There was an air of apology to the naming of South Africa's T20I squad last month, with head coach Mark Boucher almost forced to justify the inexperience of the men named. He explained that the visitors were prioritising the upcoming visit of Australia to their shores, and were keen to provide their senior players as much rest as possible following the two-match Test series in Pakistan.
Double jeopardy would soon strike the luckless visitors though, with Australia calling off the South African tour altogether, meaning South Africa were stuck with a T20I side very different to the one they'd likely have named had that information been known a few weeks earlier. Aside from David Miller, no one in the squad had played over 30 T20Is, and only Tabraiz Shamsi, Reeza Hendricks and Andile Phelukwayo had lined up in more than 20. The captain, Heinrich Klaasen, had been a part of just 13.
At that time, South Africa might have been quite content to have known they'd partake in a T20I series that went to the final few overs of the deciding contest, indeed one in which they had serious opportunities to wrap up all three games. It was a point head coach Mark Boucher made just after the third game ended, with Pakistan having edged out the visitors 2-1.
"I think you can pretty much analyse any moment in T20 cricket but, in the first T20, overs 6-10 when we were batting, we only got 15 runs," Boucher told a video press conference. "That was a big issue and we probably did lose the game there. So yes, we probably could have done better there. The second game went to plan and losing three or four wickets so quickly did mean we were chasing the game. The key moments really cost us here, and for me, as a coach, we have spoken about that and we'll continue to try and get through to guys so they don't make the same mistakes again. If they can do that, then I think we'll be going in the right direction, and the series shows where we're headed with this T20 side.
"The guys showed a bit of bravery with the way they played, though I wish we had been a bit smarter in the way we played the game at certain stages. What I've seen is encouraging. Even though we ran ourselves into a bit of trouble, we put up a good total. Maybe 15, 20 runs shy, but we were still in the game till the last couple of overs. A lot of positives, some youngsters coming through and Shamsi bowled really well throughout the series. Reeza [Hendricks] played nicely, and David [Miller]'s knock towards the end was great; good to see him back in the runs. The bowling I thought we did really well, there were times with the bat when we perhaps didn't do that well but enough encouragement overall."
For Boucher, the biggest positive appears to be the opportunities the bench have been given, and the manner they accounted for them. There were calls when Australia pulled out of the tour to retain senior players for the T20I series, but South Africa stuck to their original plans, determined to give players with less experience a chance at the highest level. He pointed out that few outside the camp had given his charges a chance, but was hopeful this group of players would continue to breathe down the necks of the first-choice squad.
"I think the media were writing these guys off a bit, but we've got a T20 competition back home and I hope some of these guys stand up and put some pressure on the squad. The nice thing for me is that throughout the next couple of years we've got a good group of players together and we're getting where we'd like to be. For Covid reasons we've had quite a large group of players travelling. They are learning some tough lessons, but you've got to be winning and unfortunately we didn't. That doesn't mean I'm not happy with their efforts though."
Boucher also praised Pakistan as "a fantastic place to play cricket". This is the first tour South Africa have undertaken a tour of the country since 2007, with the head coach part of the playing squad at the time. With the pitches in Lahore worlds removed from what his side might generally be used to in the Highveld or the Western Cape, Boucher singled out his bowlers for special praise.
"I think what we can learn is this is a fantastic place to play cricket. You see the history around the grounds and some of the fantastic talents that have come out of Pakistan. The spin isn't as bad as it is in India and Sri Lanka, there's not as much turn, but there's a special technique that you still have to apply, especially when you're batting. I'm really proud of the way the guys bowled; the bowling was a standout for me. I think the guys have done well in this particular situation and it can only help them going back to South Africa.
"The tough part of being here was losing a series. We don't go anywhere to lose series so I think that's tough. The way we played a couple of the big moments was kind of disappointing. We got ourselves into the game and found stupid ways to get ourselves out of the game again.
"But I think we played some good cricket throughout the series. We had a very good meeting after the first game that we lost; we got ourselves into strong positions in that game. The second game showed the brand of cricket that we want to play where we showed intent, especially in the batting. We needed to show the right intent especially when we play against spin. We needed to be more proactive rather than react to it, and I think the guys really showed that today."
Boucher and his men might not have to request extra baggage for the rather voluminous trophy they just ended up missing out on, but there certainly need be no apology for the cricket the visitors offered out in Lahore. With Pakistan set to visit South Africa for a limited-overs series in just a few weeks, the departing South Africans may feel confident they'll end up having the last laugh.