At the start of this season, the Dolphins didn't have a first-class franchise trophy to themselves, or a reputation for producing superstars. They didn't even have a team song. In an era where the closeness and creativity of a team can be judged by how well they can string together a catchy tune, the last of those was a problem. A real, but solvable, problem.
"We developed a team song," Dolphins captain Marques Ackerman said after their innings-and-76-run win over the Titans in the final, where the other two problems were also resolved. "And we created a bit of a winning culture. There's so much hard work that goes into it. We trained really hard. It starts with small things and then the players just took a little bit more responsibility."
The r-word is particularly important in red-ball cricket and, after the Dolphins' recent success in shorter formats - they won the 2019-20 one-day cup and shared the 2020-21 trophy after a rained-out final - they wanted to show they can play the long game too. "We knew that with our four-day cricket, we had to put some effort into it. We knew we had the talent and the right group of guys but it's one thing saying it (and another thing doing it). We sat down as a squad and every person said what he wants to achieve and how he sees his role in the team and that's how it started," Ackerman said.
They began this season with a nine-wicket victory over the defending champions, the Lions, where Sarel Erwee scored 199, Keshav Maharaj took 6 for 101 and offspinner Prenelan Subrayen 3 for 63. In that match, the key ingredients for a successful season were on full display: a reliable opening batsman and a strong spin department.
Erwee topped the run-scorers' list at one stage of the competition, earned a call-up to the Test squad for the Sri Lanka series (although he did not get a game) and finished seventh on the batting chart overall. He also scored the century that set the Dolphins up to push for victory in the final, after only 10 overs of play were possible on the first two days.
At 31 for 1 on the third morning, the Dolphins seemed to be scoring too slowly, with Erwee batting particularly watchfully at first. He lost Keegan Petersen, the other Dolphins' batsman who has been on the national radar, with the score on 47 and was then joined by Ackerman, whose innings was scratchy at first. They found their rhythm against the Titans spinners and shared a third-wicket stand of 135, which was match-changing. The next highest partnership was 56.
Despite a run rate that sat at under three an over for long periods, and that they were bowled out an hour into the fourth morning, the Dolphins never feared they would run out of time - especially because they are used to rain-interrupted days and early sunsets in Durban. "When we had three days of cricket left, not once did we speak about drawing. We said we are going to win," Ackerman said. "Because we normally fight with bad light in Durban, our four-day cricket is normally three days, so we knew we had to bat well and the pitch would deteriorate. Credit to Erwee - it wasn't easy scoring. He threw the first punch and then our spinners backed him up."
"When we had three days of cricket left, not once did we speak about drawing. We said we are going to win." Marques Ackerman
Erwee gave the Dolphins the runs to work with and Subrayen and left-arm spinner Senuran Muthusamy guarded them preciously and gave little away to strangle a strong Titans line-up. In the absence of Maharaj, who had to miss this match to join the ODI squad ahead of next month's series against Pakistan, Subrayen opened the bowling and continued through both Titans' innings. With tight lines and close catchers in place, he was difficult to score off and sent down 22 maidens in his 60 overs, while waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes. The result was a career-best match-haul of 10 for 80 built on nothing more complicated than extreme discipline.
"It was just a case of staying patient for as long as possible," Subrayen said, before adding a cheeky little pat-on-the-back to team management. "It was a really great decision by the captain to open the bowling with me. That was a smart decision on their part."
So was the one to keep Muthusamy on the other end. He took 9 for 91 in the match, exposing the Titans' inability to find scoring options and reliance on going over-the-top in an attempt to break the shackles. Between then, Subrayen and Muthusamy became the first spin pair in franchise history to take at least nine wickets apiece. "We feed off each other quite a bit. It's more a case of feeding off each other's knowledge and getting the job done together," Subrayen said. "It also comes down to runs on the board. If your team has runs on the board, it allows your spinners to express themselves."
Ackerman always suspected that would be the case. When the Dolphins were dismissed for 295, 15 runs short of the first innings average of 310 at Kingsmead, he bullishly said he thought the total was a good enough to make the game "interesting." Behind closed doors, he thought it was more than that, and probably enough to win the game.
"After our innings I went to the coach and he asked me about the pitch and I said I said to him that our spinners will be vital because there's enough in wicket and I knew their control is exceptional," Ackerman said. "I can't give them enough credit. Their groupings are so good. They test your technique all the time, on both edges. We've seen so many different tactics used against them but the control and skills they possess are just impeccable."
The Dolphins bowled the Titans - the most successful first-class team of the franchise era - out for their lowest score, 53, and then bowled them out again for 166. They celebrated with their team song, in homage not just to this win but to their achievements throughout the summer. They reached the final of all three formats, lost the T20 cup to the Lions, shared the one-day cup with the Lions after a washout and finally, won the four-day competition.
"It's the most important trophy for us to win," Subrayen said. "It's a huge feather in our cap to be in three finals. As a team we set out to create a legacy and this is the start of it."
But, it isn't. By next season the Dolphins as an entity will not exist. Neither will any of the other five franchises. The domestic system will be restructured into 15 provincial teams, divided into two tiers. There's no telling how many of these players will be part of the same team going forward, although it is likely a core group will remain part of the Kwa-Zulu Natal union.
"We can't really put our fingers on what the future holds because there is a new structure," Ackerman said. "This is such an amazing group of guys and such a talented group of players. Every single person here deserves the credit for this trophy and this win. I am super proud of the players and just overwhelmed."
As is much of South African cricket today because it's the end of an era. More's the pity, it was just the beginning for the Dolphins.