CSA’s big lift to under-valued Boland

Haroon Lorgat (Gallo Images)
Haroon Lorgat (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - It is nominally called the "Stellenbosch" franchise at this stage, although the matches will be played at regular modern home Boland Park in Paarl, some 35km away.

But despite the minor sense of confusion over its rooting, the important thing is that the Boland region is back on the cricketing map in a pronounced way with the revelation in London earlier this week that it will be awarded one of the eight slots in the all-new, glitzy CSA T20 Global League starting up next summer.

Whether increasingly ubiquitous Twenty20 is your thing or not, it is an undoubted fillip for the broader game in what has frankly been a long under-appreciated area, by my book.

The franchise owner, Mustaq Brey, is one of only two South Africans holding that status for the Global League - he is a director of Brimstone investment company - and the fact that the Proteas' Test and T20 captain Faf du Plessis is the designated marquee SA player for the side certainly represents a good start.

For several years, Boland has been the slightly snoozy, if you like, junior partner of Western Province under the Cape Cobras franchise banner, although Boland Park regularly hosts Cobras matches across the major existing domestic competitions.

Perhaps a certain apathy - blame the fatiguing Paarl summer heat, or the fatal lure of the plentiful nearby "grape", perhaps? - has only bred further apathy, but it has just seemed as though the (geographically surprisingly vast) Boland region has not quite "kicked on" subsequently from the huge potential it showed as a cradle of talent up to a decade or two back.

It is something that might disappoint someone like the late, globally legendary coach Bob Woolmer, who spent many of his years in the Western Cape - his long-time popular home, despite his birth in India and then Kent and England heritage - doing tireless, influential work in developing decent players and infrastructure with Boland.

I have had a soft spot personally for Boland cricket stretching back to the days when they were a B-section province in the old Currie Cup in the early 1980s, and first began to stir as a potentially bigger force when the likes of up-and-at-'em Eddie Barlow and Peter Swart switched base from WP.

Those were the days when Boland still played their matches at the quaint little Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery Field on the outskirts of that town.

Psst, the press meals and general hospitality were excellent - better than at Newlands = and it was always fun watching and listening to the thud of sixes onto vats or crates at the adjacent SFW complex.

In the handful of years immediately preceding unity and democracy, Boland played their part in "normalisation" of cricket as the provincial team - spearheaded by the seasoned likes of Barlow, Swart, Danie du Toit and Stephen Jones - infused several players of colour, even if to the distaste at the time of the non-racial, strictly non-collaborative struggle era rival SA Cricket Board.

Omar Henry, later to become CEO of unified Boland Cricket until his retirement a couple of years ago, was the staple left-arm spinner on the usually slow track (little has changed on that front in Paarl ...) and men like Howie Bergins, Salieg Nackerdien and Johnny Hendricks gave the side a notable tinge of colour even during the ongoing oppressive tenure of apartheid.

Boland even managed to lure decent first-class players from abroad as "overseas pros", including Kim Barnett of Derbyshire, Essex's John Stephenson and the Aussie quickie Ian Callen (all played Test cricket fleetingly for their countries).

In the year before unity, in 1990, confirmation that Boland could indeed be a fine nursery of own talent came when the supposedly minnow union, in an unprecedented development while Graham Bam was industrious CEO, provided no fewer than four members of the SA Schools XI in the final year of Nuffield Week (to become Khaya Majola Week, post-unity).

It was a richer crop than any of the traditional juggernaut provinces provided at the time, and the quartet were Claude Henderson - later to become a national cap and currently the Proteas' spin guru - Riaan Oosthuizen, Elmar Liebenberg and Rohan Hoffman.

Possibly at the start of the next summer, I also recall Boland hosting a pre-season Sunday limited-overs game against big brothers Western Province while at a temporary base at Brackenfell Cricket Club, and an enthusiastic crowd estimated at some 4,000 packing its picnic-friendly boundaries.

The Boland region stayed a noteworthy cradle of talent soon after democracy, happily starting to quickly provide players from previously disadvantaged communities who would go on to altogether bigger, top-tier honours: such names include Justin Ontong, Roger Telemachus, Henry Williams and Charl Langeveldt.

There has been a slightly sad "dry-up" in more recent years, but development of fine cricketers geographically can be a cyclical thing and I have steadfastly been of the belief that Boland is a sleeping, potential near-giant in terms of both calibre of cricketers it could unearth - there are big, sports-mad school within its boundaries - and spectator interest in the game.

The ever-expanding township of Mbekweni has a cricket club, and any broader shot in the arm for the Boland cause in the sport could just inspire youngsters in its sometimes challenging, troubled midst to emulate in cricketing terms the rise to fame of someone like 2016 Olympic long jump silver medallist Luvo Manyonga, an illustrious product of the area who overcame several demons and drawbacks to excel in Rio.

Give the Boland sports folk good cricket and I believe they will embrace it, go to it, in short.

If you wanted some proof, simply recall the last two one-day internationals featuring the Proteas at Boland Park, after a gap of almost a decade.

The ground was packed to its fairly humble rafters for the day-night match against Sri Lanka in January 2012, and then similarly well-subscribed again for New Zealand's (daytime) visit roughly a year later.

Of course the venue has a reputation for a sometimes notoriously slow and low or even under-prepared pitch, one which forced a couple of high-profile match abandonments in the now reasonably distant past.

It is hardly the most comfortable or modern of places, despite its blissful setting near the Du Toitskloof mountains, but with a significant upgrade, I steadfastly believe it could yet become a Test venue option - potentially even a solution to the long-time problem of where to host the "Boxing Day" fixture.

That game has bounced between Port Elizabeth and Durban in recent years, and still struggled to lure meaningful attendances.

A canny former boss of mine in the publishing world used to constantly bang the drum of "fishing where the fish are". With its additional ability to capture a good portion of the steadfastly still Test-conscious Capetonian public only some 65km down the N1 - keep in mind how many South Africans from elsewhere are in the Western Cape over the summer holiday season - Paarl could be the answer.

Some concern would be raised around the particularly stifling heat possible in the Boland at the height of summer, but is it really any more extreme than in a Perth or Melbourne heatwave? Or at some of the steamier grounds across the Subcontinent?

But on the infrastructure issue, something far less in the lap of the gods, it was heartening to learn in the Cricket Boland press release immediately following the confirmation of the T20 side that substantial, desperately welcome upgrades to the Paarl ground are already underway with the 2017/18 inaugural Global League in mind.

The home union, together with the Drakenstein Municipality and CSA itself, are pumping R23-million into phase one of the improvement, including state-of-the-art floodlights, changing room and media centre enhancement, water infrastructure and better outdoor nets.

I strongly fancy that a healthy "derby vibe" will be created between the Boland- and Cape Town-housed franchises in the Global League, especially with the aggressive tournament marketing and PR we can surely expect.

Certainly if the Gauteng/Highveld region can boast three sides (from Johannesburg, Benoni and Pretoria respectively) in the fledgling competition, the Western Cape, long a fertile plundering ground for player recruitment to other provinces, should comfortably justify and sustain two.

There’s dormant cricket potential in the Boland ... this T20 franchise opportunity could just reawaken it at last.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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