Centurion — By 5pm, the cheers, applause, high-fives and hugs were being shared in the Northerns Titans dressing room.
It had been a tense couple of hours after birthday boy Sibonelo Makhanya had smashed Mitchell van Buuren over midwicket for six, to seal a comprehensive seven wicket victory for the Titans over their provincial neighbour the Central Gauteng Lions. Everyone’s focus switched to their phones and in the case of head coach Mandla Mashimbyi, the PitchVision streaming feed from Bloemfontein, where the Warriors needed to beat the Knights to claim the title for themselves.
“We can only hope and pray now,” Mashimbyi mused.
Those prayers were answered, when rain ended any chance of more play in Bloemfontein, with Knights eight wickets down in their second innings, leading the Warriors by 143 runs. The Titans were able to officially call themselves Four-Day series champions.
Mashimbyi praised his team’s perseverance. They had never been out of contention, but such had been the Lions’s hot start to competition - with victories in their first four matches - that it looked as if everyone else was playing for second place.
However the Lions lost some key players to national call-ups, most notably Duanne Olivier, and their campaign unraveled. They didn’t help themselves with an overly generous declaration in Durban in the fifth round and lost to the Dolphins, and then hung on for a draw in their next match against Western Province at Newlands.
In the meanwhile the Titans and Warriors had narrowed the gap sufficiently that all three sides were in contention to lift the Four-Day title in the last round of matches. Rain curtailed the Warriors’ hopes, but the Titans did what they needed to and Mashimbyi, who took over as head coach midway through the 2019/20 season when Mark Boucher was appointed Proteas coach, was able to celebrate his first trophy since taking the reins at SuperSport Park.
“It’s been a great effort from the boys; we didn’t start as well as we would have liked; we’ve put a lot of things into place over the course of the season and the boys responded beautifully,” said Mashimbyi. Mashimbyi and the Titans skipper Neil Brand both pointed to the fortnight the side spent in the Western Cape in November as a crucial turning point in the season. The Titans thrashed WP by an innings at Newlands with four batters making hundreds and Simon Harmer taking a ‘ten-for.’ The following week they had the better of a draw against Boland in Paarl, and couldn’t push for a win there because of rain. “We spent two weeks as a team in Cape Town, got really tight as a unit, ate a lot of meals together… we won at Newlands by an innings and then couldn’t get the win against Boland because of the rain. That’s where it turned around,” sadi Brand.
Unlike last season, when Aiden Markram dominated with the bat, this summer the Titans have shared the run-scoring load around. Nine batters made centuries - no one made more than one - with Grant Mokoena, in his 13th season, finishing as leading run-scorer with an aggregate of 482. “I’m so happy for Grant,” said Mashimbyi. “To finally get to a point where he can see his name at the upper end of the list of best performers in the country, it gives everyone motivation. He understands his game, he’s got his own little things that he does and it is working for him. But that comes with experience. He’s had to fail so many times to finally get to this type of season, I’m really really chuffed for him.”
The other star performer was Harmer. The off-spinner, picked up 6/84 in the Lions second innings, adding to the three wickets he took in the first to finish the tournament with 44 wickets, which were taken at an average of 19.29.
“Having Simon Harmer has been massive, especially down at the coast, but even in this game, we saw what he did when the pitch started to turn,” said Brand.