South Africa took two steps closer to automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup with a 2-1 win over England in their penultimate series of the ODI Super League. They will play two matches against Netherlands on March 31 and April 2, and must win them both and hope that New Zealand earn at least one victory over Sri Lanka in their home ODI series that will be played around the same time. For the neutral fan, this means what would otherwise have been random matches, played at around the same time as the IPL begins, become the some of the most context-laden of the current Super League cycle.
By the time those games come around, South Africa will have a new white-ball coach in Rob Walter, a new support staff and some fresh ideas. Even without Walter's presence in this England series, where Test coach Shukri Conrad took over in a care-taker role, South Africa already seemed to be showing glimpses of a much-needed evolution in their game and have plenty of positives to take into the new era. They may need to be wary of slow over-rate offences though. It cost them a point in Kimberley.
South Africa can still bat
Phew! After the last six months no one was sure they could. In the second half of 2022, South Africa racked up seven consecutive sub-200 Test scores across matches in England and Australia and failed to chase 159 against Netherlands at the T20 World Cup. There are still significant issues around the batting in the longest and shortest format but as far as the middle-child goes, South Africa seem to have finally stepped up.
They scored over 300 or in the vicinity repeatedly (the latter was enough to win the opening game) and achieved their best run-rate in an ODI series in four-and-a-half years - since August 2018 when they beat Sri Lanka. It's also only the fourth time in that period that South Africa have achieved a series run-rate of more than six runs an over, a standard that England have made the norm since after the 2015 World Cup.
South Africa had four batters in the series' top six and none of them was Quinton de Kock, which suggests the responsibility is being shared around and the previous over-reliance on a few standout stars is decreasing. Best of all for the home side, the leading run-scorer was…
If redemption were a cricketer, it would look like the South Africa captain in the last six days. Temba Bavuma has gone from being under the microscope for his poor scoring rate in T20Is to facing questions around his overall suitability to play white-ball cricket, not least captain the national side. He answered some of these questions with a high-quality innings in the series-winning second match, where he scored his third ODI century in emphatic style. His other contributions of 36 and 35 also came at more than a run-a-ball for an overall strike rate of 114.64, and he enjoyed his best ODI series to date.
Add to that his clever captaincy, especially in defending 299 in the first match and what this series has shown us is that ODI cricket is Bavuma's format and he should be the player to take South Africa to the 2023 World Cup. It also shows us the importance of not conflating performance, or under-performance, in one format with another - so this doesn't mean South Africa don't have to think about their T20 strategy, but in fifty-over cricket, Bavuma's got it.
Heinrich Klaasen could be an asset for the World Cup
David Miller is established as South Africa's finisher but Heinrich Klaasen's contributions should not be overlooked, especially given where the World Cup is being held (India). Klaasen has shown himself to be strong against spin and especially in hitting boundaries off spinners. His display in the third ODI, when he kept South Africa in the game until the 40th over chasing 347, included big hits off Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid.
Klaasen appears to have mastered the ability to stay deep in the crease and built the confidence to make room to play his shots. He has had an impressive ODI run in general - since the start of 2022, Klaasen averages 45.71 in this format.
Fast bowler rotation will be key
With the volume of cricket showing no sign of slowing down, both South Africa and England had to manage their quicks' workload through the series. South Africa changed a successful combination, which included Kagiso Rabada and Sisanda Magala, from the first ODI to the second. They won the second with Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen coming in. Anrich Nortje was rested for the third game, while Wayne Parnell played in all three matches.
It is understood that South Africa's new coaching regime plans to have a rotation policy in place for the quicks, which will see those who play in all formats, such as Rabada, Nortje and Ngidi, rested more often. That only means that they need an equally impressive second set of players as stand-ins. Magala proved what he can do in the first match, Parnell has developed into a reliable allrounder and Jansen has already been labelled a superstar by team-mates like Miller, but there's opportunity for players on the domestic circuit to put themselves in contention too. Six white-ball matches against West Indies in the second half of March (including ODIs that are not part of the Super League) will be the first chance for South Africa to test their bench bowling strength, so expect to see some new names there.
On fairly flat tracks it may seem harsh to criticise the bowlers who were most likely to be targeted but South Africa's spinners were disappointingly ineffective in this series. Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi took one wicket apiece and delivered South Africa's worst spin economy in an ODI series - 7.85. Their performances may be the result of a combination of England's batting strength and placid conditions (though it did turn in Kimberley) but there are also genuine worries about the pair.
Shamsi seems down on confidence, and Maharaj appears to be bowling flatter as he spends more time in the white-ball game. With that in mind, it could cause South Africa's selectors to cast the net wider. The point about different formats notwithstanding, the SA20, where Bjorn Fortuin is the joint-second-highest wicket-taker at the time of writing, could be an ideal catchment area.