Cape Town – It seems so last year … and actually, it was.
June 24: that’s when South Africa last surrendered a one-day international. Set a pretty steep 286 to beat West Indies in Bridgetown, Shannon Gabriel left them in a rare top-order mess at 35 for four and recovery was simply too tall an order.
Trounced by exactly 100 runs, the Proteas came home with their tails between their legs, the team to exit early from a triangular series also featuring Australia.
Fielding as many as nine survivors from that Kensington Oval humiliation – give the selectors and management credit for extremely limited jerking of knees in the interim? – the national team won a nail-biter in Hamilton on Sunday to bank a vital 1-0 lead in a five-match series against the no-slouch New Zealanders.
As captain AB de Villiers authoritatively drove the second-last delivery to the fence to ensure a four-wicket victory in a weather-shortened fixture, the completely revitalised Proteas simultaneously made it a SA record-equalling dozen ODI triumphs in a row since the Caribbean angst.
Since the outset of the 2016/17 season-proper against Ireland at Benoni, South Africa have also now won 19 of 22 matches across the international formats, for a win percentage that has blossomed to 86.36%.
It was a far from perfect showing from the tourists, who twice could be said to have had the match just about sewn up in their favour at earlier stages.
First, they had done well to curtail the Black Caps to a sub-standard 156 for seven with fewer than four overs left of their allotted 34, before letting the total balloon to a considerably more defendable 207 without further setback, Colin de Grandhomme and Tim Southee exploiting ongoing deficiencies in the Proteas’ death-overs arrangements and general composure levels.
Then, an opening partnership of 88 in some 15 overs between man-of-the-match Quinton de Kock (69) and Hashim Amla (35) should have tilted the balance extremely powerfully back in the visitors’ favour.
But a middle-order wobble – four wickets fell between the 21st and 23rd overs -- instead set up a particularly tense finish.
Bear in mind that cliff-hanger climaxes have been notably scarce for the Proteas in recent months, such has been the ruthless, dominant nature of so many of the wins in their golden spell.
Only once in the 11 prior victories (involving Ireland, Australia and Sri Lanka as opponents) has a match gone into the last over – when they beat the Aussies by four wickets with four balls left in the third clash of their five-match series at Kingsmead.
Sunday’s was more touch-and-go than that one.
But how fitting that one of the mere two SA players on this occasion – the other Tabraiz Shamsi – not involved in that distant Barbados setback, Andile Phehlukwayo, played a pivotal role in eking out the favourable result.
The dice appeared weighted in New Zealand favour when the 20-year-old, playing just his 11th ODI, took guard at 156 for six – meaning a tall-order 52 runs were still sought with seven overs and two balls left on a pitch unexpectedly turning to a quite violent degree at times.
Even the much-touted De Villiers was unable to smash the ball routinely to or over the ropes, such was the difficulty in gauging deliveries, so what price the rookie from KwaZulu-Natal prospering with indecently little time to acclimatise?
But they sometimes say that with youth comes fearlessness … and the body language of Phehlukwayo looked gloriously unfussed from the word go.
Certainly there was no sign of any rabbit-in-headlamps phenomenon whenever he met mid-pitch with his infinitely more senior partner to discuss short-term intentions; it seemed more like Dravid nonchalantly engaging with Tendulkar, or Ponting with Hayden, perhaps.
Nor, very quickly, was it evident that the left-handed Phehlukwayo commanding the strike – as he often enough did – was going to be an impediment to the win quest.
He proved every bit as effective as De Villiers in producing boundary strokes when they were desperately needed, including two thumping, straightish drives for six. When he watched them sail over the boundary, he didn’t look especially surprised, either.
The skipper duly delivered the final punch, but Phehlukwayo’s unbeaten 29 off 23 balls in a stand of 54 deserves to linger long in South African memory banks.
Expect further vignettes from him, and probably a whole lot more than that. Time, after all, is hardly against this blooming all-rounder.
On that score, note to the brains trust: perhaps more confidence in employing his bowling in the closing overs will help mend an Achilles heel?
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