South Africa in the UAE 2013-14 November 12, 2013

SA check the boxes in comprehensive series win

With improvements in batting, and the development of allrounders, the side is on track for its preparations for 2015 World Cup

When South Africa returned home from their 4-1 series defeat in Sri Lanka, Russell Domingo began his press conference by reading out a list of the things he thought went wrong. Should he choose to do a similar thing when South Africa return from the UAE, he will find it a far more pleasing task.

This time he could recite about the things that went right and how the team improved. Domingo will find there is a fair amount to say, especially about the batting.

After failing to post a total of over 250 in any of the five matches they played in Sri Lanka, South Africa breached that mark three times in this series. They had two centurions compared to none in Sri Lanka and had three batsmen score fifties, which was also the case in August.

What the numbers don't tell is how the approach of South Africa's batsmen matured from three months ago, how they were willing to graft through tough periods and form partnerships. In Sri Lanka, South Africa had two fifty-plus stands and a century stand. This time there were 10 half-century stands, four of which went past 70.

Perhaps Domingo will be most satisfied with the way South Africa managed to make the top order work, even though their plans to add experience were put out. In Sri Lanka, South Africa shuffled between Colin Ingram, Alviro Petersen, Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla and could not find a pair that clicked.

The return of Graeme Smith to partner Amla was supposed to fix the problem of an opening pair, but Smith was injured after the first two matches and Amla missed those two games because of paternity duties. Instead, Ingram was used again and failed but de Kock was a success.

The 20-year old endured a torrid time in Sri Lanka where his loose play outside the off stump was preyed upon and his ability against spin was almost non-existent. He spent what his franchise coach Geoffrey Toyana said was "more time than I have ever seen him practise" in the nets, working on his game and the results were evident. De Kock has tightened up, uses his feet better and has learnt patience.

With Amla, and later de Villiers, to guide him, de Kock scored his first international hundred and has given the selectors a happy problem going forward. Smith will be back to full fitness for the return series against Pakistan later this month and, with Amla and Henry Davids - the leading run-scorer in the domestic competition - waiting in the wings, there is sufficient choice for the opening berth.

De Kock may even be considered as a No.3 option, putting pressure on Faf du Plessis, who was moved into the spot after he struggled lower down. Du Plessis still battles against the spinners and it was a crafty move to promote him a place so he could settle in while the seamers were still in operation. He broke his half-century drought, scoring one after 12 innings, but will know he is still on the edge and will need better performances to keep his place.

Du Plessis will have to use the Twenty20 series, in which he will also lead, to regain consistency, something the ODI captain, AB de Villiers, is starting to find. As a leader, de Villiers has made progress in terms of placing a field and knowing when to bring on strike bowlers. Handing the wicket-keeping gloves to de Kock occasionally has helped him, too.

As a batsman, de Villiers led the way for South Africa and his innings in the fifth ODI provided a prototype for how to bat in tough conditions. He paced his innings to perfection, starting cautiously before allowing himself to let loose. By trying to emulate that performance, more batsmen will succeed more often.

De Villiers also had the support of Ryan McLaren, whose performance throughout the series deserves praise. His lower-order hitting has turned him into the player South Africa once wanted Albie Morkel to be.

McLaren is not a bludgeoner by instinct but has worked hard on finding gaps and hitting the ball hard. These are things McLaren needed to work on and he made it his responsibility to do that.

The cupboard appears full and the steps on the way to the 2015 World Cup are being ascended as Domingo hoped they would. This series will allow South Africa to mark some emphatic ticks on their report-card but they must remember to put these developments in context.

"I felt the need to contribute at No.7 and bring a power game at the back end of the innings," McLaren said. He was South Africa's fifth-highest run-getter in the series, with more runs than David Miller, and he scored them at a strike rate of 86 to announce his potential as a future finisher.

McLaren's contribution with the ball saw him finish as the joint leading wicket-taker, with nine scalps at 19.88. He is a go-to guy of a different sort, compared to Dale Steyn, with the ability to control one end, strike in the middle and lower-order and change his pace. McLaren has become a perfect fit in the allrounder's role, and if Jacques Kallis returns to bat in the top order, South Africa will have double the capacity in that department.

The bowling effort was exemplary and showed the national selectors the depth, where they may have been concerned about its absence. Dale Steyn's career-best performance speaks for itself, Morne Morkel bowled with pace and accuracy, Lonwabo Tsotsobe was effective upfront, Vernon Philander fitted in well and Wayne Parnell was promising.

The most interesting development was that of Imran Tahir, who also claimed nine wickets, and provided South Africa with another person to turn to in the spin department. His form has put Robin Peterson's place is in doubt because, with JP Duminy also available as a bowling option, South Africa can have the best of both worlds - wicket-taking bowler and a holding bowler - by playing both Tahir and Duminy.

They may choose to follow a 'horses for courses' approach when it comes to the spinner, using Tahir in conditions where they feel he will be effective, such as the subcontinent.

The cupboard appears full and the steps on the way to the 2015 World Cup are being ascended as Domingo hoped they would. This series will allow South Africa to mark some emphatic ticks on their report-card but they must remember to put these developments in context.

Pakistan were no Sri Lanka because they lacked the batting muscle needed to challenge South Africa thoroughly. Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan were in blazing form earlier this year and ensured South Africa were under far more pressure than they were against Pakistan. With Pakistan's line-up, there was weakness at both ends. South Africa knew they only needed to get as far as Umar Akmal to run through the side.

However, in bowler-friendly conditions, South Africa's batsmen overcame an attack rated as one of the best in the world. They countered the spin threat well, which they could not do in Sri Lanka. Disappointingly, South Africa did not give themselves the chance to see if they could win chasing in the final game. Had they done that, they could have had a more accurate assessment of their line-up, because no team won the game batting second in a series where the toss played too much of a role.

For that reason, de Villiers' final words are a fair reflection of where the ODI side is at the moment. "We certainly haven't won a World Cup here but we definitely took a step in the right direction," de Villiers said. "We were at an all-time low in Sri Lanka, or a big low, and moving up from there is pleasing."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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