No, South Africa's domestic 20-over tournament has not stepped into a time machine and traveled back two summers. Yes, the Ram Slam is back.
After the courier company Ram opted not to renew their deal with Cricket South Africa (CSA) last season, it is back as title sponsor and shows no signs of any bitter taste from the match-fixing scandal that blighted the tournament in 2015-16.
Back then, seven players including four internationals - Alviro Petersen, Thami Tsolekile, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Gulam Bodi - were banned for between two and 20 years for attempting to fix matches. CSA maintained that no actual fixes took place, and Ram said the poor PR from the long-drawn investigation had nothing to do with its decision to pull out, but the tournament had been stained. Last summer, CSA couldn't find any corporate backers and was forced to foot the entire bill for it.
Things would have likely stayed the same this year, with the T20 Global League expected to hog the headlines. But it was postponed, several national players became available and suddenly the domestic T20 competition has become the biggest thing of the South African summer. This could well be the start of CSA finding its feet after weeks of disappointment.
"Ram have always been part of the family and we thought from a marketing and a branding point of view, it was the simplest and easiest things to do go back to them and say, 'Guys how about we rekindle our relationship and start this thing all over again,'" Thabang Moroe, CSA's acting CEO said at the sponsorship launch in Johannesburg. "They didn't hesitate when jumping on board with us. That's the reason why we went to them."
Not only did Ram renew its partnership with CSA, it even flashed a smidgen of the cash the GLT20 may have brought in. Instead of the R1 million (US$70,378) that was shared among fans who pulled off one-handed crowd catches in 2015, Ram has doubled their offering to R2 million (US$140, 757), so spectators have all the more to reason to go the grounds. But with this event previously played out in sparsely populated stadiums, is CSA really expecting things to change? Yes, according to Moroe, which is why in the wake of the GLT20 postponement, the board prioritised a T20 tournament over international fixtures.
South Africa were rumoured to be in talks with Pakistan for a series that did not materialise, and Moroe said the focus on domestic cricket was deliberate. "With postponing the GLT20, the first thing that came to mind was looking at our domestic players and catering for everybody. Hence we went this route of the T20 challenge. We had a couple of options in terms of playing international matches but obviously we would have only catered for a few players and I thought it was an opportune moment for us as Cricket SA to get all our players involved in this tournament and try and reach as many people as we can with a series of matches."
If those people head to venues around the country, they will be greeted with sparkling renovations - new lights in Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth and Paarl for example - and potentially stellar line-ups. Dale Steyn is expected to make his comeback in the second match for the Titans, who have 10 internationals on their books. Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell and Chris Morris will return at some stage of the tournament. JP Duminy has been announced as Cobras' captain, and all but the Warriors will have some national representation in their XIs.
That has left little to no space for any overseas player involvement, a significant departure even from past seasons when some franchises would bring in big names - Kieron Pollard played for the Cobras, Andre Russell for the Knights and Dwayne Bravo for the Dolphins. Although CSA was expecting an influx of foreign talent for the GLT20, most of them have made alternative arrangements and those that haven't might not be able to find a place in a team.
"I am really not sure how they are going to manage to squeeze themselves into local teams," Moroe said. "We have got the Proteas back, who are equally as strong if not stronger than most of the internationals that we had lined up, with due respect. It's going to be tough to not play your Proteas and not give an opportunity to some of the local players when they have never really had an opportunity to play locally with Protea team-mates."
So on the face of it, the news is positive. CSA have managed to fill the GLT20-sized hole in the calendar and it has also found a sponsor, which the GLT20 did not have. SuperSport, the broadcaster which could not agree terms with CSA over the GLT20, already have rights to this tournament and will have a bumper product, given the availability of the South African players. They are so pleased they even agreed to have the launch at their studios. SuperSport will air at least 20 of the 33 matches, which is less than a broadcaster would have done for the GLT20, but two-thirds is still a significant fraction.
But there is a lingering sense of what could have been, especially among players. "It's been a couple of weeks now (since GLT20 was postponed) so that has come and gone and the focus is on the Ram Slam now. Every player is excited by the fact that there is a tournament and that it's going to be a strong tournament. That was the beauty of the GLT20," Duminy said. "The disappointment is always going to be there and hopefully in years to come a tournament with that stature can come to our shores but unfortunately that's out of our control and we need to focus on what's in front of us."