Can red-ball cricket in South Africa stay healthy amid white-ball excess?

Lions were crowned Div 1 champions after they beat Western Province in the final CSA/Gallo Images

Lions were crowned South Africa's first-class champions in a tense five-day final against Western Province at the Wanderers, bringing an end to the country's red-ball season. The curtain came down with a classic contest, which saw Lions come back from being 35 for 5 on the first morning and conceding an 87-run first innings lead, to setting Western Province a target of 308 and claiming a 99-run win.

Delano Potgieter was the batting hero for the home side with a first-innings 81 and a career-best 155 not out in the second innings that made up for top-order struggles. Tshepo Moreki, who made his Test debut in New Zealand last month, took his first career five-for in Western Province's first innings and Bjorn Fortuin's final day 5 for 69 sealed the title for Lions and his own spot as the competition's leading wicket-taker.

The varied contributions point to a season where Lions relied on the collective rather than stand-out individuals. They had only one batter among the tournament's top ten run-scorers - Wiaan Mulder, who finished third - and two bowlers in the top ten wicket-takers. Their strength lies in their depth and their determination, moulded by former national head coach Russell Domingo, former national bowling coach Allan Donald and former national captain Hashim Amla, who are all part of Lions' coaching staff.

Between them, they have instilled international cricket values to a domestic side that believes that "every four-day game is a Test match", as Lions captain Dominic Hendricks said on the eve of the final. "We have that mentality of training and playing like we are playing a Test match. All the chats have been about what Test cricket is like and how difficult it is to win."

But how many of Lions' players, or indeed anyone else in the first-class system, is ready to make the step up to Test cricket?

Some part of the answer may lie in South Africa's recent Tests against New Zealand where they lost 2-0 (and became the first South African side to be defeated by New Zealand in a Test series) with a makeshift squad drawn from the first-class structures. Though they showed some fight in the second Test, they were outplayed throughout the trip. Moreki and Dane Paterson, who led the attacks for Lions and Western Province respectively in the final, were unthreatening in the Tests. Eddie Moore - one of the Western Province batters in the top 10 - looked out of his depth against New Zealand's bowlers and Tony de Zorzi, Kyle Verreynne, and Fortuin - who all played important roles in the final - were unavailable for the New Zealand series because of their commitments in the SA20.

In a way, juxtaposing the SA20 with the first-class competition is one of the clearest ways to measure the direction of travel of development of the game in South Africa. The SA20's scheduling has not only affected the availability of players for the national team but has pushed the domestic first-class competition out of the prime summer window into the margins of the season. Matches this year started in November with five rounds played until the end of December. The tournament then took a six-week break until mid-February and resumed for the last two rounds and the final. Although November through March is the southern hemisphere summer, surfaces in the country, especially for batters, are at their best all around the country in January and early February. That may explain why no batters scored more than Marques Ackerman's 571 in the season.

In the season immediately before the SA20, when first-class matches were played in the January window, two batters scored more runs than that and in the season before that six batters totalled more. Pre-Covid and before South Africa did away with the franchise system in favour of a two-tier provincial structure, the top batters were regularly scoring 900 or more runs a season but also playing more games. The reduction of fixtures from ten a season to seven is more a consequence of cost-cutting than a calendar crunch but is also impacting the experience players are getting in the red-ball game.

A similar issue is in the development of bowlers. For the third successive season, spinners have dominated the bowling charts and Beyers Swanepoel is the only uncapped seamer among the leading wicket-takers. Could that be because the first-class competition is taking place too late for surfaces to be sporting and at a time in the season when they have already been used for several other matches?

"It would be interesting to see four-day cricket starting earlier in the summer because wickets are slightly different in that part of the summer and then it just evolves as the summer goes on," Hendricks said. "It might be a bit more sporting in the beginning and then in the middle it's a bit better to bat on and towards the end its a bit drier so spinners play a role."

It doesn't help that South Africa's frontline international quicks hardly ever play domestic red-ball cricket - both Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi have only played two domestic first-class games since 2017 - and any promising new talent is fast-tracked through the white-ball set-up. Left-arm seamer Kwena Maphaka, who was the Player of the Tournament at the Under-19 World Cup, will play for Lions in the upcoming T20 competition, for example.

But these are realities of cricket's changing priorities and South Africa's players have learned to get on with it. "I know in county cricket they also play multiple formats at a time," Verreynne, Western Province's captain, said. "It does pose challenges having to play half of a campaign and then you come back for the second half and your squad is completely different with injuries and different guys are in form and you have a whole different mojo. There are quite a few challenges with that but there are also some positives."

Verreynne used himself as an example. He opened the first-class season with 150 against Titans and then had two tough Tests against India. When the formats changed, he was Pretoria Capitals' leading run-scorer at the SA20 - including scoring his first hundred in the format - and returned to the red-ball circuit to score a second century. He finished as the fifth-highest run-scorer and oversaw Western Province's run to the final - an achievement in itself considering the poor state of the province's administration. Western Province is currently battling debt from the costs of construction of a new building on the stadium's premises while also searching for a new CEO, but Verreynne hopes their on-field performances will start the turnaround.

"When Salieg [Nackerdien, the Western Province coach] appointed me, one of my biggest messages was that as players and management we've got to find a way to keep our circle small and control what we can," Verreynne said. "We said we are going to focus on the cricket and make sure the cricket stays the main thing. If we can find a way to keep winning games of cricket, maybe other things can change."

That's one story of the attempt to keep the red-ball game alive; around the country, there are others. In Durban, Dolphins missed out on the final after a strong campaign to keep their uptick in performance over the last few years going and are home to the leading run-scorer, Ackermann. In Pietermaritzburg, Tristan Stubbs scored a triple-century for Warriors and made a strong Test claim. And in Johannesburg, Mulder has demonstrated a maturity that may revive this long-format credentials. The value of all of that may be seen at South Africa's next World Test Championship matches in August, when they play West Indies. Until then, it's over to the white ball.