Batsmen stand up as SA rise
Legend has it that after Australia piled on 434 runs against South Africa at the Wanderers in March 2006, Jacques Kallis tried to lighten the mood with a joke at the dinner break. "Well," he said, "now that the bowlers have done their job, I guess it's up to the batsmen to do theirs."
There are contrasting reports about who laughed and who growled in response but it's an observation that rung true for South Africa's line-up on their trip to the UAE. After the first two ODIs, in which they bowled Pakistan out for 182 and 209, the bowlers, sans Dale Steyn, were doing their job just fine.
The batsmen had been shot out for 183 and 143 and were not doing theirs. With Gary Kirsten as their consultant they had "a few hard one-on-ones", as AB de Villiers put it, to lay bare what was going wrong and what they needed to do to fix it.
"We realised we were in trouble as a batting unit. And a few heads were going to roll if we didn't get it right," de Villiers said at the team's arrival in Johannesburg on Saturday. "We decided to put our hands up and get a couple of good innings as a batting group. It was about taking responsibility and changing our mental approach. We were not playing up to standard and we had to force ourselves to believe we were good enough."
Instead of focus on anything technical - South Africa were playing Pakistan's spinners a lot better than they had Sri Lanka's in August - they needed a change in the way they were thinking. As soon as the switch flipped, improvement were clear.
In the next match, South Africa posted their first total over 250 since June's Champions Trophy and they had two individual half-centuries, one from a struggling Faf du Plessis, who finally found form. Having gone 11 ODI innings without raising his bat, du Plessis was starting to feel the heat. "It was tough to go through all that. It was a different experience for me and one I took a bit personally," he admitted. "But I learned a lot and I started feeling better with the batting. It was just time. I knew runs were around the corner."
In the game that followed, South Africa recorded their first century of the tour, when young Quinton de Kock made good on the promise he showed at domestic level. After looking particularly susceptible to turning tracks and slow bowling in Sri Lanka, de Kock had taken it on himself to train even harder with his franchise coach Geoff Toyana. His technique is tighter and his talent came through.
He has now claimed a spot in South Africa's limited-overs teams, which will give the selectors an interesting conundrum at the top of the order in ODIs, when Graeme Smith returns to fitness, and in T20s, with Henry Davids also pushing for a place.
"Everybody knows Quinton is a seriously talented player," Domingo said. "He obviously had issues in Sri Lanka against spinners, where he was getting his left leg too far across the crease. But he's worked on that. I am very impressed with his work ethic. Some people may perceive him as wild young thing but he has got a good work ethic."
In the final game, de Villiers scored a hundred that can be used as a prototype for pacing an innings. His measured start gave him the perfect launchpad to accelerate later on. South Africa won all three of those matches and showed their 50-over cricket is back on track. "The Test side's success at number one may have caused the one-day side to get less love and less attention. We are trying to rectify that," Domingo said. "The whole group have all stepped up and put in big performances."
Because they did it throughout the series, the bowlers got very little mention but it was through them that South Africa took a lead in the Twenty20 rubber. After their destructive showing in the first match, in which they restricted Pakistan to 98 for 9, Mohammad Hafeez's men struggled to come back, even two days later when they collapsed again.
With a range of quicks to choose from, South Africa's T20 plans for next year's WorldT20 are going well. The only thing they may hope for is a more competitive showing from Pakistan in the immediate return series, which begins on Wednesday. Even if they don't get it, Domingo said South Africa will concentrate on climbing the ladder and building their own self-belief.
"Confidence is a massively important thing and so you can never take things for granted," he said. "We know Pakistan will be hurting and we expect them to come fighting. We are still a work in progress." That they have progressed so far will leave Kallis, who could return for the ODIs against Pakistan, pleased because the batsmen are doing their job too.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent