Bloemfontein is where the real hope lies for the Proteas

2020-05-14 11:28
Raynard van Tonder
Raynard van Tonder (Gallo Images)

About a year ago, Pite van Biljon walked into a Knights strategy meeting armed with a plan.

Shortly before, the men from Bloemfontein had the wooden spoon thrust into their hands in the domestic T20 challenge and results in the other two formats were disappointing too.

The 33-year-old skipper, the epitome of a franchise stalwart, had seen Proteas stars like Reeza Hendricks, Theunis de Bruyn, David Miller, Marchant de Lange and Duanne Olivier come and go.

All of them contributed during their stays, but their longer-term retention was simply too challenging in a constrained economic environment.

So Van Biljon, along with a seasoned executive headed by Johan van Heerden, decided to change direction.

If the Knights couldn't assemble a team of superstars, then they'd become the hotbed of South Africa's best young players in a move that resembles the Lions rugby team's thinking during the Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin era.

"That was the plan," Van Biljon told Sport24 earlier this past domestic season.

"We realised that there's an opportunity for us to box cleverly on the contracting department. We knew we had two of the most exciting youngsters in South Africa within our provincial border and had sufficient clout to attract a few other rookies."

Last month, the Knights announced a contracted squad for 2020/21 that includes national Under-19 stars in opener Raynard 'Razor' van Tonder, precocious wicketkeeper-batsman Wandile Makwetu, the highly-rated quick Gerald Coetzee and his future partner-in-new-ball-crime Duan Jansen.

By all accounts, the logic of this strategy is bulletproof - the best age group players will invariably perform as consistently as seasoned veterans simply because of their gifts.

And it was proven during the truncated franchise campaign.

Van Tonder finished as the leading run-scorer in the four-day series with 843 at an average of over 70, Coetzee scalped 17 wickets in just four matches and Makwetu, who even captained the team during the One-Day Cup, averaged 57 in the first-class arena with a century and two fifties.

With the new contracting philosophy firmly in place, the Knights completed an important second phase of their plan: appointing a head coach with real pedigree to extract the most out of those youngsters.

In all fairness, Allan Donald admits it didn’t take much for him to buy into the project.

"I had been exposed to the system a few years back when I consulted for (then head coach) Nicky Boje. When I came back last October, I was astounded by the player resources available here," the legendary international quick and former assistant coach of the Proteas, England and New Zealand told Sport24.

"The wider group of players we have in our area is vibrant and strong. And the best part of it is that if I don't have guys like Gerald, Duan and (new recruit) Migael Pretorius available, I wouldn't hesitate one moment to pick seamers in our semi-pro setup like Joe van Dyk and Neal van Heerden."

Yet even if the main purpose of their approach is to get the amount of runs and wickets that will win the franchise trophies again - they have a proud history of eight titles overall - theres another important dimension to consider.

"At that age, you can also cultivate loyalty from those youngsters and expose them to our team culture early," said Van Biljon. 

"We came up with the type of culture we want to stand for and getting these guys involved early allows us to let them take the lead for years to come."

Donald is on the same page.

"In February I went to visit local schools like Grey College to network with coaches and players. We had already set an example with Raynard and Gerald that we value our best youngsters, but it's still vital switch on the boys and girls, to light the fire and keep them in Bloemfontein," he said.

"We took a very long time to match up names for our contracted group and we had to make some tough decisions given our new outlook, say some heartfelt goodbyes. I think we've recruited well.”

However, Donald - who himself competed in a final first-class campaign for Free State at age 37 - can't deny the influence of seniors like Van Biljon and Shaun von Berg

Van Biljon, in fact, has actively embraced empowering the rookies.

"I love playing against these rookies. They set he benchmark for me (as 33-year-old). I want to keep up with them, they shouldn't be keeping up with me," he said.

That intense desire to maintain his high standards saw him score 633 runs in the four-day series, second behind Van Tonder and, allied with a few fine cameos in the Mzansi Super League, was enough for the national selectors to hand him an international T20 debut.

"It's no less than he deserves. Pite is one of the gutsiest cricketers I have ever met in my life. He's been instrumental in our shake-up and new direction," said Donald.

“I’m so excited. We’ve been threatening in the past few seasons without winning trophies. Now I believe we have the platform to do so consistently.”  

A national team in transition hopes so too.  


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