That South Africa finished off Pakistan at the Wanderers in a session was no great surprise. Seven wickets aren't a problem when the pitch has gone rogue and the opposition have just gone. If the finishers are Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Duanne Olivier, the job becomes a forgone conclusion. This is some South African attack, given greater breadth and option when Keshav Maharaj is included in it. England's batsmen will do well to hold these fellows at bay next Christmas. Much water will pass under the bridge before then, of course - such things as World Cups and Ashes battles. The schedule for 2019 is to be savoured.

What part in it, one wondered, will Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla play. Their cricket these past weeks has revealed both the influence of Father Time and a deep-rooted determination to overcome him.

At first Amla looked shot, as if lbw was the only option to the thin edge of his bat. As the series progressed however, his defence took the form of willpower - an indomitable will at that - and the longer he clawed to the memory of a glorious past, the more it came back to him. Eventually he began to look like, well, like Hashim Amla: the craftsman we knew so well; that resolute defender of his country's faith, whose sweet timing of the cricket ball captivates lovers of the game both at home and from far and wide of the Kwazulu Natal province in which he grew up. By the second part of his second innings at the Wanderers, the continuation on Sunday morning, when boundaries flowed like fast-running rivers, he was no longer the shadow that many had written off but instead the original edition of a cricketer who would not lie down.

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It seems a matter of course that he will torment the Sri Lankan bowlers who come next. Appearing slim, fit and still strong of mind and heart, he will turn 36 years of age in late March. It is only the eye that could fail him, as it has done many others before. At this stage of a career, only a split second of reaction separates the high and low of performance. Though Amla's trigger moves have mysterious ways, there is little different now from the routine and mechanism that has served him so securely throughout the making of 9231 Test match runs, across 122 matches, at an average score of 47.33 an innings.

After the match these two champions, born just three months apart, were interviewed together and spoke warmly of each other's regeneration. They have seen the best of times and have been surprised by the worst of times. Steyn had wondered if he would bowl fast again, a force of nature diminished by a shoulder injury that had no business to be so invasive. But bowl fast he has, like a man set free, whose deliverance has offered another life. There were hints of the outswinger and offcutter, subtle changes of length and pace, and perhaps best of all, the old menace of the hunter. Having scythed his way past Shaun Pollock and Sir Richard Hadlee on the list of all time wicket-takers, he now has a round 500 in the back of his mind. Just 67 to go then. The sheer joy of playing the game sparkled from his eyes, and like a rookie justifying his value to the coach, he offered the confident prediction that there were plenty of miles in his legs and forever the fire in his belly. The stories of Steyn and Amla have unwritten chapters to come.

Faf du Plessis was elsewhere: Cape Town, they whispered, in the surf. Suspended for this match, his influence was evident in the practicalities of winning a Test match. What bowlers would Pakistan least like to face? Fast ones. So Maharaj was left out. The pitch, initially more consistent in pace and bounce than the previous two, showed an uglier face on the fourth morning, when more experienced batsmen than those on show would have had an equally hard time of denying the South Africans. To come from the slow and mainly kind bounce of the UAE to the less friendly surfaces in Centurion, Cape Town and Johannesburg is simply too difficult for a Pakistan team that lacks the grit and technique of those of the past. This challenge needed Imrans and Miandads, ul-Haqs, Yousufs and Younuses, along with a Wasim and Waqar or two for return fire.

Goodness knows how the Pakistanis will improve their play abroad while the pitches of the Middle East are home. It seems churlish to criticise the players for a lack of application when so many of the deliveries they received flew from a length as if they were venom spat by a snake. Some luck was needed to survive on all three of those pitches, and after that it was about how much anybody fancied the fight. If du Plessis' hundred at Newlands taught the Pakistanis anything, it was that runs come in many guises, and not all of them - not many of them, he might argue - are pretty.

Which brings us to Quinton de Kock and the most sublime of hundreds. It has been two years since the magic number was posted on the scoreboard alongside his name, and like mosquitoes in the night, that was very irritating. After the innings, he talked openly about the complications of batting with the tail and the frustration of too often not getting what you want from it. He didn't say so himself but figures are distorted by the risks taken to farm the strike or to beat fielders set deep, and that hurts, particularly in analysis by the media. The straight drive that took him to a hundred released emotions that otherwise stay locked behind the mask worn by so many professional sportsmen. It was as if he had proved a point, less about himself than about the compromising positions in which he found himself.

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This innings of 129 from 138 balls included 18 fours and a six. There was barely a false stroke in an array of them, created by sharp footwork and perfectly formed head and body positions. It is hard to imagine that de Kock, or anyone else really, could have batted better or played the situation with any greater common sense. The runs he made took the game away from Pakistan and set up his bowlers for the kill.

It has been a rough three weeks for Sarfraz Ahmed and his team. This is no cricketing country for the faint of heart but they have not shied from the contest; rather they have been blown off the field of battle. In total, the three Test matches lasted 75 hours - a fact that tells its own tale.

Ever since the game has been placed on record, good fast bowling has dominated the storyline of matches and series. It preys on the mind in a way that brings sleepless nights and has the habit of humiliating those who fall foul of it. The best example of this has been Azhar Ali, a fine player with 5669 runs in the bank at an average of 43.2 and with a highest score of 302 not out. Yet Azhar has made neither head nor tail of the South African attack during this series. In fact, the image of his head thrown back as his body was lifted from the ground to half stump height and arched in an inverted C, only for the ball to brush the gloves in front of his face and fly through to de Kock is the one that will most live in the memory from Test matches that were won with an irresistible combination of physical and mental strength.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK