Tuskers have much to prove – both at home and to Cricket SA
The KZN team want to inspire their local fans and show that their promotion to division one was well deserved.
The 2023/24 domestic cricket season gets off the ground with the first One-Day Cup matches on 16 September. In division one, the Dolphins take on the Rocks from Paarl in Durban, while the North West Dragons face off against Western Province in Potchefstroom.
The first test of South Africa’s strength in depth will come in the following match, on Wednesday, 20 September, when the newly promoted KwaZulu-Natal Inland Tuskers face reigning champions the Lions.
The Tuskers, first under the tutelage of Michael Smith and now Grant Morgan, gained promotion into the top division after two years of consistent performances in the second division, to which the Knights have been relegated.
It is the first time a team has been promoted or relegated since the introduction of the new first-class system in South African cricket in 2021. The Tuskers, playing out of the quaint Pietermaritzburg Oval – renowned for having a tree within the boundary ropes – will be the guinea pigs for the success of the updated structure.
“South Africa won’t have a better opportunity to judge the teams coming through than now,” Morgan said at the launch of the upcoming domestic season.
“We have a responsibility to [division two coaches] and everyone to put on a good performance because we are a division two side.
“Our players… some of them have played division one cricket, but for a lot of them that’s quite a while ago.
“Never again will Cricket South Africa have a better chance to see what is coming out of division two. So, we must really be the flagship for the division two sides to put on a good performance and for our community as well.”
The Tuskers have long been a feeder team to the neighbouring Dolphins, with Morgan himself having served as Dolphins head coach between 2016 and 2019 before taking up a role as assistant coach for Scotland.
“[Promotion] has been a long time coming,” he said. “Years ago there was a danger that we would lose our affiliation, let alone go up to division one.
“So the fight has not just come over the last two years, it’s come over the last more than a decade.”
For Morgan, competing well in division one also presents an opportunity to give cricket hopefuls in the Pietermaritzburg area something to aspire to.
“With the cricket culture in Pietermaritzburg, it’s massively important for us to try to create something for a young guy, people with kids… that we can give them an opportunity to rise to the next level,” he told Daily Maverick.
“We’re playing the game in an age when you can literally become a millionaire overnight if you play certain formats, and we need to be able to provide that career opportunity to our local children so that they can not just go to the major universities after school, but stay here and play cricket.”
Proteas star spin bowler Tabraiz Shamsi is a prime example of a player who received their big break at the union before collecting several lucrative contracts in T20 leagues around the world, including the Indian Premier League.
The Tuskers have retained the core of the squad that led them to promotion last season, including skipper Michael Erlank and star batsman Tian Koekemoer.
There have also been some shrewd acquisitions by the Pietermaritzburg union, such as experienced power hitter Cameron Delport, who has returned to KZN Inland after a season with the Lions.
The Tuskers have also contracted batters Pite van Biljon and Kagiso Rapulana, as well as fast bowler Thando Ntini. These three aces joined from the Knights, Lions and Dolphins, respectively.
“We did quite well to keep 11 of our players,” said Morgan. “We were down to only 13 [contract and high-performance] players at the end of last season … but we have managed to retain them, which leaves us with our identity that we wanted.
“We’ve also had to bring in some hard knockers from elsewhere, who give us that extra edge to … hopefully perform and bring experience in certain areas that we were lacking.
“It’s a certain type of cricketer that we bring in here – someone with a resilience who’s willing to put up with some of the challenges that we have here.
“But I’m excited that those people that we have brought in will be able to provide not only the cricketing experience, but also the mental toughness and resilience to make us a competitive force in division one.”
Into the den
The Tuskers’ first opponents, the Lions, have historically been one of the best domestic teams in the country.
They boast eight contracted Proteas players, including Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada and Rassie van der Dussen, and players such as Wiaan Mulder, Lutho Sipamla and the recently acquired Zubayr Hamza have tasted international cricket.
The Lions have also lured former Proteas head coach Russell Domingo back to South African shores as head coach.
“I’ve had four years away out of South Africa and it was a fantastic experience,” said Domingo, who most recently coached the Bangladesh national team.
“Working in the subcontinent is a great experience for any coach because of the passion and the love for cricket. But, ultimately, I’m ecstatic to be back home.
“Working at the Lions, obviously, that’s a big job. It’s a fantastic franchise – good players and an iconic stadium. I’m really pleased to be back in South African cricket.”
Domingo has recruited legendary Proteas cricketer Hashim Amla as a batting coach for the upcoming season.
“I’ve worked with [Amla] as a player-coach for a long period of time, and he’s always been a good sounding board for me. He’s a guy with judgement I trust greatly,” he said.
“I think he’ll be invaluable not just for the players, but also for our coaching staff because he’s worked under so many coaches [and] he’s played in so many high-pressure environments.”
Obviously, the Lions and the Tuskers cannot be compared in terms of resources and facilities. For the Tuskers to remain in division one for more than a solitary season, they need to show the doggedness that saw them promoted from match day one. DM
This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.