de Villiers shows New Zealand the way
For much of South Africa's chase in the first one-dayer in Wellington, their innings mirrored New Zealand's almost exactly. Forced to rebuild following the loss of early wickets, expansive flourishes were shelved, singles were scampered and a stream of seaming deliveries left alone outside off stump. So similar were the innings, that both sides had made the same amount of runs halfway through their overs - 101 - though New Zealand had lost one less wicket.
But what was to follow after the 25-over mark was to prove the winning of the game for South Africa, and a missed opportunity for New Zealand. Unwilling to simply follow recovery with consolidation, Brendon McCullum - the hosts' most experienced batsman - lashed out in counterattack. Launching Lonwabo Tsotsobe over midwicket in the 27th over, he advanced to smack Jacques Kallis over point in the 28th. Morne Morkel got the same treatment in the following over, though this time with less control, before McCullum fell attempting the same stroke three overs in a row. South Africa had become wise to McCullum's ploys and placed the fielder squarer. In a seemingly myopic quest to spur the scoring-rate, McCullum was oblivious to the change.
Three hours later, he couldn't have been given a more fitting nor comprehensive lesson by his counterpart.
Having steadied the early wobble, AB de Villiers continued to collect, even as the asking-rate grew. Keenly aware of the field and employing low-risk strokes - like the downward dab to third man -he'd developed for just such occasions, de Villiers nudged South Africa forward, one quiet over at a time.
JP Duminy followed his captain's lead, his first 34 runs all coming in singles and twos. His fall made way for Faf du Plessis, who lightened his captain's burden with a rapid innings. All through the middle overs, de Villiers was precise and calculating - picking out only the genuinely bad balls to dispatch, and hitting out only when the required-rate threatened to become unmanageable. Where McCullum's eagerness to attack cost his side the luxury of an ideal launching pad, de Villiers' controlled composition of his innings took his side from 35 for 3 in 10 overs, to 254 for 4 after 45.2. If South Africa's innings had come first, a total of over 300 might have been likely.
The blame for New Zealand's sub-par score cannot fall solely on McCullum's shoulders, but having become accustomed to the conditions, he should not have left so much to a middle order missing the experience of Ross Taylor and Jacob Oram. And while brazen aggression might have intimidated Zimbabwe in the previous series, smarts and mettle are required to topple a side of South Africa's pedigree.
Speaking the day after the loss, Kane Williamson, who himself had the opportunity to see the New Zealand innings to the close, spoke of how much the hosts' batsmen could learn from de Villiers' knock.
"It was just so clinical," Williamson said. "He never gave [us] a chance, finished it off and looked at ease doing it, which is what class players do.
"We spoke about it afterwards and realised that players like that, you need to dismiss. But when they put an innings like that together, you need to learn from it as well, personally and as a batting unit."
Even with Taylor in the batting order, New Zealand seemingly lack a batsman who regularly takes responsibility for the innings and completes the overs unbeaten. It is an area New Zealand have struggled in since Stephen Fleming's retirement.
Guptill, Ryder, Taylor and McCullum have the bat speed and bludgeoning power to match any batsman in the world. But unless they develop the ability to maximise that potential by building steadily for extended periods, New Zealand will continue to be, like them, occasionally brilliant, but too inconsistent to be truly formidable.
Edited by Nikita Bastian