How Cobras swung it the other way
Cape summers are as exquisite as they come. Days are long and languid with late sunsets, the famed gale-force gusts not as frequent as the forecasts suggest, and with steady numbers of tourists, every day seems like a holiday. But beyond this bliss, in the mountains that guard the city, danger lurks. Months of hot, dry, windy weather encourages rampant bush blazes. Though they seldom reach the southern suburbs, where Newlands is situated, this season the franchise based at the ground, Cobras, almost went up in flames.
Sparks flew through the first half of the season, ignited by player unhappiness over the proposed renewal of coach Paul Adams' contract. Despite winning five trophies in his five seasons in charge, Adams was facing a mutiny by ten of the 17 contracted players, who took their grievances as far as the country's official dispute resolution body, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which gave them the right to strike. They never actually followed through on a no-show, but for a while it looked as though they might.
Cobras lost three of their opening five first-class matches and found themselves at the bottom of the table at the halfway stage, with a shade over half the points of their nearest rivals. They went on to have a lacklustre T20 competition and were in danger of fading away before the business end of the season even began. Things were so bad, they were sending senior players like first-class captain Omphile Ramela and international spinner Dane Piedt on loan to other franchises.
Fast-forward six weeks and Cobras have a new coach in Ashwell Prince, a new captain, Piedt, and had masterminded a turnaround that meant that on the final weekend, they were among the teams in contention for the first-class title. They've found the light. What happened?
If you ask Piedt, everything.
"The change of coach really had a lot to do with it. It brought back spirit and honesty to the side, which had been missing for a few seasons," Piedt said. "Suddenly we had guys players willing to play for the coach."
When Adams agreed to step sideways on the second-last day of 2016 - into a high-performance role that was created for him - and Prince agreed to take over, the smoke cleared.
Prince, a respected former international who spent seasons playing at Cobras, was fresh off a role at the national selection panel, brought back an old idea. "It was important for me that we went back to the kind of thinking where senior players drive the standards," he said. "They were around in the days when the team was winning and now they are around when the team is struggling. They know where the team needs to be and what it needs to get back to winning."
Those senior players included Rory Kleinveldt and Justin Ontong but also Piedt, who was at the time considering all options for furthering his career, including a Kolpak deal. Piedt had been dropped from the Test team for Keshav Maharaj, who the selectors consider more of a containing bowler, and whose early performances suggest it would be difficult for Piedt to find his way back, and Piedt took the snub badly. "It was very tough. I felt like I wasn't good enough anymore and my ability took a knock," he admitted.
After being shipped off to Titans, he only played two matches for them, but then Cobras came with an offer he could not turn down. "I feel a bit like Faf [du Plessis]. He was out of the Test side and then he came back as captain," Piedt said. "I have been at the Cobras my whole life. I was sent on loan to the Titans and then I didn't play, and then they asked me to come back us captain. It 100% changed my mind [about looking elsewhere]. It's an important part for my cricket career."
Although it was the board that made the call for Piedt to captain, Prince was consulted, and he backed Piedt to take on additional responsibility. "Dane is an intelligent guy who knows the game and has great cricket awareness. He had showed leadership skills before and had the right characteristics to take the team forward," Prince said.
Piedt has thrived in the role, much like du Plessis. After managing only 11 wickets at 63.18 in the first half of the season, in which he conceded over 100 runs three times, he claimed 17 wickets 322 in the first four matches of the second half of the season at 18.94.
Piedt's performance is one example of the Prince influence, but there are several others. Wayne Parnell's six-wicket match haul against Lions in Oudtshoorn gave Cobras their first win of the season, Ontong's hundred in Centurion allowed them to stun the table-topping Titans and Stiaan van Zyl's century in Paarl took Cobras from burnt-out to brilliant.
But it's not the numbers that have stood out for Piedt, it's the small things. "We've moved Andrew Puttick from second slip to mid-off. He is 36 years old and he is diving around there like he has just started playing. You can't get a better idea of how things have changed," he said.
Prince is equally delighted with the change in attitude, more so because it is exactly what he asked for when he took over. "When the new year started, we said we knew could beat anybody on paper but we also can't bank on how good we used to be. What I wanted was for us to play consistently, and that if a team beat us, they must have played a little better, so we could doff our hats and say, 'Well done', not that we played badly and lost, which is what was happening."
To get the team more focused on the present, Prince drew on his experiences. "He played 66 Tests but when you hear him speak, it's like he played 166. He has so much knowledge about match situations, and his team chats are precise and clear," Piedt said.
That praise won't go unnoticed by those higher up. Cricket South Africa will begin the search for a new national coach, and although many expect it to be nothing more than a formality in which Russell Domingo will be reappointed if he applies, Prince's name will come up, if not now then in the future. The man himself is hopeful of the latter.
"It's too early for me to be thinking about that," Prince said. "I won't say it's not a goal of mine but for now, I need to earn my coaching badges. I want to know more about how I can improve people, because physically, physiologically and mentally, we are all different. I can't advocate one batting or bowling style for everyone. People have to develop their own styles and then believe in that, and not in trying to do what worked for Herschelle Gibbs or Jacques Kallis or Vernon Philander. Understanding personnel management is important. Ideally, I would want four to five years of experience at this level, with good results, before stepping up."
To that end, Prince hopes to be invited to do a Level Three and Four coaching course in the off season, when, irrespective of the result this weekend, Cobras will celebrate their new-found fire. Next season will present different challenges for then, chiefly whether they will have to cope without Kolpak signees van Zyl and Dane Vilas.
In the aftermath of seven recent Test caps choosing to end their international careers in search of financial security, CSA is debating whether to allow them back into domestic structures. If a limit is placed on the number of Kolpaks, Cobras will face another transition phase, but for now, they're not too worried about the prospect. "It [The Kolpak situation] created a lot more banter in the change room," Piedt said. "Every time we go out, we joke about who is going to pay for dinner - Stiaan or Dane - because they are the ones earning the pounds.
"We know its a tough decision for guys to make and we didn't want to make it any tougher."
Especially not when there is still a Cape summer to enjoy.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent