
It all adds to the intrigue in a competition which took a long time to catch fire.
The Titans were the only team that managed a win in the first half of the competition, but since the tournament resumed, the Warriors twice and the Dolphins and Cobras each on one occasion, have managed to pick up wins.
The Warriors’ last win against the Titans was a dramatic one as they claimed the final wicket off the last ball of the game.
They’ve been inspired by the brilliance of off-spinner Simon Harmer, who’s claimed 38 wickets in six matches.
Buffalo Park is where the Warriors have won their two matches in this season’s competition, and they’ll certainly start as favourites, even as they are going up against arguably the most consistent batting unit in SA in the form of the Knights, who’ve claimed the most bonus points for batting of any of the six franchises.
Both the Cobras and the Titans will hope they encounter a Paarl pitch that goes against tradition for their match.
The last game at Boland Park saw the Lions and Cobras share over 1 200 runs in the four days, with 22 wickets falling.