de Villiers keen to mix it up
Three-quarters of the way through the deciding T20 against New Zealand, South Africa knew that only a collapse of typically South African-esque proportions would be able to stop their opposition from winning. But, for once, the choke was on the other team. Johan Botha and Marchant de Lange bowled a nerves-of-steel over each to the give South Africa the match, the series, the No. 2 spot on the ICC T20 rankings and most importantly, an affirmation that they could exert themselves in pressure situations.
"We all probably thought that the game was gone," Botha admitted. "But the guys fought until the end. I picked up a crucial wicket and kept us in the game and Marchant finished it brilliantly. We were very happy to finish it off and win in a really tight game tonight."
The immediate aftermath will be euphoric and it should be. This victory will not erase the times that South Africa have turned to pillars of salt under pressure but it will reassure them that other teams are capable of the same. It will also give them a major confidence boost about their ability to squeeze, scrap, create tension and turn seemingly lost causes into fighting ones.
The longer-term analysis will require more careful dissection. In all three matches, including the one they won, South Africa relied on a handful of performers such as JP Duminy, Richard Levi and Botha to put them into a dominant position. Captain de Villiers has long stressed the importance of a team effort and it's evident his men want to deliver on that but the unpredictable nature of the format, coupled with the ultra-flexibility of the South African XI has not allowed all of them to do that.
In three matches, South Africa used three different batsmen at No. 3. Only one of them, Colin Ingram, was not thrust into the role unexpectedly. Wayne Parnell and Albie Morkel, who did the job in the second and third match respectively, were both experiments that failed. Perhaps more noteworthy, is that both were needless experiments, forced even, because South Africa felt compelled to try something different. Both Parnell and Morkel came in to bat in the third over, with enough time left in the innings for the regular batting line-up to simply continue as usual.
Similarly, in every match South Africa used a different pair to open the bowling. In Wellington, it was Albie Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. in Hamilton, Johan Botha and Tsotsobe and in Auckland, Robin Peterson and Morne Morkel took the new ball. Albie Morkel did not bowl at all in the second match, Justin Ontong was not given the ball once throughout the series and often the seamers, even when going well, did not bowl their full quota of overs.
Twenty-over cricket often presents an opportunity for the spinner to open the bowling and rotating bowlers is a strategy used to not allow batsmen to settle. South Africa's extreme use of this tactic breeds a sense of uncertainty rather than cunning and the outcomes are sometimes helter-skelter, which even de Villiers has admitted to.
Perhaps the new elasticity of their game plans is a response to one of the criticisms levelled at South African teams over the years of being too rigid and having an inability to adapt. So, in response, South Africa went the other way.
It started in the one-day series against Sri Lanka, with a musical chairs No. 4 slot. de Villiers, Duminy and Faf du Plessis took turns in the role and each of them performed well in it. The tactic was supposed to be that the best person for the situation would come in when needed.
What was never clear was who was considered most suitable to what situation except to say that South Africa would try to keep a left-right combination wherever possible, almost obsessively so. de Villiers is obviously regarded as the key man in an innings so if an anchor is needed, he is expected to lay one down and if quick runs must be scored, he should go out with skates on. The innings pivots around him and with him being South Africa's best batsman, it should. Du Plessis and Duminy are similar scoring players, with strike rates just over 83 and 84 respectively, occupy the crease in equally busy fashion and are both pacy between the wickets.
Exciting as it is not knowing who will walk out next, it leaves the line-up unsettled. There's no need to cast the batting order in stone but an outline of how it will operate most of the time can only work in the players' favour. It will allow for clear role identification, which is defined as more than simply being a team player or putting in 100% to win. The same can apply to the bowlers, who also do not need a concrete order of appearance but could benefit from a clearer idea of who will be called on when.
South Africa's fear is that the opposition will then have too much of an indication of what they are doing to do. Right now there are times when it seems even South Africa themselves don't know that. They have eight more T20s before the World T20 in September. Five of those will be against Zimbabwe, which can only have been organised to allow South Africa more room to experiment and test combinations.
It will be important for them realise that the bulk of that has been done. The ingredients have been mixed up as much as possible and now it's time for them to settle. If the matches against Zimbabwe can be used to achieve that, South Africa will give themselves their best chances at being properly prepared for a major trophy.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent