The young and restless Quinton de Kock
South Africa have done it. They have won three finals in a row. If this was a traditional knockout tournament with quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final, they would be champions.
Ah, but it isn’t and in years to come this series will fade against the backdrop of the many other bilateral contests that belie context. Perhaps the players themselves will not really remember it blow-by-blow, but their consciences will.
This was the series in which South Africa regained self-belief after teetering on the edge of one of their lowest lows.
At 2-0 down after the Port Elizabeth game, the summer was on the cusp of unravelling. South Africa had already lost successive Test series and were a match away from conceding both a home Test and ODI series to the same opposition on the same tour for the first time in 14 years since 2002 and for the first time in any of the current crops’ careers.
None of them had ever experienced a losing streak as long or a loss of public confidence as serious. Expectation loomed large but morale seemed to have melted into misery.
AB de Villiers would only talk about the next game. Looking any further was asking for trouble.
In the back of their minds, South Africa knew they had to win three in a row. Hashim Amla even referred to it as “three finals.” But at the forefront of their thoughts, South Africa had to focus just on Centurion. When they lost the toss there, they had to focus just on containing England. When England posted 319, they had to focus just on becoming the first team to successfully chase a target over 300 at the ground. When they did that, they could shift focus to the Wanderers. And even there, South Africa made hard work of a chaseable target which eventually allowed them to focus just on Cape Town.
Contrastingly, England did not have to micro-manage. At 2-0 up, they had generous room for a mistake. Two mistakes. They probably never thought they would make a third and few would blame them.
England looked better equipped than South Africa in personnel and balance departments. In every XI, they had at least nine batsmen and six bowlers. South Africa could barely cobble together seven and four.
The home side’s balance at the start of the series was skewed by the lack of an allrounder which affected everything else about their line-up. There was extra pressure on the seven specialist batsmen to show that all of them were worth their place. There was far extra pressure on the bowlers do the job of five men so that the two part-timers did not have to be relied on. That’s where it went wrong for South Africa.
Imran Tahir recovered from a difficult start to the series to play a key role in the final two matches © Getty Images
In the first match, England scored 399 and 93 of those runs came off JP Duminy and Farhaan Behardien. In the second, England chased 262. Another 93 runs were conceded by the same bowling pair. South Africa stopped the leaking from the third game, when they brought in David Wiese, who only cost 64 runs in the Centurion, 58 at the Wanderers and 50 in Cape Town. Even if you want to compare Chris Morris with the Duminy-Behardien combination, South Africa still won. In the fourth game, Morris conceded 52 runs and in the last one, 59. His economy rate was not tight enough but it was tighter than the other two.
The consequence of Duminy, in particular, becoming unusable as a bowler was more far-reaching. He was already struggling to make meaningful contributions with the bat so by the time the decider dawned, South Africa dispensed with him. The warning signs are now clear for Duminy: shape up or you will be shipped out. Duminy was dropped from both his home Test at Newlands and his home ODI. Sentiment is no longer keeping him in the side.
Behardien may face a similar axe. Although de Villiers praised Behardien’s finishing ability after the Wanderers win, his actual numbers make for grim reading. He last scored and ODI fifty 10 innings ago, against New Zealand in Potchefstroom. Although he has had four not-outs since then, he has only passed 30 four times. Even though Behardien often does not get the opportunity to bat for long periods of time, the lack of confidence is starting to become a problem, especially as he is keeping David Miller on the sidelines.
Miller has had problems of his own and has gone longer than either Behardien or Duminy without an ODI contribution. His last score over 49 was exactly a year ago; 17 innings, at the 2015 World Cup. But it may not be that long before South Africa decide to give him another go. Rilee Rossouw earned three chances in the series, Miller sat out all five games. South Africa’s next ODIs are not until June when they will play a triangular in West Indies. Don’t be surprised if their line-up looks a little different then despite this series victory.
At least in the bowling department, South Africa have found a second wave. Kagiso Rabada leads that pack. His age has no bearing on his ability to accept responsibility and his aggression and accuracy have made him de Villiers’ new go-to guy. Encouragingly, Kyle Abbott seems to have recovered from the emotional impact of the 2015 World Cup semi-final when his omission clearly influenced his performance.
In the 2014-15 season, which included the World Cup, Abbott played nine matches, and took 13 wickets at 27.15. After that, he played just four matches and took two wickets at 66.50. This season, Abbott has played five games and taken nine wickets at 25.77. Consistency is the hallmark of his game and he gives South Africa control.
With the other seamers still undecided – Wiese and Morris have taken over for now but Morne Morkel could be back, as could Dale Steyn – Rabada and Abbott provide some South Africa some certainty. So too does Imran Tahir, who spent the first three matches getting hit around, but then showed that the premier spinner is still the premier spinner.
If all of this was where the season ended, South Africa could declare success. But this is just the intermission between the Tests that have already given the summer one shape and the T20s that could give it another. There are still five internationals that will be played at home before the World T20 that could define this period for South Africa. This victory falls in between but it may allow them to move on from the disappointment of their long-form defeats and give them the confidence for their shortest-format showings.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo