Cape Town – Their more steadfast supporters might say it was hardly in doubt anyway, but the Proteas did an important thing on Monday: re-announced themselves as credible candidates for the ICC Champions Trophy spoils.
Cynics will point to the less pressured, dead-rubber status of the third and final one-day international against England at Lord’s, but whatever the devaluation level in that regard, it is a fact that South Africa now enter the major event on the back of a pretty crushing, consolation victory over the host nation.
It could also be contended that AB de Villiers’s side are growing into their broad, lengthy scheduled stay in that country at an opportune time after a sluggish start possibly influenced to some extent by several of their players getting there undercooked for “middle” time out of late autumn back home.
There was an infinitely greater look and sense of all-round polish and professionalism on this far-from-blue Monday for them as they earned their maiden ODI victory in four attempts since July 2003 at the home of cricket.
“Three-nil would have been a real downer (for the Proteas),” reminded former national captain Kepler Wessels, wearing his SuperSport analyst cap.
Instead the clawback to a more respectable 2-1 final outcome suggests they are reading their lines more crisply again, a few days before their multinational tournament introduction.
Even better, their starting XI for the Champs Trophy opener against Sri Lanka at The Oval on Saturday (11:30 SA time) looks to have almost inadvertently sorted itself out.
Although one concern during the damp, seam-friendly day at Lord’s was the revelation from the camp that both Imran Tahir (while doing run-on duties as a substitute at Southampton on Saturday) and now David Miller are carrying “tight hamstrings”, the line-up suddenly looks relatively simple to guess for the ‘Lanka assignment.
Assuming a clean bill of squad health, and conditions not departing too violently from the anticipated norm, South Africa will, logic suggests, take in 10 of the team who won on Monday, with just the established spin strike-maestro Tahir as an infusion at the expense of Keshav Maharaj.
Should the 38-year-old Tahir still be poorly fitness-wise on Saturday, Maharaj would hardly be an undesirable alternative anyway – he richly deserved his haul of three for 25 in 6.1 overs, considering the wretched luck he had at the Rose Bowl, where uncharacteristic gremlins in the field potentially cost the Proteas the series, two days earlier.
It was a characterful bounce-back from the lean left-arm spinner, who is also that bit more of a batting factor and swifter fielder than the more senior tweaker, for what that may be worth.
Nevertheless, game three of the ODI series was really won right up-front, where England were left punch-drunk at 20 for six in the fifth over – there was a spirited recovery under the circumstances — and Kagiso Rabada and Wayne Parnell so hearteningly on fire as the new-ball pair.
Rabada, only four days past his 22nd birthday, would finish with 4/39, his second best return in ODIs, whilst the reintroduced enigma who is Parnell bagged three wickets himself.
He got shape both ways off a good length and, as seam great Shaun Pollock noted: “Just a hint of movement makes him a completely different bowling (proposition).”
Add in Tahir to the mix against Sri Lanka, and South Africa may be in an even better position to bury the currently fashionable theory that they are – or at least have been — too all-rounder dependant and lacking in true breakthrough oomph.
As if to clear the relative fog even further, JP Duminy would have been relieved, after shrewdly being asked to take guard at No 3, to get a “not out” under his belt; the left-hander may not have middled too many deliveries with his blade under the leaden skies, but he stuck to his guns for his 28 grafted runs in roughly an hour of crease time.
It is also increasingly apparent that veteran opener Hashim Amla is nudging nearer to his old, imperious self; his balance and timing are closer to best-known levels and his ended the brief series with 152 runs at an average of just over 50.
The bearded competitor also, duly became fastest player to 7,000 ODI runs, meaning he hogs all the major stealth landmarks in the format from 2,000 runs upward.
One dead-rubber triumph hardly means everything is hunky dory for the Proteas; they still lost the series and rightly so, considering England’s superior periods of dominance in the pivotal first two clashes.
But they could well be picking up a welcome little head of steam.
*Rob Houwing will be attending the Champions Trophy for Sport24. Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing