JOHANNESBURG – Nearly 32 points separate the table-topping Cape Cobras from the second placed Highveld Lions, a virtual chasm which gives the Cape side complete control of the Four-Day Series even before it reaches the halfway break.
That break occurs after the next round of matches, following which attention turns to the Mzansi Super League.
But it is well worth considering the Cobras’ dominance of has caught many – possibly even including the Cobras themselves – by surprise.
“Ashwell (Prince) is obviously doing a good job down there, and the youngsters have really taken their opportunities with both hands,” said Lions coach Enoch Nkwe of his counterpart in Cape Town.
His side face the Cobras in Paarl next week, and it is a match the rest of the competition will hope the Lions can win just to bring the Cobras back into view.
But Nkwe knows that will be a significant challenge.
“They are going to give us stiff competition, but we feel we can give it back just as well,” said Nkwe.
“Obviously they are chasing five out of five, but for us, it’s about trusting what we’ve been doing and maximising the opportunities we create.”
The Cobras’ very talented young players – especially the batsmen – have all made significant contributions throughout the competition, which is a little unexpected, given their inexperience.
Three off their top four, openers Pieter and Janneman Malan, along with David Bedingham, feature in the top 11 leading run-scorers in the competition, and the latter two in particular have caught the eye, having rapidly taken the chance given to them by Prince.
Janneman Malan is just 22, Bedingham is 24, and they are two of the brightest batting prospects to emerge on the local scene for a long while.
Although 23-year-old Zubayr Hamza has developed a bad habit for throwing his wicket away when set this season, he is another with prodigious talent, and rounds out a potent top four.
There has also been very able support from wicket-keeper batsman Kyle Verrynne, who has weighed in with over 200 runs this season, and is a neat, aggressive batsman – and at just 21, he’s another with a bright future.
The bowling has produced the goods as well, and following back-to-back match hauls of seven wickets, Dane Paterson finds himself tied atop the wicket-taking chart with Beuran Hendricks on 21.
Skipper Dane Piedt’s revitalised outlook on his game has also been rewarded, and the off-spinner, who has bowled more overs than anyone else in the competition, has 14 wickets to his name.
REACTION | It’s been unbelievable but there’s a long way to go - @WorldSportsBet Cape Cobras skipper, @dane_piedt63 after yesterday’s five-wicket triumph.#StrengthInDiversity#COBvDOL#4DaySeries pic.twitter.com/M1hzZIqQkK
Meanwhile, Nkwe’s side have arguably been as consistent with the bat as the Cobras – they too have three players among the top 10 leading run-makers.
Ironically, the Lions’ worst batting performance this season came against the Cobras at the Wanderers three weeks ago, and saw them slump to an innings defeat.
Wihan Lubbe (166) and Rassie van der Dussen (175) both made big hundreds against the Titans this week on what was a flat pitch in Potchefstroom.
The Titans replied to the Lions first innings of 530 with 419, which featured a welcome return to form for Proteas opener Dean Elgar, who scored 128 after five straight single-figure scores.
Nevertheless, that performance was indicative of the improvement in the Lions’ batting taking a major step in the right direction after recent struggles.
“I have to praise the work behind the scenes by the batting coach Justin Sammons and my assistant coach Wandile Gwavu,” said Nkwe.
“The batsmen have also taken ownership for their roles and played with great discipline, which has been impressive to watch.”
With Beuran Hendricks getting back to the kind of form that saw him earn national colours five seasons ago, they have a spearhead for their attack that gives them a constant threat – although he was suspended on Friday for the Cobras match for breaching the Cricket South Africa code of conduct.
While spinners Aaron Phangiso and Bjorn Fortuin have provided useful contributions, there will be some disappointment about the impact of the big off-season acquisition Malusi Siboto, who’s picked up just eight wickets at an average of 42.25.
Four-Day Franchise Series Standings
Cape Cobras 98.86, Highveld Lions 66.98, Warriors 57.40, Knights 47.80, Titans 43.62, Dolphins 34.94.