Cape Town – South Africa, considering the chastening backdrop of events only two days earlier, had strong claims to boasting their gutsiest and most memorable performance of the home-soil international season at a delirious St George’s Park on Sunday.
Certainly the reversal of fortune was positively seismic as they transferred a 107-run walloping in the first Twenty20 clash with Australia in Johannesburg on Friday – when they broke several records of the most unwanted kind – into a mature, composed turning of the tables for a 12-run triumph in plucky defence of a less than insurmountable total.
The three-match series is now royally set up for a finale at Newlands on Wednesday (18:00), with Quinton de Kock’s side in with a chance of wholly altering a summer-long habit of starting well and then subsiding: something that pretty much occurred in all three formats of their lengthy bilateral tussle with England.
With just eight months to go to the ICC T20 World Cup on Australian turf, beating the host nation for that looming tournament 2-1 from a 0-1 situation would be a massive boost to the Proteas’ chances of being a serious force in October.
They could also lay to rest on Wednesday a mini-bogey in T20 activity against the Aussies in Cape Town: the visitors have won each of the two prior clashes there – by five wickets in October 2011 and six wickets in March 2016.
Don’t rush out to place your bets in SA favour too recklessly: the national side are showing all the most classic symptoms of a side in regrowth, and the vagaries that come with that, so picking a winner of this series remains a hazardous exercise.
The Proteas have also only won one, in orthodox fashion, of their last five T20s against all comers at Newlands, although the last game was a tie against Sri Lanka in March last year and then triumph in the super-over slug-out.
But if there were unusually high spirits in the South African dressing room in the Friendly City on Sunday evening, they were entirely warranted.
Any castigation following the debacle at the Bullring was no less justified … and at an advanced stage of the latest encounter many scribes might have been excused for beginning to assemble pieces themed along the lines that the Proteas were significantly better, while still surrendering the series and leaving only a dead-rubber fixture to play.
In a demonstration of pride combined with a positive desperation, however, South Africa’s pivotal last five overs in the field were strikingly laden with polish and “BMT” as all of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje turned screws clinically on the Australian chase, to the extent that it wasn’t even nail-biting by the time it came down to the last few deliveries of the match.
In that period, and from a situation where the tourists were clear favourites at 116 for two with 43 runs required off 30 balls, the Proteas instead only gave away 30 runs for the addition of four scalps: a model display of death bowling and backed up so much better by nimble, zealous support from the fielders than had been the case on the Highveld on Friday.
Virtually every element of the five-strong SA attack could look back with some satisfaction on the victory, as economy levels of around seven runs or fewer were registered by Rabada, Nortje, Dwaine Pretorius and Tabraiz Shamsi.
The odd man out in that department was Ngidi, who again came out from the blocks a little lethargically, but turned things around when the situation most demanded it.
While he travelled at 10.25 to the over in a full four-over stint, the strapping fast bowler played no small part in engineering Aussie collywobbles from a once imperious position – when David Warner was in ominous full cry – by ripping out all of Aaron Finch, Alex Carey and Mitch Marsh. (Don’t the gurus always insist nothing arrests an onslaught like wickets?)
The Proteas’ earlier innings had shown the same hallmarks of the Australian one; a cracking start in the six-over powerplay when the ball was still hard, with a marked regression in impetus as the “nut” became more weather-beaten.
But they had a clear-cut hero in the shape of De Kock, who struck some stratospheric leg-side sixes en route to his 70 at a strike rate of just shy of 150.
Yes, it is perhaps a lingering concern that there is a bit of a “Quinny or bust” sense to the Proteas, when it comes to major, fast-paced compilation of runs, while they are at the crease.
They will hope to have Temba Bavuma back as his upfront partner at Newlands, though, in what shapes as a humdinger …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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