CSA’s T20 really will be a ‘Challenge’

Hashim Amla (Gallo)
Hashim Amla (Gallo)

Cape Town – Another franchise cricket competition … beginning in April, as leaves turn from golden to brown and in many cases already flutter to the ground.

Cricket South Africa’s T20 Challenge may well prove exactly what its last name implies, a situation not assisted by the fact that it remained stubbornly sans headline sponsor at the time of writing and game one between defending champions the Titans and Warriors due to take place on Friday evening at Centurion (18:00).

For decidedly autumnal scheduling (the final is earmarked for May 5) it is probably matched in reasonably modern times only by South Africa agreeing at short notice to host the second edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) from mid-April to an especiallywinter-nudging May 24 almost exactly 10 years ago in 2009.

It managed to be a success, despite the tiredness of many end-of-season pitches around the country and a few frigid experiences for spectators, especially at some of the interior venues.

At the time, though, the IPL was in its novel infancy and a strong curiosity factor lured local enthusiasts to matches, joining the generous entourages of travelling Indian fans and celebrities/VIPs.

This time around, the eternally gaudy, glitzy Indian tournament serves as a potentially hazardous distraction to the more humble, local T20 jamboree, as they will overlap to a major degree – IPL continues to May 12 – and many of the cream of South Africa’s white-ball stars are locked into lucrative employment there rather than bolstering the domestic event.

Such names include the especially blue-chip AB de Villiers, but also anticipated, Proteas World Cup-bound popular figures like Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, David Miller, Faf du Plessis and Imran Tahir.

Their absences will do little to help seduce cash-strapped South Africans to the T20 Challenge, which also takes place with devotees of other sporting attractions like Super Rugby – in full swing for weeks already and nearing its midway stage of ordinary season – mulling over their choices of loyalties.

It was difficult not to detect a waning of public interest (at least in stadium attendance terms) even as the just-completed Momentum One-Day Cup got to its three-game knockout section.

Both semi-finals had poor, atmosphere-inhibiting gates although the consistently trophy-hogging Titans, in fairness, did manage to get a reasonable number of bums on seats for Sunday’s showpiece of the 50-overs competition.

Aiden Markram was again a shining light with his century, marked by the sort of rasping stroke-play to rival anything in the IPL for “ooh and aah” factor, and his continued quest to justify a CWC passage – many will say it should already be a done deal – is at least one good reason to monitor the T20 tournament with some degree of devotion.

Similarly, it will hopefully be the device by which Hashim Amla, assuming he finds his way clear to represent the Cape Cobras after a period of necessary family time for health-related reasons, recaptures his best touch (though it is not his most suitable format) in the interests of his own World Cup plans – he has not played a competitive match since March 1 and turned 36 in the interim.

Just judging by responses on social media when certain domestic limited-overs matches aren’t screened, television interest in the local game remains stronger than some cynics may appreciate, and the next few weeks will be an opportunity for SuperSport to fill some all-important live space on their many channels.

Remember that they missed out on the inaugural Mzansi Super League much earlier in the season when national broadcaster the SABC controversially landed the rights to it.

Speaking of the MSL, it was understandably touted – for all the immense difficulties of its own – as the headline T20 attraction of the 2018/19 SA season, which was always going to leave the T20 Challenge as some sort of tired afterthought in the minds of many … and even a good case, frankly, for not being staged at all.

But it is virtually upon us now, warts and all, and to be played over a full double round, into the bargain.

That means that most of the six franchises will be playing each other for what will seem the umpteenth times this season, which brings marketing/promotional limitations.

Bear in mind that there has already been a double-round 4-Day Franchise Series and a similar structure to the One-Day Cup, so teams having met in any “KO” fixtures already are probably additionally sick of the sight of each other by now.

How much remaining appetite, more crucially, do the public have as the days begin to shorten noticeably for winter?

We will find out, soon enough …

First-round matches:

Friday: Titans v Warriors, SuperSport Park, 18:00; Saturday: Dolphins v Knights, Kingsmead, 18:00; Sunday: Lions v Cobras, Wanderers, 14:30.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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