South Africa beat the Sri Lankan bogey

Ryan McLaren roars after dismissing Kumar Sangakkara AFP

If progress can be measured by the way the result changes when going to back to the same place, South Africa's one-day team has made some impressive advances.

South Africa's last visit to Sri Lanka 12 months ago presented them as a disjointed unit, lacking in key players, and clear game plans. Russell Domingo's coaching tenure began with a 1-4 drubbing and the side deserved every bit of flak it attracted. But over the last week, South Africa have buried those memories with two clinical and energetic team performances to earn a first-ever ODI series win in Sri Lanka. They are due some generous praise and it was good to see the captain, AB de Villiers, leading the chorus.

"We learnt from our mistakes. We came back here a more experienced team this time," de Villiers said. "When I pushed on the buttons, everyone came forward and performed for the team."

Being wiser and responding to expectations were not the only differences between the South African class of 2013 and 2014. This year's group had better personnel, improved techniques, sound strategies and a more focused mindset, all of which bode well for the future.

They have dropped the dead weight from a year ago when Colin Ingram and Alviro Petersen were part of a rotating opening pair that never quite clicked and Robin Peterson was still being used as the premier spinner.

Quinton de Kock's progress has contributed to South Africa gaining better solidity. Twelve months ago he was a talented, but clueless kid who was riding on his promise but unravelled when he couldn't meet his potential.

De Kock returned home and demanded seemingly never-ending net sessions with his franchise coach Geoffrey Toyana. He honed his skills against spin and also worked on his temperament and timing. The results were evident last December when de Kock joined an elite club of six batsmen to have scored centuries in three consecutive innings. But there was still a question over his ability in the subcontinent. After two quiet games, de Kock answered them with a century that showcased improved levels of concentration to match his capability. He has inked his place as Hashim Amla's partner.

While de Kock's international career is just starting, South Africa's administration appear to have ended Peterson's. His phasing out had begun during the T20 series in Sri Lanka last year, and Imran Tahir has taken over in all formats. Tahir was not part of South Africa's limited-overs squads to Sri Lanka last year which cost the visitors dearly. From his international debut at the 2011 World Cup, the legspinner announced himself as a threat, particularly in subcontinent conditions and ideally should have had more matches under his belt by now.

But Tahir is the type of bowler who does not mind being hit and South Africa have traditionally preferred a spinner who can contain. On this tour, Tahir has proved he can do both. He was South Africa's second-most successful bowler with six wickets. He accounted for Mahela Jayawardene, an excellent player of spin, in all three matches and maintained an economy of 4.44.

He also had an able partner in JP Duminy whose bowling has developed to the point where Domingo no longer considers him a part-timer. Duminy plays as one of three, perhaps, four allrounders in a South African side that likes the depth he provides. Although he lacked for runs in this series, his ability to find them in future should provide stability in the batting line-up and set David Miller up for a final assault. Miller was also not a major player in South Africa's success but showed that he can be. Together with Ryan McLaren he added teeth to the lower middle-order and appears to have grown comfortable in his role as finisher.

However, it was McLaren who was the find of the series for South Africa, if a 31-year-old more than a decade into his career can still be considered as such. He averaged 13.11 and his nine wickets was the best tally for the series from both teams. He was effective in the powerplay and at the death and out bowled the men he usually operates in the shadows of - Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.

Steyn's return was thought to bolster South Africa's attack but he had only a modest impact. Morkel had better success, but McLaren, often operating at third-change was the danger man. His unlikely rise to heroism is a sign South Africa's talent identification and nurturing is working.

The individual components of South Africa's one-day outfit have only two major questions: how much longer will they wait on Jacques Kallis to find form and if he delivers against Zimbabwe will that be enough to continue benching Faf du Plessis? And how does Vernon Philander fit into the attack? The return of Lonwabo Tsotsobe to full fitness may make the latter a moot point.

There has been a sense of community in South Africa's performance, which should buy them some time in answering those questions. It could be picked up in how JP Duminy was careful in ensuring de Villiers got as much strike as possible in Hambantota, from how the irritation is subdued when a catch is dropped as De Kock found out when he failed to convert a chance Dale Steyn produced or when Kallis, despite not bowling himself, was seen offering advice to the rest of the attack.

There's also evidence that South Africa are having fun: They enjoyed a team dinner at Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene's restaurant, Morkel flew kites in Colombo and Steyn, McLaren and Miller went for a stroll on the beach to do some bird-watching in Hambantota.

Their maiden series win in Sri Lanka ranks highly not simply because it allows them to enter new territory and make history but it also helps them override the more recent past; a past many of them were part of. Returning to the scene of their most severe series defeats and emerging victorious this time is something to be savoured.

But de Villiers knows it is just the start. "It's not a World Cup but it's a huge step in the right direction." Now, South Africa have to stay the course.