This was a one-day series without lustre, a duty performed by both sides as they looked ahead to the ICC World T20 Cup later in the year. Eoin Morgan sort of admitted as much, and England picked players to check out, as against a team specifically to win. South Africa rested key men - Kagiso Rabada and Faf du Plessis - and under the new captain, played in patches, some very good, others not so. Yesterday at the Wanderers, the team in pink were crimson at the 13 wides bowled, of which the total cost when the extra balls are counted was 31. Ouch.
England are the world champions but played nothing like it. It is inconceivable that Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow, both in Cape Town and Johannesburg, would get out the way they did had they been batting in the World Cup. Mighty cricketers were rested - Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Mark Wood. Chris Woakes was sidelined for a match England needed to win the square the series.
Jofra Archer has been asked to do so much by his various masters that he has given way. The ease with which he hits 90mph and more has misled management into thinking he is Malcolm Marshall. Archer is starting out and deserves a deeper understanding, much as Marshall once did. The England set-up must be careful because it needs him more than he needs them. This is the age of the freelance cricketer and he is among the few most wanted in the world.
Having said all this, England won and duly squared the series. The best thing about it was the return to colours by Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, who bowled as if such a sabbatical - some seven months long in Moeen's case and not much less in Rashid's - should be offered to everyone. If only it were that simple.
Rashid appeared to put more revs on the ball, fizzing it flat and straight at batsmen who failed to identify the mysteries. He had Temba Bavuma lbw twice in two balls - one a delicious legbreak, the next a dipping googly. The umpire got the first one wrong; the second one was proved right after review. Moeen had more energy, both on the ball and in himself. He bowled like he meant it, rather than like he was meant to do it. They are quite a couple, Adil and Ali, joined at the hip and handy in tandem. It was nice that they were there together towards the end of the match, Moeen spanking a pull shot or two and his pal applauding with vigour. When Rashid fell just before the end, Moeen was visibly disappointed.
Bizarrely, it seems as if neither will be with England's Test match team in Sri Lanka. We cannot be quite sure why. Moeen is deemed not ready for the mental demands of Test cricket yet; Rashid is not interested in four-day county cricket, and therefore does not expect to be asked to play in Test matches. At least that is what we hear. If true, it's a dog's dinner.
South Africa had their moment in Cape Town, catching England off guard and rusty. The highlights were the effervescent Tabraiz Shamsi, whose left-arm wristspinners come with a big heart and great hope, and the thrilling partnership between Quinton de Kock and Bavuma. You would have to go a long way to see better batting. Not that the task was by any means insurmountable; England, until Joe Denly was partnered with Woakes, had batted as if the mood in the camp was loose. South Africa played as if winning for a new captain was everything.
"Once selection committees or management or captains suggest they are looking to the future, rather than the moment, the jeopardy goes missing"
de Kock is a man of few words. His press conferences and such things are the subject of comment, more for the fact that he does not readily or easily engage than for his content. What a nonsense it is that a cricket captain is held to account because of this. The players like him and will follow the example he sets. He is fresh and respected, good attributes with which to begin the job, and he does not sweat the small stuff. Some would say he doesn't sweat the big stuff either, but he is smarter than that, and in general a whole lot smarter than he is prepared to reveal.
His batting in the two matches has reflected the new responsibility. He stayed within himself, fully understanding the importance to his team of the time he spent at the wicket. While he is there, South Africa are favourites. When not, the odds move considerably. The only confusion is the two dismissals, which were brainstorms. Leopards and spots perhaps!
Bavuma has been a revelation, playing freely but within the barrel of an improved method and a whole lot of common sense. While he and de Kock were making hay at Newlands, we were reminded of the glory days of South African batting, when orthodox strokeplay was enhanced by hints of dash and dare. The crowd became increasingly ecstatic and afterwards the talk was of the great names of the past matched on this day by two fellows from the present.
Of the teams, South Africa have probably learned more than England. The rain washed out one opportunity, and somehow the other two matches failed to surprise us. Perhaps the message was the problem. Once selection committees or management or captains suggest they are looking to the future, rather than the moment, the jeopardy goes missing.
One-day cricket, World Cup excluded, is increasingly compromised. While the orbit around it moves so fast, the 50-over game stays as a reference to the past rather than a statement for the future. This is dangerous and something the ICC should address. Either we want one-day cricket or we do not, but we mustn't diminish its value by lessening its day-to-day importance, otherwise we will have the World Cup but not much else to demand a full house.
England's win last July was a very great thing: an unforgettable match on an unforgettable day. So too were those of India in England in 1983, Pakistan in Melbourne in 1992, and India again, at home, in 2011. Nothing, though, will ever quite match the first one at Lord's in 1975, when Clive Lloyd's team got the better of Ian Chappell's; or the extraordinary evening in Lahore when Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva saw Sri Lanka over the line. Those performances and the triumphs that came from them, lit up nations. It is for myriad reasons that one-day cricket matters. Let's not forget it.