What makes the Warriors relevant

JJ Smuts struck some meaty blows in his 45 Getty Images

The availability of South Africa's national players will be a boost to all but one franchise in the upcoming Ram Slam competition: the Warriors, who don't have any Proteas on their books.

Of the Eastern Cape franchise's players, only Jon-Jon Smuts has played international cricket - six T20s - in the recent past while Colin Ingram has had some time at the highest level, albeit more than four years ago. The Warriors' other homegrown star Wayne Parnell moved away to the Cobras three seasons ago and the acquisition of Kyle Abbott from the Dolphins proved short-lived after he went Kolpak, which has left the Warriors to rely purely on domestic talent. In shorter formats, that served them fairly well.

Since the start of the franchise era in 2004-05, the Warriors have played in five one-day cup finals and four T20 finals, and have won one of each. Don't worry if you can't remember those victories, they came nine summers ago, in 2009-10, under former national coach Russell Domingo. Since then, the Warriors have laboured without reward and for the last three years, without even a sponsor to back them, but they're hopeful of turning the corner.

Last season, they had the chance to do the double again when they played in both short-format finals, but lost to the Titans, both times. While the Warriors were blown away by an Aiden Markram blitz in the fifty-over format, they only narrowly lost out in the T20 final, where coach Malinbongwe Maketa believes they made the biggest strides in forming their current team culture.

"We were very happy with our consistency in that competition. We played according to our values of simplicity and we played the big moments well," Maketa told ESPNcricinfo.

The Warriors only lost once on their way to the final last summer, but just reaching it this year will be considered a coup. With every other franchise sporting at least one international, for the Warriors the Ram Slam is as good as the postponed T20 Global League, because it will pit their players against proven internationals.

"The Global T20 would have offered the opportunity to play with and against the big names but for us, this is our big tournament," Maketa, who was due to be the assistant to Mark Boucher at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stars franchise, said. "We know this is the event where people take note and we will be playing against all the national players. We know that our players have to perform above their averages to do well but people forget that a lot of the time, that's what they do."

In last season's competition, the Warriors had three batsmen in the top 10 run-scorers - Smuts led the charts, with Ingram in sixth and Christiaan Jonker in ninth place - and one just outside with Colin Ackermann in 12th place. They also had three bowlers among the top 10 wicket-takers - Andrew Birch, Sisanda Magala and Basheer Walters.

All those players, as well as Yaseen Vallie, Akona Mnyaka, Qaasim Adams, Kelly Smuts and Lesiba Ngoepe, were picked up in the Global T20 draft, which speaks to the promise of players from the region but does not answer the question of why none of them are regulars in the national ranks. Maketa doesn't have an answer either, except to say that it is the franchise's focus to try and produce players that could come into contention, especially for the 2019 World Cup.

"We know we don't have any Proteas but few potential Proteas and we have guys coming through. It is our aim to have two players at the World Cup," Maketa said, though he did not want to name them for fear of putting unwanted pressure on them, but, Smuts aside, there are some obvious candidates.

Batsmen Edward Moore and Matthew Breetzke must be on the radar, with Moore's three hundreds in four matches in the first-class competition making him known and Breetzke, an Under-19 international, picked for CSA's Invitation XI to play against Bangladesh. Fast-bowler Anrich Nortje has also been mentioned as a player to watch after strong performances in the Africa T20 Cup.

Importantly, all three of these players are products of the region, with Moore and Breetzke schooled at Grey High, the alma mater of Graeme Pollock, and Nortje from Brandwag School in Uitenhage, a town about 20 kilometres south-west of Port Elizabeth. While Maketa believes there are "enough players coming through the system" the absence of significant numbers of black African players - from the area that is considered the heartland of black cricket and rugby - is glaring.

How exactly the Warriors will solve that issue will not be seen from the Ram Slam. Instead, the tournament will provide the franchise with the chance to show that they remain relevant at a time when cricket is defined by its commercial appeal as much as by anything else. International appeal aside, the Warriors need to show that they can compete and thrill, and the rest - national players, corporate backers, wider support - may come.