The bizhub Highveld Lions and the Dolphins will enter the last two rounds of the Sunfoil Series as the only realistic title contenders after they gained contrasting victories in the eighth round of fixtures that ended on Sunday.
The Dolphins won their virtual eliminator against the Unlimited Titans at SuperSport Park by three wickets, but not before an inspired attack had given them a major scare.
The Lions were always in control of their match against the Chevrolet Knights in Bloemfontein, although the home side made them work hard for victory as they batted for 98.4 overs in their second innings, eventually being dismissed for 289. That left the Lions with a target of just 97 for victory, and openers Stephen Cook and Rassie van der Dussen knocked off the runs at a canter, winning by 10 wickets in just 14.3 overs.
The Dolphins began their second innings on the final day in Centurion, needing just 177 runs for victory, but the Titans attack were certainly up for the challenge and the inconsistent bounce of the pitch certainly made the target a testing one.
The Dolphins openers, Divan van Wyk (2) and Imraan Khan (8) were both dismissed inside the first five overs as the visitors crashed to 10 for two.
Khaya Zondo and Cody Chetty briefly steadied the ship as they took the total to 55 before Chetty (20) let his side down with an awful waft outside off stump as Marchant de Lange returned for a fiery second spell and was definitely threatening life and limb.
Left-armer Rowan Richards was merrily swinging the ball from the Hennops River End and added to the chaos with the wickets of Zondo (15), Daryn Smit (2) and Andile Phehlukwayo (0), and suddenly the Dolphins were 58 for six.
But captain Morne van Wyk and Calvin Savage then produced the key partnership as they added 116 in 146 minutes, off 238 balls.
It was a stand of enormous skill and character on a tricky pitch. While such heroics can be expected from the veteran Van Wyk, whose 59 not out was his 28th Sunfoil Series half-century, Savage’s 53 was an exceptional effort by a 22-year-old playing in just his ninth four-day game.
Savage first of all blocked up his end, scoring just 15 runs from his first 77 balls, before defiantly striking five fours and a six as he and Van Wyk all but sealed victory.
Savage fell with just three more runs needed for victory, dismissed by De Lange, who finished with three for 66 in 18 overs, to go with the four for 68 he took in the first innings.
Richards was the pick of the Titans attack, with three for 35 in 17.3 overs.
The victory lifts the Dolphins to 98.26 points, while the Lions are at the top of the log with 115.84. Defeat has left the Titans clutching at straws on 84.90 points.
In Bloemfontein, the Johannesburg-based franchise claimed two Knights wickets in the opening hour as the home side went from 76 without loss overnight to 95 for two with the dismissal of Gihahn Cloete (37) and Tumelo Bodibe (4).
But Reeza Hendricks showed that he is ready for more international cricket as he grafted his way to 61, Rudi Second was similarly determined in scoring 67, and Patrick Botha motored to 42 to take the Knights to 218 for three before the wheels fell off.
The Lions were once again able to show what a tight bowling unit they are as Kagiso Rabada took three for 52, Chris Morris and Hardus Viljoen claimed a couple of wickets each and Dwaine Pretorius wrapped up the tail, the last seven wickets falling for 71 runs.
Having finished just short of an almost identical target last week against the Warriors, this time the Lions did not allow rain or bad light to have any chance of denying them as Cook powered to 49 not out off 34 balls and Van der Dussen struck 46 not out off 55 deliveries.
The third match of the weekend, between the Nashua Cape Cobras and the Chevrolet Warriors, ended in the dullest of draws at Newlands in Cape Town.
The Warriors deserve credit, however, for batting through most of the final day and scoring 256 for three to all but clear the first-innings deficit of 257.
The visitors were 88 without loss overnight and the opening stand grew to 155 as David White scored 57 and Michael Price 94. Colin Ackermann then came in and continued the good work with 53 not out.
Robin Peterson was the only successful Cobras bowler on the final day, the left-arm spinner taking three for 65 in 32.1 overs.