Remember when the Africa T20 Cup was announced in 2015 and one of the pop-up banners at the launch function read “Arfica T20 Cup”? There were many sceptics four years ago who doubted the viability of the tournament. But the tournament has grown in stature and today there are few who still believe it doesn‘t have a rightful place on the South African cricket calendar.
Initially the tournament was created to fill the gap left in the calendar by the cancellation of the Indian Premier League’s off-shoot, the Champions League Twenty20. Because of the cancellation, SuperSport desperately needed content to fill its airwaves and so the Africa T20 Cup was born. From being a substitute tournament four years ago, it is now a standalone event seen as the curtain-raiser to the South African domestic season.
The format of the tournament was the same from 2015 to 2017. Sixteen teams (the thirteen South African provincial teams plus sides from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya) were divided into four pools of four each. Over a period of four consecutive weekends, the teams from each pool played at each other once. The winner of each pool went through to a fifth weekend where two semi-finals and a final decided the ultimate tournament winner. In 2018 the tournament was expanded to twenty teams with the addition of provincial teams from Limpopo and Mpumalanga as well as sides from Nigeria and Uganda. There were still four pools but with five teams in each one. Again the pool winners went through to a finals weekend.
The winner of the inaugural tournament was Northerns. Eastern Province and Kwa-Zulu Natal Inland were the champions in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Gauteng was crowned champion for the first time this year.
Cricket South Africa (CSA) made two changes to the 2018 edition which have certainly enhanced the Africa T20 Cup.
The first important change was in the fixtures. The first three tournaments were played over five weekends. This was too long. It made it difficult to keep the attention of anyone who wanted to follow the tournament. Also, any momentum the team that won the first weekend’s round might have had was lost five weeks later when the finals weekend came round. In 2018 the pool games were all played over one weekend, followed by a finals weekend a week later.
The second enhancement CSA made to the tournament was the addition of two more teams from Africa. The Africa T20 Cup is the only tournament of real stature for teams from the continent outside South Africa. Playing against quality teams from South Africa is the only way other African teams are going to get better. Namibia, who also play in South Africa’s provincial competitions, has proved this. Last season they were the losing finalists in the 3-day competition and finished third in their pool in the One-Day Challenge.
Uganda only played in the Africa T20 Cup because Ghana declined CSA’s invitation, but they were a revelation. They finished third in their pool, beating Easterns (the eventual pool winners) and a strong Western Province team in the process. Like Namibia, Uganda too can only benefit from more cricket of this standard.
The next issue CSA will have to address is the inclusion of four international and/or franchise players in each South African squad. The tournament should ideally be an opportunity for provincial and younger players to showcase their talents (like Border batsman Marco Marais did this year). The impact the international or franchise players have had on the first four tournaments has been average. Frankly, one finds it difficult to imagine how an international player can get himself fired up for a tournament like the Africa T20 Cup. If CSA do not want to do away with the international/franchise player, it should be limited to two players per squad.
Overall the Africa T20 Cup has grown to be an established competition. It should be encouraged to grow further and become a truly African tournament.