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The Twenty20 series was all about discovery for two sides in transition and there was plenty to learn. Here are some of the most telling lessons
December 26, 2012
Now we know: breaking with tradition is not the devil it is made out to be. The festive Twenty20s provided ample entertainment to start the South African summer in the place of a Test match, although not everyone will agree.
Many lament the culling of the Boxing Day Test - which will be back next year and if everyone who complained turns up that will hike the attendance figures to close to full - but there was some sense in Cricket South Africa's unpopular decision. The three T20s were all sold out - a feat rarely achieved at a Test match in the country - and the competition went from non-existent in Durban to its peak in East London to a healthy mix in Port Elizabeth.
New Zealand began as many touring teams do in South Africa. They were overawed, perhaps by the expectation of alien conditions, and crumbled embarrassingly. Their 86 all out in Durban saw calls for them to either go home or leave via Harare where they could try and compete more convincingly. It didn't need to be that harsh.
Last year, Sri Lanka lost their tour opener, a Test, by an innings and were dismantled for 43 in the first ODI they played. The year before, India also blew up in flames by an innings in the first Test. New Zealand were not really much different. They showed that when against the run of play, they rose up at Buffalo Park and remained in the game at St George's. Despite losing the decider, they did not simply give up.
The T20 series was thought to be the one format in which New Zealand could hope to challenge and they did, somewhat. Their one triumph may only be shelved as a fond memory because there will be much tougher things to come in South Africa. But it should not be. It should simply be filed separately.
While the Tests and ODIs will be about asserting authority, as far as the hosts are concerned, and putting up a fight, from the visitor's perspective, the T20s were all about discovery for two teams in transition and there was plenty to learn. Here are some of the most telling lessons:
There is value in experience
Henry Davids, aged 32, was the series' top-scorer with 143 runs from three matches, including two half-centuries. Quinton de Kock, who touched 20 four days before the series began, compiled 30 runs, 28 of them in a match where only the inept Richard Levi could not muster something worthwhile.
That's not to say de Kock should be written off. Overflowing with talent, the young wicket-keeper batsman's only flaw is inexperience. Exposing him too early is a danger though, especially as he has been allowed to jump the queue.
Davids is proof that spending seasons in the franchise system pays off. It helps craft temperament and build self-confidence and assurance. As a result, Davids was South Africa's find of the series and may even have pushed his way into the ODI side. De Kock has been praised so much already that it would seem his ego needs no further punting but he, like any player, would benefit from more time in the domestic system before being unleashed fully formed onto the international stage.
But here's a good youngster
Not quite youthful by age, 26-year-old Mitchell McClenaghan just has not played all that much. Before this series, McClenaghan had turned out only eight times in the shortest format. But New Zealand have decided he is such a keeper, they chose to hang on to him for the upcoming Test series as well, in place of the injured Tim Southee.
McClenaghan is quick and the speed gun regularly registers above the 140kph mark but he also varies his pace well. Rather than tearaway, he exhibits a degree of control. If he stays injury free - and it will be an if because he has already had extensive time out of the game with hip problems - he could be an exciting prospect for a New Zealand attack that has often lacked the bite to match their bark.
The field has two sides, Levi
Given his size, it would seem Levi never leaves half a cake uneaten but he is content to ignore an entire side of the cricket field - the off side. It serves Graeme Smith well enough but Levi is no Smith. Sans a defensive ability, working him out has been as simple as following instructions for making a jam sandwich.
Levi does not like the ball coming across him so left-armers are always in with a chance. He hung his bat out to McClenaghan in the first match and was caught at square leg off Ronnie Hira in the second. Levi's domestic form (where left-armers are far less common) saw him top the one-day cup rankings but he has failed to make the step-up again.
This is not his first foray. He played for South Africa since the tour of New Zealand and was dropped during the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. The selectors recalled him after his good patch locally and they may do that again, but only if there is an improvement in technique, mindset and a few trips to the gym.
New Zealand have opening problems too
In head-to-head stakes, New Zealand won the battle of the first wicket. They totalled 91 runs in the three matches while South Africa managed only 15. New Zealand's most successful start came with 76 in their victorious chase in East London, of which Rob Nicol contributed 25, but that doesn't mean they don't have an issue in that department.
While Martin Guptill's place is undisputed, Nicol's comes up for discussion when team make-up is considered. Frequently, Brendon McCullum comes at No.3 at the fall of an early wicket and with his reputation as a dominator, especially in the shorter format, the question of why he does not simply open must be asked. It would open up a place for New Zealand to play another batsman in the middle-order, where they often found themselves short, and also remove what has become an obvious liability.
A future leader?
Faf du Plessis ended 2012 having leapt up the ladder two steps at a time. From not even being a part of South Africa's T20 squad, du Plessis was named stand-in captain for this series, having previously captained South Africa A, and showed promise. Most importantly, he led by example and finished as South Africa's second-highest run-scorer.
On occasion, he struggled with juggling his bowlers and his most obvious flaw came under pressure. With four to defend off the last ball, du Plessis brought the field in, allowing Guptill to go over the top and win New Zealand the match when Rory Kleinveldt missed the yorker. It was the kind of mistake a young captain makes but du Plessis seems intent to improve. He already has the enthusiasm and the following of his charges, now he just needs to polish the tactical acumen and he may be the frontrunner to relieve AB de Villiers of one of his burdens.
What to do without your captain?
Ross Taylor's absence was noticeable in the middle order, where New Zealand obviously lacked runs but the hole he left was bigger in other areas. Without Taylor to provide guidance, albeit apparently of the quiet form, McCullum was obviously under strain and only really found his batting form in the final fixture.
Taylor did seem to have some communication with his team-mates though. After his match-winning century, Guptill was in immediate contact with Taylor as they exchanged messages on Twitter. Taylor congratulated the opener on a great knock and hinted he had offered some advice when he told Guptill to keep texting him. Guptill responded saying he would. The posts have since been deleted.
It proves that hints of Taylor's influence still linger in the New Zealand change room and a certain segment, if not all, of his colleagues value and miss him. Everyone, including McCullum himself, wants to see Taylor back and he is expected to make his return in the not-too-distant future. It won't be in time to take on South Africa, though, something New Zealand may be left to rue.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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