Cape Town – They were two of the most marketable figures again in the lead-up to this season’s Mzansi Super League (MSL).
But it took until around the halfway mark of a hitherto slow-burning tournament for onlookers to see the best qualities of established Twenty20 global megastars AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle.
Suddenly both came off, albeit for different causes, in an all-Highveld clash at the Wanderers on Sunday, as De Villiers’ Tshwane Spartans outfit put Gayle’s Jozi Stars out of their 2019 misery with a dramatic, come-from-nowhere victory.
The Stars imploding once more as a batting unit – from foundations in a chase that were laid in quite swashbuckling fashion by the big Jamaican left-hander – saw them recede to an embarrassing nought from six in the win column and elimination from contention (surely?) from the knockout phase even with four full fixtures left for them.
They may now simply serve as kingmakers for others in the scramble for top-three berths, currently dominated by Eric Simons’ unbeaten Nelson Mandela Bay Giants charges and the small-town outfit of Paarl Rocks.
It has been a remarkable fall from grace for a Bullring-based side who were champions in the inaugural edition last summer, and now having to win at least three of their remaining matches to draw level with the Durban Heat (bottom team in 2018, with a 3/10 record) and stave off becoming the standalone, least productive outfit for wins in a single MSL campaign.
Their squad has not been significantly different this year, although they have surrendered in-form all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius to Paarl Rocks, and Dane Vilas to Durban Heat.
So it was really only a crumb of comfort that Gayle belatedly came to the party on Sunday in his final match on South African soil … perhaps for all time, as he is now 40, increasingly plodding in the field and between the wickets, and unlikely to earn an Mzansi gig even if the financially-questionable tournament reaches a third edition next season.
That both he and De Villiers sparkled with the blade, however, helped add to a growing feeling that the local public are beginning to warm to MSL 2019, especially with Springbok World Cup-winning rugby hysteria subsiding as the oval-ball off-season takes proper hold.
It may be too late now to bolster unimpressive attendance figures at the Wanderers specifically, with the Stars such early goners, but Gayle – later confessing to having felt a little poorly on the day – at least signed off in his 400th T20 match worldwide with some pizzazz.
After a paltry total of 47 runs from his previous five knocks, he bettered that in one against the Spartans by bludgeoning 54 off 27 balls (strike rate exactly 200) against their lively seam attack.
The “Universe Boss” was particularly severe on Lungi Ngidi, as he smashed him for three fours and a six onto the old wooden benches in the Proteas strike bowler’s opening over, although he had earlier survived two or three clear-cut runout attempts as nippy Temba Bavuma forgot his partner operates with all the pace off the mark – and even when at supposed full tilt – of a sumo wrestler.
Ngidi, to his credit, regained composure to only leak 19 further runs from his remaining three overs, and play his part in the Spartans’ gutsy clawback collectively in the field.
Earlier, a similarly hitherto underwhelming De Villiers, still SA cricket’s most idolised figure, also notched his own first half-century of the tournament, a 33-ball innings of 53 easily eclipsing his previous best of 19 at Paarl.
He had to summon his rich experience and nous initially, as the pitch was trickily two-paced and required some poking of the ball around before any batsman (perhaps excluding the no-rules-apply Gayle, that is) could feel reasonably comfortable.
But then, at a venue where he has produced some withering white-ball innings for his national side in the past, De Villiers suddenly began to strike it really cleanly and with increasing velocity until he holed out in the final over of his team’s knock.
His resurgence should help lure a healthy enough crowd to SuperSport Park on Friday when the Spartans entertain Faf du Plessis’s Rocks in a match that could have a major effect on determining the play-offs places.
Sunday’s earlier, Western Cape derby between the Cape Town Blitz and Paarl Rocks, a full-blooded contest that the Boland-based side edged by two runs, coaxed a solid number of the Newlands faithful.
Maligned though it is in some circles, the MSL is beginning to bubble more promisingly now.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing