The Proteas’ clinical nine-wicket thrashing of Sri Lanka with all of 76 balls to spare in their World Cup match at the Riverside Stadium on Friday raised the obvious question of where has this South African team been all this time?
The perhaps equally as obvious answer is that they were freed up to play with all the self-expression of youngsters in the park because there was no pressure on them, their World Cup dream having already died, while Sri Lanka were still hunting a semifinal place in what is turning out to be a thrilling race for fourth spot on the log.
Thanks to an efficient all-round bowling display, the attack being inspired by the return of Dwaine Pretorius, South Africa were left with a target of just 204, and an unbeaten second-wicket stand of 175 off 202 balls between Hashim Amla (80*) and Faf du Plessis (96*) led South Africa to the easiest of victories.
The timing and strokeplaying ability of Amla was transformed, with all the drives, whips off the pads, wristy flicks and even pull shots all being there, but this must be seen in the context of the Sri Lankan attack.
Such was their lack of penetration that the wicket of Quinton de Kock, cleaned up for 15 by a Lasith Malinga beauty that swung in towards his feet, was their only success?
Du Plessis also timed the socks off the ball and was at his freescoring best, making South Africa’s highest score of the tournament thus far and clearly enjoying his time in the middle.
Du Plessis had surprised by electing to bowl first after winning the toss on what seemed a batting day – the clouds were rapidly dissipating and gave way to bright sunshine, while the pitch was mellow in colour and pace.
The spectre of chasing against a Sri Lankan team that had so effectively strangled England loomed large as Kusal Perera and Avishka Fernando shrugged off the first-ball loss of captain Dimuth Karunaratne, who was all at sea against a standard Kagiso Rabada short ball, and added 67 in 9.4 overs.
It was medium-pacer Pretorius, who played in the first game against England but has not been seen since, who turned the tide with his wicket-to-wicket fare that forces batsmen into making a play and then gets them in trouble with subtle movement.
He removed both Perera and Avishka for 30 and then the Proteas attack sprang into life, gradually squeezing Sri Lanka into almost shotlessness.
Having reach 67 for two after 10 overs, Sri Lanka could only add another 136 in the next 39.3, while losing their remaining eight wickets. It was the worst “middle overs” batting display of the tournament.
Du Plessis said many times in the build-up to the tournament that their strategy did not revolve around the players trying to be superheroes and Pretorius epitomised that. He executed his skills superbly to claim three for 25 in his 10 overs, with two maidens. It was the most economical full quota of overs in this competition.
Chris Morris returned well from a messy start to claim three for 46, while Rabada’s figures of two for 36 were his best of the tournament.
While it was pleasing to see the Proteas finally meet expectations, it does not ease the pain of what has gone before.