In the glistening sunshine of a sticky Durban dawn, members of the freshly assembled Durban Heat franchise mingled with guests at their official launch. There was not a cloud in the sky, and the air was tinged with the eternal, somewhat cautious, optimism that comes with any new beginning.
As one of six new franchises for the newly formed Mzansi Super League (MSL), Durban Heat are tasked with first creating an identity for themselves, attracting a good crowd come 18 November, the day of their maiden home game of the league against Cape Town Blitz, then maintaining that steady crowd.
Based on how the launch played out, they seem to have made a promising start. Rather than subjecting attendees to the dreary and stale staple of a press conference, guests were given a glimpse of what Durban is all about.
To introduce the crowd theme during home games that will form part of the Heat’s identity, players and officials were draped in white tops to encourage fans to paint all the kaleidoscopic potential their minds can imagine, a la India’s Holi festival.
Among the white-shirted players at the launch was Kyle Abbott, who sashayed from media to old mates with a sense of ease and familiarity. “It's good to be home,” the tall fast bowler glistened, looking out to the sea and beyond.
A proud product of Kearsney College then the Dolphins, Abbott, 31, needs no introduction in these parts. He permanently craves the sun and cricket has been his passport to a life that has brought a colourful range of emotions.
Abbott last made headlines when he announced his Kolpak agreement to relocate and see out his best playing days on England’s county cricket circuit. His announcement was met with immense sadness, both personal and collective, as the memory of that semifinal of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup loomed over him and made him the key protagonist in South African cricket’s latest Greek tragedy.
With a place in the Proteas’ bowling pecking order never quite certain, Abbott called time on playing international cricket in early 2017, while still in his prime, and left a cricketing nation wondering what might have been.
But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Abbott has gone on to become a vital player in the Hampshire setup, with his unwavering line and length becoming a source of comfort for his captain and team-mates. Having harvested no less than 60 wickets in his debut season with Hampshire in 2017, he has won them his fair share of matches.
This season, Hampshire enjoyed success in the Royal London One-Day Cup on a memorable day that saw him toast alongside former Proteas team-mate Dale Steyn.
Abbott was made for English conditions. He prefers pitching on a fuller length and has the uncanny ability to get the ball to talk. To complement this skill and make it even more deadly, he adds pace slippery enough to keep any batsman honest. South African cricket's loss has certainly been Hampshire and English county cricket’s gain.
27 May 2017: Kyle Abbott of Hampshire bowls during The Specsavers County Championship Division One match between Somerset and Hampshire at The Cooper Associates County Ground in Taunton, England. (Photograph by Julian Herbert/Getty Images)
For now he is excited to be home and playing in a league he thinks is critical for the game in South Africa. “It’s definitely needed. It is massively important, and we were the last major country without a league. You have to have it.” he said.
South Africa has indeed been slow on the uptake, with the MSL a full decade behind India’s IPL. It has been on, dare we say, African time. But late is most certainly better than never. “I have played in a few leagues around the world, and it is great for local players. It is a chance to play against internationals you might never otherwise test yourself against,” said Abbott.
But there’s more to it than that. An unusual brotherhood must urgently be cultivated for the franchise to be a success. There needs to be a thread running through that unites a team drafted on paper and enables them to perform on the field while living in close quarters for more than a month. It’s a prospect Abbott relishes. “That’s the cool thing. You get to play with guys that you’ve always played against domestically,” he said.
“Take Albie Morkel, for example. I have always had to play against him when playing in South Africa, but now we get to be team-mates. I think that's pretty cool,” he smiled broadly.
As he cast his eye on the rest of the squad, the highly competitive Abbott couldn't help but be tickled at the prospect of what temperature the Durban Heat may rise to once they’re immersed in the melting pot of the round-robin fixtures.
“I think we've got a good team, don’t you? We’ve got plenty of experience, some real match-winners and a lot of local knowledge. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do,” Abbott said as he laid down the challenge to their opponents.
As some of his team-mates wrapped up the first half of red-ball cricket in the 4-Day Franchise Series, Abbott was putting in the hours alone at the Kingsmead nets with seemingly no lack of pace and intensity.
But there’s another tantalising layer to this MSL onion that Abbott is personally peeling. It is one that is bound to stimulate new sensations and, thankfully, no tears. “I have never played a cricket match in South Africa without having ambitions invested for something more to come from it. I was always playing to make a provincial team, then the Dolphins, or to play for South Africa,” said Abbott.
In days gone by, every match was a high-pressure trial for Abbott to prove himself to the cricketing jury. “This time, I'm playing for Durban Heat. There is no further ambition than that. Just do your best for the Heat. That is quite a relaxing thought,” he admitted, looking forward to throw caution to the wind.
Much like the crisp white shirts he and his team-mates wore to the launch of South Africa’s latest T20 adventure, Abbott’s cricketing canvas at home is once again blank. “Players always perform better when they are relaxed, so I am looking forward to getting out there and just playing,” he said.