Cape Town – An uplifting little exercise … can you say that even when talking about the series-losing team?
Yes, of course you can.
South Africa and England slugged out one of the most enthralling Twenty20 international bilateral mini-rosters imaginable before the tourists emerged 2-1 winners on the strength of their wonderful run chase of a lofty target at jam-packed SuperSport Park on Sunday.
The quality of the combat was succinctly summed up on Twitter by retired English broadsheet scribe and Test-capped fast bowler Mike Selvey (@selvecricket), who also once played for Free State: “Not seen a better T20 series than that.”
The five-wicket triumph with five balls to spare, in a contest marked by a seemingly never-ending clattering of sixes across the board on a sublime batting surface, only underlined the calibre of England’s current white-ball resources.
But chew also on this: that all three matches went to the wire – Sunday’s to the start of the final over, and the previous two to the last possible ball – also said plenty about the Proteas’ ongoing claw-back of general cricketing respect after a stormy, shambolic start to the domestic summer for all manner of reasons.
The more astute, suitably temperate of South African supporters will know full well that the notably experiment-conscious host nation gave as good as they got over the last few days, against opponents considerably more “first-team” in their selection policy.
Stretch that a tad further … the earlier 50-overs portion of the limited-overs itinerary had similarly revealed the Proteas’ potential for meaningful regeneration.
Although curtailed to two completed games, the 1-1 outcome there had already been a heartening development, considering that South Africa were playing the defending World Cup champions in that format, crowned only a few months ago after that heart-stopping final against New Zealand at Lord’s.
While plenty of hard yards lie ahead for the Proteas to rekindle their credentials as a Test force after their 3-1 battering in the first part of England’s tour and other big setbacks in the five-day arena ahead of it, there are quite clear-cut signs that a fresh pool of high-calibre talent is being created in the more abbreviated forms of the game.
England fielded the nucleus of their CWC 2019-winning resources in both one-day landscapes here over the last few weeks, including seven of the trophy-hoisting side against the Black Caps in mid-July just in Sunday’s decisive T20 duel with the Proteas: dual-format captain Eoin Morgan, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Adil Rashid and Mark Wood.
Their XI at Centurion also vastly eclipsed the Proteas for experience, something amplified by the fact that Morgan – named player of the series against South Africa after respective innings of 52, 27 and Sunday’s definitive 57 not out, off just 22 balls – holds a tally of 89 T20 caps to go with his especially vast 236 at ODI level.
He is a survivor of England’s now distant, maiden title success in the ICC World Twenty20, back in 2010 in the Caribbean, and again among seven players who turned out on Sunday to have been in the English team beaten in the final of the last World T20 (in Kolkata, 2016).
That automatically gave the visitors a key edge in street wisdom over a Proteas squad featuring several players still very much in blooding stages of their international development; that they were so hard pressed by the broadly more youthful SA side must be considered a significant feather in local caps.
Quinton de Kock and company now go almost immediately into another usefully challenging series of home limited-overs matches (again three T20, three ODI) against arch-rivals Australia, starting on Friday at the Wanderers (18:00).
Those skirmishes will help further in clarifying which batch of players to entrust faith in for the Aussie-staged ICC T20 World Cup in October.
The Proteas rested some massively proven personnel against the English, so a return for the likes of Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir, Kagiso Rabada and possibly even global pin-up favourite AB de Villiers could be imminent.
Infuse their rich experience, for balancing purposes in the squad, and South Africa will instantly become a force to be reckoned with against virtually any white-ball opponents.
Warts and all, the Proteas have been encouragingly competitive without them, of late …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing