Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd ODI, Pallekele July 8, 2014

McLaren becoming vital to SA's ODI plans

There's not much that Dale Steyn gets whimsical about but the green hills and the cool mountain air of Kandy was enough bring out his softer side. "Gotta say this place is majestic! So beautiful! Blessed to see this part of the world!" Steyn tweeted.

South Africa's angry man has never played in Pallekele before, which Sri Lanka would hope works to their advantage in what is a must-win match for the hosts. South Africa have fond memories of Pallekele, though, because it is the only ground where they recorded a victory on the tour they would rather forget. After going 0-2 down in the series and appearing out of their depth with the bat, South Africa defended 223 in the third match, albeit their fightback was short-lived on the whole.

"We did the right things, gave ourselves a chance at the end, put runs on the board and managed to bowl them out, so we are really excited about this game coming up," said David Miller, who scored 85 in that match to inject authority into an otherwise limp South African innings. He had acted as an anchor that day and relished being able to spend more time at the crease than he usually does as a finisher.

Now that South Africa's top order has sorted itself out, Miller is back to his end-of-innings role and he seems to have become more confident. In the first ODI, he led the charge as South Africa took 53 runs off the last five overs.

The most impressive aspect of Miller's knock was the way he dealt with Sri Lanka's death specialist Lasith Malinga, whom he kept out and punished when the length allowed it. "Taking performances from the past into the present gives me a sense of belief that I have done it before," Miller said. "I've got to watch the ball as closely as I can. Malinga is one of the best death bowlers in the world. But the more you face someone who has an unusual action, the more comfortable you will feel."

Having a competent partner with whom you have a good understanding is also important at the end of an innings, and Miller has found that in Ryan McLaren, who was with him in Pallekele in 2013 and again in the first ODI in Colombo. McLaren scored 22 off 18 balls on Sunday to provide the support Miller needed.

McLaren's all-round contribution - 22 runs and two wickets - was one of the unsung performances of the game and it outshone that of Jacques Kallis. While it is too early to start questioning Kallis' role in the team, McLaren's performances are worth noting because he was expected to miss out when Kallis recommitted himself to the ODI team.

McLaren has played in all but two of South Africa's last 16 ODIs, dating back to the series against Sri Lanka last July, and alongside Kallis in three of them. While Kallis has been used as a batting allrounder, McLaren's role is that of a bowling allrounder, but his consistent run in the side has been beneficial for McLaren's batting. He has averaged 31.85 over the past year - compared to an overall average of 21.60 - with seven not-outs, which come with the territory of finishing an innings.

His bowling numbers have also improved marginally - 21 wickets at 26.85 apiece in the last 12 months - and there have only been two occasions when he has not bowled at least six overs in the innings. "The advantage for allrounders is that you are always going to have the opportunity to contribute," McLaren said. "There are going to be times when you don't do well in one discipline, but then you can contribute in the other."

McLaren is fast becoming an integral part of South Africa's ODI XI and is pleased with how the team is developing, especially from the last Sri Lankan tour to this one. "They came at us hard in the beginning and we showed a lot of character and finished the game clinically," McLaren said of the first ODI. "That's the most pleasing aspect - we're starting to show some character when it starts getting tough, and it doesn't get much tougher than playing in Sri Lankan conditions. This is one of the building blocks to the World Cup next year, and every game in that process is important."

When Steyn can peel himself away from the views, he would probably agree.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent