London – South Africa got the sort of outcome in their ICC Champions Trophy opener at The Oval here that can be very useful … comfortable victory, without ever threatening some kind of premature peaking phenomenon.
Saturday’s 96-run triumph over Sri Lanka certainly contained enough rough patches and loose ends to preclude any sense of complacency as the bus rumbles onward for them on Sunday to Group B game two in Birmingham against Pakistan (Wednesday, 14:30 SA time).
Yet it is also an assuring fact that the Proteas have now won successive one-day internationals with a bit to spare after slipping up in the prior two recently, and that has to be deemed a healthy state of affairs with a pair of pool-stage fixtures remaining in this tournament.
There were gremlins in all three major cricketing departments for them, en route to seeing off the talented, watchable but sometimes still way too impetuous ‘Lankans in pleasant early-summer sunshine.
Yet those drawbacks were counter-balanced by a list of weighty personal performances from within their midst … and some slightly unexpected cameos, like the exuberant leg-spinner Imran Tahir adding a direct hit in the field from mid-on to his influential bowling statistics of four for 27 against opponents who traditionally find him hard to fathom.
It was the sort of occurrence likely to have made the 38-year-old unplayable, as they say, in the after-match dressing room, and must have contributed to him edging the player-of-the-match award.
Tahir is so valuable at arresting a runaway start, and that is exactly what Sri Lanka had got in their pursuit of exactly 300: they were almost 70 without loss after only eight overs with Niroshan Dickwella and Upul Tharanga slapping it about with joyous abandon, and at that juncture we really seemed to have a ball game.
For a team whose mental mettle is inevitably scrutinised with special relish at ICC events, however, AB de Villiers’s charges on Saturday showed encouraging ticker and perseverance in their push for the triumph.
Once Tahir and another old hand in the bowling arsenal, Morne Morkel, had put a lid on the new-ball haemorrhaging – the unpredictable Wayne Parnell sailed for 45 runs in his first five overs – the wickets column started to get busy as well, and the Proteas gradually turned the screws to ensure a far-from-pulsating finish.
The job was eventually sealed with all of 51 deliveries to spare, aggressive and purposeful Chris Morris also taking the opportunity to shine in his primary role.
The claims of Hashim Amla must have been debated with some gusto before the decision to give the main personal laurel of the day to Tahir.
Amla’s always-in-charge 103 meant he became just the sixth batsman in history and first South African – De Villiers remains one ton shy – to reach the landmark of 25 ODI centuries.
The runaway leader is a certain Sachin Tendulkar with 49, but that was from a whopping 463 games and Amla has now gone beyond the halfway mark to that figure from only 154 ODIs, telling you so much about his own pedigree if it were even necessary.
He also made this century during the month of Ramadan, with the necessary constraints required in dietary and other areas, although Amla’s faith is an acknowledged powerful driver at all times, and he must be extremely well-versed by now in knowing how to adapt to still playing compelling, vigorous cricket in the period.
What is also noticeable is that he is beginning to recapture the celebrated knack in his case of one sturdy innings following another, and another.
So far on the England venture for the Proteas, he has gone beyond 50 in three of four ODIs, the only “gremlin” being when he was dismissed for 24 against the host nation at Southampton, and his foot- and handwork at the crease do appear re-energised.
Amla enjoyed a brisk second-wicket alliance of 145 with Faf du Plessis, who got his own Champs Trophy off with a flourish as he struck 75 off 70 balls: even through the din of the swollen crowd you could hear the pleasant impact as he repeatedly struck the ball with the “meat” of his blade.
Both De Villiers and the intended finisher David Miller got out in notably rash fashion, although it happens in limited-overs cricket and you might argue that it is better to see bad little habits now than nearer the business end of the tournament.
Besides, De Villiers’ failure in runs terms didn’t exactly keep the skipper out of the game – he was responsible for both an inspiring catch and run-out.
The Proteas’ victory also meant they ended a sequence of five ODI reverses at The Oval, four to England and one to West Indies.
*Rob Houwing is attending the Champions Trophy for Sport24. Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing