What South Africa learned: Amla's still got it, and four quicks may be the future

The South Africa players celebrate after Faf du Plessis completes the winning catch BCCI

Now that the dust has settled on that most-exciting of dead-rubbers at the Wanderers, best we remember that South Africa were the side that won the series. They beat the No.1 ranked team in the world, who had gone undefeated in ten series before this one, and though South Africa would preferred a whitewash to give themselves a chance to be in possession of the Test mace by the April 3 cut off, their victory showed real signs of the team they want to become.

The India series was Ottis Gibson's first serious Test series in charge and he immediately showed his hand. Under Gibson, South Africa are more aggressive in everything from team selection, where they fielded at least four fast bowlers in every match, to batting with collective intent rather than search of individual glory, to more proactive fielding tactics. The end result is the Freedom Trophy and a renewed sense for purpose for a squad who have now found the balance of youth and experience to be more adventurous in their thinking.

"A series like this gives everybody in the dressing room a lot of confidence that we are going in the right direction," Gibson said. "The type of cricket we played, we said from the beginning, we are going to try and play a lot more positive, aggressive, front-foot cricket and the games were very entertaining."

Apart from developing their own brand of eye-catching cricket, these are things South Africa can take out of the series:

The return of Hashim Amla

While AB de Villiers was the highest run-scorer for South Africa in the series and played momentum shifting knocks at Newlands and SuperSport Park, Hashim Amla's contributions provided much-needed reassurance that the master remains, well, a master.

It seems disrespectful to say it, but Amla appeared on the wane after a patchy 2017 in which he scored three hundreds, all against weak attacks at home and an impatience seemed to have crept into his game. But then he showed he was still the same unaffected man the cricket world has come to admire, with 82 in Centurion and twin fifties of immense fortitude in Johannesburg.

"In situations like we had today, the real Hashim Amla comes out," Gibson said on Saturday. "The concentration, the determination to stay in there, to score when he gets the opportunities. His leadership in the batting unit is massive for us and we are very proud of the way he played today."

On a pitch that CSA's own press release called a "mine-field," Amla adjusted his technique so he moved outside his off stump to take away the possibility of being trapped lbw, took blows on the ribs and hands, and scored more than 100 runs in the match. While he was batting, South Africa's chances of victory were very much alive.

But no hundreds

One of South Africa's more recent problems has been the scarcity of big runs - only two hundreds on away tours in 2017, both of them by Dean Elgar - and now the struggles are continuing at home. Conditions should be taken into account and the batsmen will be forgiven for not raising their bats more but the issue needs to be monitored.

"In conditions like that, not everybody is going to get a score but people got runs when the team needed runs," Gibson said. "I'm sure there are guys sitting there that have missed out and it's just them trusting in their preparation and their games and believing in themselves. We have plenty of time between now and the Australia series to have a look at those guys and try see how we can get them confident again.

Team balance

With runs hard to come by, an extra batsman would not have been considered a luxury, but South Africa have steered away from the seven-batsmen strategy they employed in the past. "The six batter thing, because we wanted to have four fast bowlers," he said. "That worked against the best team in the world. Even though the conditions were a bit more bowler-friendly, that worked."

Temba Bavuma and Theunis de Bruyn could continue to find themselves on the bench this season.

Concerns over Quinton de Kock

And if South Africa are honest, it's been more of a five-batsmen strategy than six, because Quinton de Kock contributed only 71 runs in six innings. De Kock's last Test score of significance was his 68 in England in July; he has 14 innings without a 50 since and has reached double figures just once in his last five innings. The drought has not robbed him of his captain's backing, though.

"No, not really," Faf du Plessis said, when asked if de Kock's place was in danger. "We all go through lean patches."

The real answer may be that South Africa don't have too many candidates to compete with de Kock. Heinrich Klaasen, de Kock's team-mate at the Titans, is the most likely but they may not want to risk an uncapped player in a big series against Australia. That means they have to keep telling themselves that de Kock is "that kind of player" who will come right at some point.

"With Quinny, he's a personality that doesn't think too much about technical stuff," du Plessis said. "He's a free spirit, x-factor player. It's very important that you don't try and change the way Quinton plays, because if you start talking from a technical point of view to Quinton - he's never played the game like that."

Given that de Kock's last big knock was in an ODI, South Africa are hoping the change to white-ball cricket will be the catalyst for de Kock to turn his fortunes around. "He has got a one-day series - he might score four hundreds," Gibson said. "That's the talent and the ability of the individual we are talking about. There's no worries from my side."

The new wave of bowlers

Having started the summer with four premier pacemen injured, South Africa now have their cupboard full. Morne Morkel, Chris Morris and Lungi Ngidi have all returned to fitness, and Ngidi impressed Gibson so much that he was picked in the Centurion Test after one practice session. "Lungi Ngidi coming in and making a statement, that's a positive," Gibson said.

But the unofficial leader of the attack is emerging as Kagiso Rabada. He was the joint leading wicket-taker in the series - alongside Vernon Philander and Mohammed Shami - with 15 scalps at 20.26, and at 22 years old, he will be the one leading the attack in the next decade. Gibson has been working closely with Rabada and is trying to teach him to be content with imperfection.

"I love talking to KG about bowling," Gibson said. "He is a bit of a sponge at the minute, and he is a bit of a perfectionist as well. He will come to understand it's not always an exact science and you have to just roll with what's working on the day."

In an in-depth interview with ESPNcricinfo pre-series, Rabada revealed he was working on several different deliveries and wanted to be able to bowl them all at will, but Gibson is trying to convince him to improvise more. "On the day you want to bowl your beautiful outswinger and the ball is going in all the time, then you may just have to bowl your inswinger until your outswinger is back," Gibson said. "He wants to get it exactly right all the time and it's not always possible."

But where does that leave Dale Steyn?

Steyn is likely to be fit for the start of the Australia Tests, though he may not have much game time before then. That may not matter because Gibson has been of the view that if Steyn declares himself ready to play, he will play, but his record of breaking down - even though the current heel injury has no relation to his shoulder troubles - has made people nervous. Steyn was unsold at the IPL auction, for example, and if all their quicks are fit, South Africa will have to think hard about when to include him.

"For the period that he played, he was back to his best and bowling like Dale Steyn bowls and he got an unfortunate injury," Gibson said. "His thing now is to get himself up to full fitness and once he gets himself there, we will make decisions on him then. Until then, there is no decision to be made."