South Africa's narrow defeat by 14 runs in the first ODI, rather than their loss by 78 runs in the third game, is to blame for their failure to win the one-day series in Sri Lanka, according to coach Mark Boucher. His team, who have not won an ODI series since beating Australia at home last March, now lie ninth on the World Cup Super League points table and their journey to the 2023 World Cup could become tricky, with series against India, Australia and England to come.
South Africa were 155 for 1, chasing 301 in the first-match, when Temba Bavuma had to retire hurt with what turned out to be a broken thumb. They reached 209 for 2 before losing 5 wickets for 80 in the last 10.3 overs. Had they reached the target, South Africa would have pulled off the highest successful chase in a day-night match in Sri Lanka.
"If I look at the series as a whole, we were given an opportunity to win the series in the first game. We were in control of that run chase and we slipped up in maybe a period of five overs. We were unfortunate to lose Temba when we did. In order to win a series in the subcontinent, you've got to cash in when that opportunity arises," Boucher said. "That's the biggest regret, that we didn't finish off that first game."
Fast-forward to the third ODI, and they were in danger of being bowled out for their lowest total in an ODI in Asia (which is 110) when they teetered on 54 for 6 but managed to get to 125, well short of the 204-run target. After a strong bowling performance in the series decider, South Africa lost their top four in the first 10 overs, which Boucher called the "turning point" of the game.
"It was frustrating because everyone in our top order has had a good knock in the previous two games," Boucher said. "They've spent some time out in the middle; the guys are in good form. On a wicket that is tough, and is going to get tougher as the game goes on, to lose three wickets in the first five overs and four of your top six in the first 10, you're always going to be on the back foot. Although we kept up with the required run rate the whole time we just lost wickets. And they did bowl well -- they bowled smartly. Their seamer bowled with good energy and bowled good areas, backed up by some good catching."
Arguably South Africa also paid the price for a bottom-heavy side, which has as many as seven bowling options (eight if you count Reeza Hendricks, who did not bowl), including three spin-bowling and three seam-bowling allrounders, and appears a batter short. Boucher acknowledged that South Africa shortened the line-up after the first game, when they left out Kyle Verreynne, to include both Wiaan Mulder and George Linde as seam and spin allrounders, but believed that the form of players like Aiden Markram, Janneman Malan and Rassie van der Dussen would see the team through.
"We thought with the three spinners coming in, we wanted to have the option of three seamers. That is why we took a batter out and put Wiaan in. Also, our batters are in good form and we also wanted to have three seamers," Boucher said. "It would have been nice to have another batter but we would have been in a difficult position losing four batters in the first 10 overs anyway. We've got depth in our batting with the allrounders; we batted right down to Keshav [Maharaj]."
In the end, South Africa used four spinners, including Markram. All of them bowled a full quota of 10 overs, making it the first time South Africa have delivered 40 overs of spin in an ODI and suggesting that as much as their batters struggle in spinner-friendly conditions, their bowling resources have caught up.
"It's a change of mindset. As South Africans, we are used to fast-bowlers, a lot of allrounders but you've got to back that up with good spinning options and that is where we are quite strong at the moment," Boucher said. "We've got a lot of depth in the spinning department and guys are really competing. Shammo [Tabraiz Shamsi] is No. 1 in T20s and Keshav has really come a long way and he is bowling at his best. The mindset has changed to try and be smarter in these conditions."
Maharaj has also acted as stand-in captain for Bavuma and though South Africa have yet to confirm a T20I captain, he seems to be the frontrunner. "Kesh has got a very smart brain. With the way he has led the guys on the field, his bowing changes and his fielding positions, he demands a lot of respect on the field," Boucher said.
The T20Is are South Africa's last outing before the World Cup in October-November and they will welcome back Quinton de Kock, who was rested for the ODIs, Lungi Ngidi, who missed out for personal reasons and David Miller, who had a hamstring injury. However, those matches do not necessarily have the same importance as the ODIs in the greater scheme of things and, having dropped points in Ireland and Sri Lanka, South Africa have plenty to do to automatically qualify for the next World Cup.
Sri Lanka vs South Africa
World Cup Super League
South Africa in Sri Lanka
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent