The Knights finished fifth in the Sunfoil Series, winning just two of their 10 matches, and fourth in the Momentum One-Day Cup, winning three of their 10 games. But those figures fail to take into account the horrendous run of injuries and bad weather that stalked the central franchise almost throughout the season.
Living in Bloemfontein or Kimberley, one doesn’t expect prolonged bouts of rain, but the Knights had two home One-Day Cup matches abandoned without a ball being bowled, leaving them an agonising one point short of a playoff place.
In the four-day competition, the Knights opened their campaign by having the better of a draw against the defending champion Titans in Kimberley, but then had matches washed out on successive weekends in Paarl, Pietermaritzburg and East London.
Once they could get on the field, the Knights were actually in reasonable form and, strangely enough, the only two Sunfoil Series matches they lost were in Bloemfontein, against the Warriors and the Cape Cobras.
As if the weather was not a bad enough blow to the hopes of the franchise, it also suffered an extraordinary run of injuries.
Morne van Wyk scored a century and Reeza Hendricks a half-century in that opening match against the Titans, but it would be the last game they played as the veteran wicketkeeper/batsman badly injured his shoulder and the young top-order prospect broke his ankle.
With Dean Elgar often on national duties, it meant the Knights had lost almost their entire first-choice top-order.
“Serious injuries hit us. We had the whole season planned but then we had to go without key players like Morne van Wyk and Reeza Hendricks. Those are quality players who are extremely important to our set-up,” Van Heerden said.
“Unfortunately, their replacements were not able to front up and Rilee Rossouw and Obus Pienaar became our most senior batsmen. But they are still struggling with things in their own games and that’s why we were 25 for four too often. If the other top-four batsmen had been there, it would have taken the pressure off them.”
Pace bowlers Quinton Friend and Dillon du Preez also suffered injuries at inopportune times, and Ryan McLaren was also often absent with the national team.
But the good news after a tough season in Bloemfontein and Kimberley is that all but two of their players have opted for the safety of renewing their contracts with the Knights.
Unfortunately, the two players leaving are both batsmen – Van Wyk and Ryan Bailey.
Van Wyk has been a great servant of Knights cricket and is the franchise’s leading run-scorer with over 4000 runs, but he will be relocating to Durban.
“Morne has never left Bloemfontein, he never played county cricket, and he believes he has maybe two years left in his career, so he just wants to play in a different area,” Van Heerden explained.
And Bailey, whose double-century in the opening round of Sunfoil Series matches accounted for over half of his total runs and he only managed 71 runs in six innings in the One-Day Cup, declined a one-year contract from the Knights and will take up a two-year offer from the Eastern Cape Warriors instead.
These departures – and the fact that the likes of Johan van der Wath and Du Preez are also coming to the end of their careers – would be a real pain in the neck for Van Heerden, were it not for the really cosy situation the Knights are in in terms of the talent coming through just below franchise level.
The Free State team have excelled in the amateur competitions, mounting a strong challenge in the three-day league, reaching the final of the one-day tournament and making an unbeaten start to the T20s.
The likes of Gihahn Cloete, Rudi Second, Michael Erlank, Patrick Botha and Corne Dry have already featured in the Knights team, while Pite van Biljon, Duanne Olivier, Keagan Rafferty and Romano Terblanche are waiting in the wings.
“The youngsters can see that there are spots opening up for them and the policy of the board is that if two players are on an equal footing, then we go for the younger player. We have a youth policy for the franchise and we want to lure youngsters here, we have great arrangements for that in place with the University of the Free State and the Central University of Technology,” Van Heerden said.
An example of this is the Ewie and Hansie Cronje Project which provides a bursary for a promising cricketer and student to study at UFS.
“The bursary pays for three years’ study and pocket money and their equipment is paid for too. They must be athletic and have the potential to study further, because we believe people who qualify with a degree become better decision-makers.
“It provides specialised training and physical monitoring for young fast bowlers and it was the idea of Paul Harris [the top banker], especially the scientific side, and he has funded it along with Johann Rupert and Rembrandt,” Van Heerden explained.
The excellent schools in the region are still providing the talent, with Diego Rosier and Rafferty being recent SA U19 captains and either of them could be playing for the Knights next summer.
The mood is certainly positive in the central region, despite the hardships of the last summer and the bigger picture is healthy, according to Van Heerden.