Allan Donald, Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Boeta Dippenaar, Nicky Boje, Peter Carlstein, Ryan McLaren, Gerhardus Liebenberg and Victor Mpitsang are SA Schools products from the region who have gone on to play international cricket and all told there have been 61 players from Free State and Griqualand West who have been honoured with selection at the end of the Coca-Cola Khaya Majola U19 Week, including the current captain, Diego Rosier from Noord-Kaap in Kimberley.
The Knights are the professional franchise that covers that central region of the country and they have excelled since domestic cricket’s premier level was reduced to six teams in 2004, winning seven trophies, second only to the nine of the Titans.
But there has been talk that the glory years of the Knights, based on the considerable talents of Morne van Wyk, Dippenaar, Boje, Dillon du Preez and Johan van der Wath, are waning and that one of the powerhouses of franchise cricket are slipping down a notch or two.
But the performances of the Knights feeder teams – in particular the Free State side in the CSA amateur competitions – have told a different story.
The Free State team are in contention for the CSA three-day title and made the final of the one-day competition, while the likes of fast bowlers Malusi Siboto, Duanne Olivier, Gino Vries and Corne Dry, wicketkeeper/batsman Rudi Second and all-rounder Patrick Botha have shown the ability to step up and succeed at franchise level.
“The last three years, we have been in contention in all three competitions, but this season has been badly disrupted by injuries and the national call-ups of Elgar and McLaren which have made our planning difficult.
“But the Free State team is right up there in their competition and we have some wonderful youngsters in those ranks. Shadley van Schalkwyk, Siboto, Gihahn Cloete and Michael Erlank have all been called up to the franchise side, while youngsters like Reeza Hendricks and Rilee Rossouw are still finding their feet but will probably play for South Africa one day.
“So I’m confident our planning is in order, I’m positive our plans are working. This season there have just been some things you can’t make provision for,” Knights chief executive Johan van Heerden said.
Both the national U13 and U17 weeks were held down in the Cape in December, with the Free State teams having mixed fortunes, while Griquas had a torrid time, losing all their matches at both tournaments.
The Free State U13s had a 50% winning record, while their U17s won four of their six matches.
The U19 side won three and lost two of their matches, with one drawn, while Griquas had just a solitary victory at the Khaya Majola Week. Vasili Orros of Grey College joined captain Rosier in the SA Schools XI announced at the end of the competition.
These are interesting times in Free State schools cricket with Grey College no longer the dominant force they used to be and St Andrews Bloemfontein challenging them for regional pre-eminence.
Johan Volsteedt is ideally placed to comment on the young talent in the area. As the highly respected coach of the Grey College first XI, he is as much a part of the Knights’ future as he was of their yesterdays, having overseen the early development of the likes of Wessels, Cronje and Boje.
“The standard is relatively good at the moment, there are some fine bowlers around. But the batsmen need a lot of work, especially in terms of good technique. But there are still good signs for the future, it’s very positive. Young cricketers have to prepare for many things to succeed in the game, and a lot of them you can’t coach, such as learning about match situations,” Volsteedt said.
The former Grey College headmaster also dares to suggest that the T20 game can be used to improve the techniques of batsmen.
“You can use T20 to train for the longer formats. Batsmen need to learn how to score quickly, but they also need to get in first.
“T20 is still very good cricket and it’s not going to disappear, so we need to see how it can make a difference in developing our talent. We must just use T20 correctly, not just close our eyes and smash.”
But, according to Volsteedt, cricket is still considered the little brother of rugby when it comes to importance in Free State schools.
“It’s very difficult because boys have to choose one of the two team sports, rugby or cricket. And the top rugby players started training for the 2013 season on October 4!,” Volsteedt said.
“The game of cricket was very foreign to us thirty years ago, but we have since taken to it and become more attacking in our play. I don’t know how big the pool of talent is, but the keenness is definitely still there.”
One of Free State’s greatest fast bowlers, Corrie van Zyl, now the general manager of cricket for CSA, was the coach of the Knights, then known as the Eagles, in their halcyon days, steering them to six of those seven trophies before moving upwards into the national ranks.
Sarel Cilliers, the former pace bowler and Eagles fitness trainer, took over as coach from Van Zyl, but the transition was not smooth, as Van Heerden admits.
“Sarel took over in very tough circumstances and two or three senior players made life difficult for him and demanded that he be ousted. We’d just come out of the Corrie van Zyl era and the team was balanced and happy, but then a young guy took over and dropped some of the older players, which caused a bit of unhappiness.
“I guess the players were trying to test the waters, but the board made a strong statement and said those players who want to leave must leave. Only CJ de Villiers left and we now have one of the happiest groups. The players agreed to stick it out and Sarel has now made a real impact. He’s a wonderful coach and very strong technically,” Van Heerden said.
With the players and the coach now on better-than-speaking terms, the Knights can now concentrate on what happens after the likes of Du Preez, Van Wyk and Van der Wath move on.
Mother Cricket has proven on many occasions that she can be a tough mistress and those who will be coming into the team once that trio of stars have been released will need time to settle.
But Van Heerden is confident that there is top-class talent waiting in the wings.
“Rosier is captaining SA Schools and in 2010 it was Keagan Rafferty. Every year we have a couple of players in the SA Schools and SA U19 teams, so there is still a nice strong pipeline here. I feel very comfortable with what’s coming up to play on the next level. A lot of them aren’t quite ready yet, but give them a couple of years,” Van Heerden said.
If the Knights’ succession planning goes to the letter, there is no doubt they should still be a formidable force in domestic cricket in the years to come.