AB de Villiers became the fastest South African to 6000 ODI runs, scored the century that formed the backbone of their innings and led South Africa to a 4-1 series win over Pakistan. South Africa had lost to Sri Lanka by the same margin in August this year, and the side has since made noticeable improvements, particularly in the batting department.
Although not yet the finished product, their line-up is showing signs of maturity and responsibility, characterised by de Villiers' knock - a well-paced innings of two halves in which he was willing to do the hard work to find fluency on a difficult batting surface.
His first fifty was circumspect, coming off 70 balls with a single boundary - a big six to bring up the landmark. That was the indication of de Villiers' readiness to change gears. His next fifty was blasted off 29 balls.
The 83-run sixth-wicket stand de Villiers shared with Ryan McLaren took the innings from ordinary to outstanding. With 114 runs added in the last 10 overs, de Villiers ensured South Africa's new-look attack, with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir rested, would not be under much pressure. Instead, it was the Pakistan line-up who faced that burden and, once again, they could not stand up to the challenge in a series where the team batting second has not won a single game.
South Africa wanted to set right their last batting performance in Sharjah, in the first ODI, when they were dismissed for 183 but they started off shakily. Mohammad Irfan accounted for Hashim Amla in the first over when he hit the opener on the front pad. Amla considered a review but erroneously decided against it. Replays showed the ball had pitched outside leg stump. That made it the fifth time Irfan accounted for Amla's wicket in eight ODIs - the most number of times a bowler has dismissed Amla.
Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis crafted a cautious stand, scoring at just over four an over. Their biggest over was the one in which de Kock, fresh off a century in the previous match, sensed an opportunity to score off Irfan. De Kock took four consecutive boundaries off the bowler's third over - two of which were fortuitous inside-edges - to force a change in bowling plans.
Saeed Ajmal came in the seventh over and dismissed de Kock lbw soon after. With JP Duminy out cheaply, it was up to de Villiers to rebuild with du Plessis. The pair were tied down by the spinners and a resurgent Irfan, who came back in his second spell with a better understanding of the change of pace that would be needed on this surface.
The pair hit just three fours in the 16 overs they were together and du Plessis in particular seemed to grow frustrated. He could not get the spinners away and eventually tried to send Junaid over midwicket but miscued and was caught at deep square leg.
De Villiers was quietly collecting runs and cued himself up to lead the charge in the last ten overs. He sent the first sign of intent off Ajmal, playing a short-arm pull through midwicket for six.
McLaren provided important lower-order support. He played a delicate glance and an aggressive cut off Irfan, followed by three fours off Junaid in the 47th over, the bowler struggling to find his death-bowling length or line. Tanvir was plagued by the same problem from around the wicket, and gave de Villiers a line on leg stump and a full toss to feast on.
De Villiers marched into the nineties off Ajmal in his characteristically creative style. He got himself into a position to play the sweep for a four and found a gap in the covers off the next ball. He used that innovation to bring up his 15th ODI century, by moving to his leg side, opening up and slamming Tanvir over mid-wicket in the final over. After he brought up his century, de Villiers scored another 14 runs off the remainder of the over. Pakistan, having not chased down a total of over 250 since February 2011, were effectively batted out of the contest.
Once Pakistan had slipped to 17 for 3, a mercy rule would have been welcome. Vernon Philander, playing his first ODI since January 2012, claimed two of those wickets with typical wicket-to-wicket accuracy and consistent length.
Pakistan's only resistance came from Sohaib Maqsood, who notched up a second, successive half-century with clean hitting and clear thinking. He demonstrated his strength off the back foot but exposed a slight weakness against the short ball, which South Africa will look to exploit in the return series later this month.
South Africa hold the advantage going into that series. Pakistan's batting is fragile and, in spicier conditions, will need to harden up if they are to pose a challenge. In this match, they lost 3 for 17 upfront and 5 for 23 - Wayne Parnell celebrating his recall with lower-order wickets - towards the end to turn the last match into an entirely one-sided affair.