Proteas’ firm mental strides

Cape Town – That ICC major-trophy bogey remains very much yet to be broken ... but South Africa are currently doing a lot right in amassing the psychological fortitude to finally get the job done.

Their limited-overs home summer gained further, impressive traction at Kingsmead on Friday as David Miller, sometimes caustically deemed “all hype” by certain Proteas supporters and observers based on unremarkable statistical track record for the cause, magnificently piloted a rearguard effort to pip Australia by three wickets in the first of three KFC Twenty20 internationals.

The Maritzburg-born left-hander looked a million dollars mentally and no less accomplished for shot selection, smouldering execution and tactical common sense as his overdue, maiden half-century in his 40th appearance in the format made all the difference before an appreciative crowd of some 17,000.

Miller’s bristling body language probably explained at least half of his victorious battle with an Aussie attack featuring a couple of callow international souls who faded as the going suddenly got tough and South Africa stole a pivotal grip when it mattered most – in the minutes before the finish.

We have hopefully suggested this before, and then been proved a little short of the mark, but might this performance mark a personal turning of the top-flight tide for the 26-year-old roof-basher?

It was timely for the Proteas collectively, given how close the ICC World Twenty20 in India is; they will be well aware that Miller will also be returning to a country where he sports some element of legend in the annual IPL.

You could say that South Africa are closing a missing link in their middle order, given that the player had been having a fairly dormant few weeks in terms of either meaningful opportunity or weight of success at the crease.

“I was really proud of myself, to be honest,” said Miller in the immediate post-game TV interview – there was no hint of arrogance involved and he was wholly entitled, on the night, to make such a candid self-appraisal.

Whilst Miller’s unyielding coolness was a revelation, there has also been a burgeoning, broader trend in mental sturdiness seeping ever more forcefully into the Proteas players at one-day level this season.

It started in often-unnerving India, where they achieved a notable double over the host nation in respective ODI and T20 series, and carried over into the home-soil tussles with regrouping, highly-rated England.

You require significant resolve in the area just below the belt buckle to turn around an ominous 0-2 deficit in a five-match 50-overs series and snatch the spoils 3-2, and almost as pleasing was that the Proteas, seamlessly changing leadership from AB de Villiers to Faf du Plessis, didn’t allow that particular champagne celebration to go to their heads: they duly took the T20 series honours 2-0 as well.

This latest triumph, over their bitterest of southern rivals, took their tally of limited-overs wins to six on the trot and, at that favourite stomping ground of the Wanderers on Sunday, they will seek an early series kill against Steve Smith’s troops with a seventh.

In at least half of that productive sequence of victories, South Africa have prevailed when the odds have seemed stacked against them at advanced stages of contests – think the critically necessary Chris Morris late batting blitz in the Bullring ODI against the English, a mini-repeat by the same player in the PPC Newlands T20 clash, and now Miller’s game-swaying finishing power in Durban.

Let’s not under-value, either, the accomplished, sober effort of normally unsung No 9 batsman Kyle Abbott: there were still 24 runs required when he took guard late in the 17th over, but his ability to keep handing a smoking Miller the strike with well-worked singles was influential.

The cherry on top was Abbott then having the calm audacity, if you like, to smack the winning runs with a crisp, straight-driven four.  

“This was (another) game we shouldn’t really have won ... to win games like this makes me very happy indeed,” enthused Du Plessis, who may even be secretly pleased that his side shows some flaws in certain areas; you don’t want to enter a major global tournament too “perfect” and with the only way probably being downward as a result.

There were clear phases both in the field and then at the crease – the Proteas equalled the best ever successful T20 international run chase at Kingsmead – when the home nation looked indisputably under the cosh, but they have a particularly happy knack, of late, of somehow pulling things back before damage can become terminal.

The captain rightly said that the bowling has been “excellent from overs seven to 14 for some time now”, and the trend repeated itself on Friday as both leg-spin wizard Imran Tahir and the box-of-tricks seamer David Wiese more than pegged back a menacing Aussie start with a volley of strikes in the wicket column.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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