Underdogs with a serious bite

They had no title sponsor, no big name international stars and no one gave them a chance, but come Friday 16 December, the Warriors will do battle with the Multiply Titans in the Final of the 2016 CSA T20 Challenge. The men from the Land of Milk and Honey have surprised all and sundry in this year’s competition, having won six of their 10 round-robin matches (with one washout). Tuesday 13 December saw the Eastern Cape’s finest turn in a clinical performance to dispose of the bizhub Highveld Lions by seven wickets in the Qualifier to book a spot in Friday’s final.

Only Colin Ingram (31 ODI caps) and Kyle Abbott (9 Test, 28 ODI & 21 T20I caps) had any international experience in the Warriors lineup, albeit that Ingram battled a back injury early on in the tournament and Abbott has played just two matches due to national duty.

Few would’ve predicted that the Warriors would rollick their way into second spot on the table, with the rain hampering their opportunities of automatically making the final when their penultimate match against the Cobras was washed out and their final match against the Titans was reduced to a five-over shootout.

Said match against the Titans saw Farhaan Behardien smash a 15-ball 50 to help the Titans post 80 in five overs, with the Warriors falling just six runs short in a riveting run chase.

Previously, the Warriors had be known as a fighting bowling unit who could scrap wins with a decent batting lineup. However, this season they have proved to be a dangerous side capable of posting and chasing big scores. The best illustration of this came in East London on 07 December when they chased down 217 against the Dolphins with an over to spare.

In their earlier match against the Titans, the Warriors picked up a six wicket victory on Friday 02 December at Centurion. A magnificent 5-16 from Andrew Birch as well as half centuries from Colin Ingram and Colin Ackermann guided the Eastern Capers to a surprise win over a team that many thought were invincible.

Before the competition started, I wrote a preview article for SuperSport.com where I chatted to former Proteas, Paul Harris and Jon Kent, to get their thoughts. Both pundits were of the opinion that the Warriors were real dark horses due to a lack of big name players, however their ability to gel as a team made them a threat.

How spot on they were. Anyone who tries to tell you that cricket is not a team game need just take a closer look at the Warriors season. Five of the Top 10 wicket takers are Warriors, three Warriors batsmen have surpassed 200 runs for the season, with Colin Ackermann a mere five runs shy of the marker.

With the bat, captain Jon-Jon Smuts has taken charge, leading the competition’s run scoring stakes with 355 runs at an average of 44.37 and a strike rate of 143.72. He has  also scored the tournament’s only hundred to date (107* vs Dolphins). Smuts has been ably supported atop the order by a fit-again Colin Ingram (274 runs @ 34.25 with a SR of 133) and Colin Ackermann (195 runs @ 27.85 with a SR of 129.13).

However, the man who has perhaps grabbed most of the headlines and featured in most highlights reels, is the big hitting Christiaan Jonker. He has provided the Warriors with a lethal impetus at the death and in the middle order – an area in which many teams have struggled. Jonker has a remarkable 230 runs at an average of 115 and a strike rate of 160.83 and two Batsmen of the Match awards.

In the bowling stakes (pun intended), it has been talismanic seamer Andrew ‘Steaks’ Birch who has led the way. The Dordrecht Express has 17 wickets from just nine outings and finds himself second on the wickets list behind Hardus Viljoen (19) – although the Lions seamer has two more games under his belt and Birch has a superior economy rate, strike rate and average. His aforementioned 5-16 against the table topping Titans at Centurion was his best showing ever in T20 cricket and his control at the death mixed with his outswing upfront have made him a lethal package. Sadly, Birch didn’t feature in the Qualifier and is unlikely to play in the Final as Kyle Abbott’s return coupled with CSA’s transformation selection policies will more than likely see him carry refreshments.

Like Sam Smith, Birch knows he is not the only one, as previously mentioned, five of the competition’s Top 10 wicket takers hail from the lime green and black colours of the Warriors. Fellow seamers, Sisanda Magala (13 wickets) and Basheer Walters (10 wickets), have been simply superb. Walters has been brilliant up front with the new ball, whilst Magala’s express pace has troubled even the best in the league (an asset likely to see him succeed at the highest level).

Viewed by some commentators as ‘part-timers’, Ackermann and Smuts, have proved to be irreplaceable allrounders having claimed nine scalps apiece to date. Smuts’ slow left-armers and Ackermann’s offspin have formed a miserly middle over partnership that has devastated many an innings. Another weapon in the Warriors arsenal has beenthe emergence of Ingram’s legspin which has produced four wickets to date – adding a nice variation to a potent Warriors spin department.

Whilst Smuts, Ackermann and Ingram have been sublime in the tweaking division, the Warriors have left five-time Protea Test cap Simon Harmer on the sidelines. Again, like Birch in the playoffs, Harmer has been resigned to the sidelines due to the balance and makeup of sides as per CSA regulations. This, among other reasons, has seen the Warriors Sunfoil Series captain, Harmer, sign a Kolpak deal with Essex County Cricket Club in England.

On Friday, the men from the Land of Champions will journey north to take on a team that is arguably the most potent across all formats in South African domestic cricket – the Titans. The defending champions have international quality in Behardien, Heino Kuhn, Albie Morkel, David Wiese and Tabraiz Shamsi, whilst also being able to call on Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar and Morne Morkel if fit.

It’s one-all so far in the T20 Challenge between the teams. The Titans have home ground advantage and star power, however the Warriors have belief, form, unity and a good track record at Centurion. Apart from the T20 win in early December, the Warriors chased down 329 in a Momentum One Day Cup game at SuperSport Park.

The favourites according to the bookies will be the Titans, but this patriotic and partisan Eastern Cape writer will put his house down on his beloved Warriors come Friday.

In closing, just remember, there is only one Cape – The Eastern Cape.


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