Temba Bavuma, Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Keshav Maharaj and Rassie van der Dussen will be on an audition of sorts when South Africa's four-day franchise competition kicks off on Monday. The quintet is considered to be in the running for the national Test captaincy and although only Bavuma is leading his franchise, the form and influence the rest have on their teams may play a role in who new convenor of selectors Victor Mpitsang chooses for the most prestigious job in South African cricket.
Mpitsang, who starts work full-time on Monday, will also be looking for an opening batsman after last season saw Pieter Malan fill in for an injured Markram, an opening bowler after Vernon Philander's retirement, and potentially a middle-order batsman depending on how much longer Faf du Plessis wants to play international cricket. All that makes this season's domestic competition even more crucial for the rebuilding of the national side. Here's our team-wise preview and what to expect when things kick off.
The defending champions have bulked up their squad with bowlers from the Cape, including Sisanda Magala and Lutho Sipamla from the Warriors and Tladi Bokako from the Cobras. They already have Beuran Hendricks, Dwaine Pretorius and Kagiso Rabada in their ranks, which gives them an arsenal of fearsome quicks to call on at the spiciest pitch in the country, the Wanderers. Though they won't want it to be too green and mean as many Lions batsmen need to be among the runs for the national side. Bavuma, who played only one Test last summer, leads the pack but van der Dussen and Reeza Hendricks are not far behind.
Last season standing: Winners Captain: Temba Bavuma Coach: Wandile Gwavu Keep an eye on: Wiaan Mulder did not feature for South Africa in any format last summer as he battled injury, and his team-mate Dwaine Pretorius got the Test allrounders spot and Andile Phehlukwayo the white-ball role. But at 22, and with a strong skillset, Mulder is one to watch out for the future.
The Titans lost their coach Mark Boucher to national duty in the middle of last season but managed a strong second-place finish under Mandla Mashimbyi, who has taken over full-time. They are the franchise that could hold the key to the Test top-three, with Markram, Elgar and Theunis de Bruyn all calling SuperSport Park their home. Further down the order, Heinrich Klaasen also has national ambitions. Lungi Ngidi headlines their attack which includes the experience of Junior Dala and the youth of Lizaad Williams, Okuhle Cele, Dayyaan Galiem, Matthew Arnold and Ryan Cartwright.
Last season standing: Runners-up Captain: Grant Thomson Coach: Mandla Mashimbyi Keep an eye on: Thando Ntini moved upcountry from the Cape over the winter and the Highveld conditions are expected to bring out the best in him. But we may have to wait a while to see what Ntini has to offer as he is nursing a hamstring injury.
Jon-Jon Smuts' elevation to the national team meant the Warriors selected a new four-day captain for this summer. Yaseen Vallie, who is also among the senior-most members of the squad, has been asked to lead the franchise's red-ball team. The line-up also features last summer's second-highest run-scorer Edward Moore, who opens the batting, Rudi Second, who brings experience, and youngsters Sinethemba Qeshile and Matthew Breetzke, both of whom are regarded as future internationals. Having lost Sipamla and Magala to the Lions and Andrew Birch to retirement, the challenge for the Warriors will be to have an attack that can step up. Anrich Nortje, Wihan Lubbe, Mthiwekhaya Nabe's roles will be crucial in that regard.
Last season standing: Third Captain: Yaseen Vallie Coach: Robin Peterson Keep an eye on: Glenton Stuurman has been touted as a ready-replacement for Philander because of his ability to move the ball both ways and his miserly average.
The only franchise with a new coach this season found the highest-profile one they could. Allan Donald has returned to Bloemfontein to take on his first head coaching gig at home and has a talented group of players to work with. Young tearaway Gerald Coetzee, who was named as one of ESPNcricinfo's 20 players to watch in the 2020s, will lead the attack, which also includes Migael Pretorius, who has moved from Johannesburg. Equally exciting is their batting line-up which has the experience of Pite van Biljon and Farhaan Behardien, who had left the Titans to go Kolpak but has since returned to South Africa, and youngsters Matthew Kleinveldt, Jacques Snyman and Wandile Makwetu.
Last season standing: Fourth Captain: Pite van Biljon Coach: Allan Donald Keep an eye on: Raynard van Tonder was the leading run-scorer of the tournament last season and must be among the contenders for a Test call-up, whether as an opener or a No. 3.
In Durban, the Dolphins have been steadily building towards becoming a more competitive unit and they have the ingredients to be serious challengers this summer. David Miller has expressed an interest in pushing for a Test spot but Keegan Petersen, who was selected for net sessions under Jacques Kallis' tutelage last summer, may beat him there. Their attack revolves around their spinners, which include Maharaj, last season's leading wicket-taker, Prenelan Subrayen, and two-time Test cap Senuran Muthusamy, but there's a batch of quicks bubbling under. Almost two-metre tall Kerwin Mungroo, Daryn Dupavillon and Lifa Ntanzi make up the pace pack.
Last season standing: Fifth Captain: Marques Ackerman Coach: Imraan Khan Keep an eye on: Ackerman and Grant Roelofsen were respectively the third and the sixth leading run-scorers last season and although neither of their names has come up in the public discussion around the Test team, the numbers may do the talking for them and force their case.
As the only team that did not win a single four-day match last summer, the Cobras will enter this season with a point to prove. They've revamped their squad with the acquisitions of top-order batsman Tony de Zorzi, allrounder Corbin Bosch and offspinner Imran Manack, all from the Titans, and allrounders Calvin Savage, from the Dolphins, and Onke Nyaku, from the Warriors. They've also ploughed their own depths to sign Jonathan Bird, Ziyaad Abrahams and Isma-eel Gafieldien. In the Malan brothers, Janneman and Pieter, new captain Zubayr Hamza and Jason Smith, the Cobras have all the makings of a strong side but they'll want victories to show for it.
Last season standing: Sixth Captain: Zubayr Hamza Coach: Ashwell Prince Keep an eye on: George Linde was named the South African Cricketers' Association's (SACA) Most Valuable Player last season, in recognition of his all-round excellence across formats. Linde earned a Test cap in India last October and although Maharaj will be difficult to dislodge from the South African side, Linde provides strong competition.