Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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It was a moment that summed up South Africa's T20 World Cup: Kagiso Rabada's frustrated laughter after completing a final-over hat-trick that, ultimately, meant nothing. It could have been a celebratory climax to a tight, scrappy defence of an excellent score against the No. 1-ranked side in the world, giving a young side its fourth win out of five and sealing an unexpected semi-final spot.
Instead, it was futile. South Africa had known that only a crushing win would be enough for them to qualify and despite setting England 190 to win after losing the toss, they had only 131 runs to play with in order to take their net run-rate above Australia's. Their 10-run win meant they became the first team since the introduction of automatic second-round qualification in 2014 to be knocked out from the second phase after a solitary defeat, left to rue what might have been.
It seemed a long time ago by the end of a frenetic, humid Sharjah night but their win had been set up by an unbroken partnership of 103 runs in 52 balls between Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram, whose development into accomplished middle-order batters can only bode well for 2022; much as South Africa will rue their early exit, they will take heart from the knowledge that the core of this side will be in Australia in a year's time.
van der Dussen is a late developer, who made his international debut aged 29 after catching the eye playing franchise cricket in Canada and the Caribbean. He has struggled for runs in this tournament and nearly missed this game after waking up with a stiff neck, but with his innings of 101 not out off 51 balls against a full-strength Pakistan attack in a warm-up game still fresh in their minds, South Africa's management backed him to continue in his adopted position at No. 3.
His innings of 94 not out displayed his full catalogue of shots, not least his wide range against fast bowling and his growing tendency to play innovative strokes: he deftly paddled his second ball for four off Chris Woakes, reverse-swept Adil Rashid past short third and jumped across to shovel a 90mph/145kph short ball from Mark Wood for six over his head.
"There are certain times that we've used Rassie at No. 5 but we felt that in order to maximise the powerplay tonight, we wanted him up front," Mark Boucher, South Africa's head coach, said. "He showed that he can play both ways. It was a slight doubt if he was going to play, so maybe that released the pressure a bit as well, so he went out and really just put the pressure on England."
Markram, meanwhile, has spent the vast majority of his cricketing career opening the batting, but has seamlessly adjusted to a new role at No. 4, honing his skill there during the second half of the IPL with Punjab Kings. "It's been challenging at times but also exciting," he told the ICC earlier this tournament. "As a player you're always looking to try get better every day and try and develop a new skillset to suit that role is something I've had to work on. That's been the enjoyable side of it, trying to grow my game."
Markram combined the two vital parts of the role against England, minimising dot balls - he failed to score off only four of the 25 balls he faced - while simultaneously cracking boundaries. He hit all four of the bowlers he faced for six, including a clean swipe over midwicket off Adil Rashid, and looked one step ahead of Wood throughout their battle, knowing that a slower ball was coming before Wood himself seemed to.
"Aiden was an opening batter and we actually made a conscious effort to get him into the middle order," Boucher said, explaining that South Africa consider him powerful enough that he does not need the cushion of the powerplay. "I think he's strong enough to be able to clear boundary-riders and it was a bit of a risk that we took but he's shown that he's come through in that role at No. 4.
"Both of them are very adaptable. They had a very good partnership which is always going to be good: if your best ball-strikers can spend a lot of time at the crease and put bowlers under pressure, you're always going to stand a good chance of winning the game."
In the event that Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers and Chris Morris had been selected in this South Africa squad, it is feasible that van der Dussen and Markram would have found themselves under pressure for their spots in the side, bearing the national team's transformation targets in mind. Instead, they have shown great promise in two of T20's toughest roles. Nothing is a given in South African cricket, but their partnership demonstrated why they should be inked into the middle order ahead of next year's World Cup. Throw in Anrich Nortje's pace, Tabraiz Shamsi's skill and Quinton de Kock's pyrotechnics and there are reasons to think they can challenge in Australia on pitches that should suit them.
"[It was] a bit of a bittersweet ending for us," Temba Bavuma, their captain, said. "There's a lot we can be proud of as a team, as an inexperienced, young team winning four out of five. There's a lot we can take from that and we have to build on the confidence that we've gained." South Africa may not quite have been good enough in this World Cup but after the early signs pointed towards another debacle overshadowed by drama off the pitch, there are finally reasons for their supporters to be optimistic about what happens on it.