Not even New Zealand's best performance of their arduous tour of South Africa could earn them their first win against the national team. After dominating periods of the first one-dayer at Durban, and with 27 needed from the last three overs, their nerves and lack of confidence came back to haunt them as Andre Nel creamed two fours in the last over to take South Africa home off the final ball.
With three overs to go, the match was New Zealand's for the taking, and on came Mark Gillespie - who until then had showed reasonable control. Whether it was his choice or that of his captain, Daniel Vettori, the decision to bowl around the wicket to Mark Boucher, then on 24, was flawed and spoke volumes of New Zealand's lack of belief. A clip through midwicket for two; a nudge for a single and a full toss on his legs was dispatched to fine leg for four. New Zealand's slim advantage was lost, and the match was slipping away.
Johan Botha came and went in a hurry leaving South Africa to score 11 from the last over. With players turning greener by the over, it was somewhat uncomfortable to see the grinning, beaming beanpole of Nel march to the crease at such a pivotal moment. He whooshed at thin air for the first ball of the final over before scything the second over backward point's head, putting Boucher back on strike. But he could only pick up an inside edge leaving the fate of South Africa in Nel's large paws.
The pressure didn't show. An attempted yorker from Gillespie was fizzed through extra cover with such force that no one, bar the dancing fans, moved a muscle. It was admittedly a poor ball, but the placement and power - not to mention audacity - were in absolute synchrony. Five needed from two balls, then, but Gillespie offered him a full toss which Nel, with even less elegance but equal amounts of gusto, hammered through the same extra-cover region. A frantic run off the final delivery avoided the tie, and South Africa were home by two wickets.
On the face of things, New Zealand had stolen defeat from the snapping jaws of victory, but there were plenty of encouraging signs in both innings to give hope that, in the remaining two one-dayers, they might break their duck. Kyle Mills bowled quite superbly, picking up 5 for 25 from 10 accurate overs. With overhead conditions worsening, it was tailor-made for Mills - on a pitch offering the taller bowlers plenty of bounce too - and in the first 10 overs he was close to being unplayable. Even Jacques Kallis struggled to fend off his booming lifters, though only he - in his current form - could have edged the cracking delivery Mills dismissed him with.
Mills apart, the rest were a mishmash of hopefuls as Chris Martin had another off-day and Gillespie struggled with nerves. They were taken apart by two fine knocks: one by JP Duminy, South Africa's emerging No. 5 and the other by AB de Villiers, who made 87. The one area of concern for South Africa is that both players fell when nicely settled - a matter of less relevance against a fading New Zealand side, but certainly one they need to address if they're to challenge Australia regularly.
The positive for the visitors was their top order finally fired, with Jamie How, Brendon McCullum and Scott Styris making significant contributions. New Zealand's batsmen haven't managed a century on the tour - Vettori coming closest with 99 in a tour game - but How's 124-ball 90, though a tad slow by ODI standards, was the innings they needed to reach a respectable score.
McCullum and Styris made 40 apiece as they strung partnerships with How, something their batsmen couldn't do in the Tests. While How occupied the crease at one end, Styris and the No. 5, Ross Taylor motored along at nearly a run-a-ball at the other. Despite losing How and Gareth Hopkins off successive deliveries in the 48th over bowled by Nel, New Zealand posted a challenging 248, thanks to a breezy 32 off 23 deliveries from Mathew Sinclair.
It says a lot about South Africa's confidence and form that they can afford to omit Dale Steyn, their colt fast bowler who decimated New Zealand in the Test series. No mention was made of any injury, and even though South Africa won today, it seems improbable he will be left out for the final two matches of this series. Without him, South Africa's attack lacks a killer bite. Would New Zealand, via Sinclair, really have cracked 44 from the last five overs had Steyn been tearing in? Probably not.
New Zealand appeared to be a team revitalised for much of today but, after this loss, it is hard to see how Vettori will be able to lift them. Another five-star performance from Mills wouldn't go amiss.