Cape Town - They were possibly the sweatiest moments of his still relatively infant international captaincy career, but Faf du Plessis came out of them a winner in every respect.
As it happened: SA v NZ
VIDEO: Dale Steyn saves the day!
GALLERY: Proteas v Black Caps
Not only did South Africa, their backs once very ominously to the wall, pip New Zealand in an ICC World Twenty20 heart-stopper at Chittagong on Monday to breathe new life into their campaign, but their leader made his most critical strategic call correctly.
How best to employ his premier strike bowler, Dale Steyn, was always going to be a vital element because it required a deft balancing act -- and in all likelihood will continue to do so at this tournament.
With lanky fellow-pace customers Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Morne Morkel not exactly blowing houses down in successive fixtures (one loss to Sri Lanka, then this much-needed victory) with any special upfront oomph, and credible death bowlers also in glaringly short supply to him, Du Plessis was under special pressure against the Black Caps to use Steyn’s flimsy quota of four overs at best possible times.
Had the Proteas lost this thriller, rather than squeezed it out by two runs, he would have been all too aware that an inevitable chorus of critics would have charged that he left the bulk of the Phalaborwa Express’s allotted stint too late.
Steyn had only bowled one highly promising over (the third of the NZ knock) near the top, where he dropped the ball on a tickey, went just past the outside edge a couple of times and conceded a negligible one run.
There and then, the skipper must have been seriously tempted to keep him going for a bit longer in the hope of a breakthrough.
But he held him back ... and then some, in fact.
By the time he reappeared into the attack, for the 14th over, the New Zealanders had got pretty comfortably ahead of South Africa at the equivalent stage of their innings and with the luxury of eight wickets still in hand.
Again Steyn came to the party in a six-ball burst, going for four runs and dismissing a blossoming Kane Williamson for 51.
Once more, too, Du Plessis pulled him out immediately.
Instead he coolly kept his most incisive bowler for the white-knuckle 18th and 20th overs, no doubt fully aware of the real danger of the last one being redundant, or very nearly that.
The move ended up paying glorious dividends, with Steyn heroically defending seven runs needed in the final over, as the Black Caps – more customarily a bit of a bogey side to South Africa at ICC events – got a taste of heartbreak medicine themselves.
Bravery can bring its gleaming booty, as Du Plessis will have agreeably realised in the aftermath of this memorable Proteas triumph, snapping a run of four defeats on the trot for the national side in the T20 format.
Although leg-spinner Imran Tahir again did his bit commendably as a wicket-taking factor in the middle period, Steyn was the best Proteas seam bowler by a country mile, as evidenced by the lopsided weight of the figures between the four employed – the younger Morkel brother had a particularly grim outing, sailing away for 50 runs in three overs.
But I mentioned after the narrow Sri Lankan reverse that a few South African players had threatened to be the individual match-winner, without actually following through to deliver on the promise: by contrast, on the latest occasion the Proteas had two “MVPs” in the shape of Steyn and, with the blade, JP Duminy.
Their excellence was utterly pivotal to their team – and no doubt management too -- moving on to clashes with the Netherlands (Thursday) and England on Saturday pretty chuffed that they’ve done rather an “anti-choke”, if you like, by stopping the Black Caps in their tracks from a couple of positions where SA had looked well nigh beaten.
Both Steyn and Duminy produced second best performances statistically for their country in the T20 landscape.
Steyn’s four for 17 has only previously been eclipsed in his 35 appearances by the four for nine registered against West Indies back in December 2007, whilst Duminy, in blasting 86 not out off 43 balls at a scorching strike rate of exactly 200, came close to bettering his unbeaten 96 against Zimbabwe at Kimberley.
His strike rate then was an inferior 177, and the cheeky improvisation and calmness he showed in the Chittagong performance, on a pitch that was quite tricky to read pace-wise until you were well “in”, completely turned around the tottering South African innings.
Before Duminy really found his groove, the initial part of the knock was a bit like watching someone rub two rusty knives together: an uneasy, jarring experience.
Plenty of imperfections remain, but the Proteas should have an opportunity to stabilise further against the Dutch minnows and push ever harder for the semi-finals ...
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