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South Africa thrive on pace, spicy pitches and increased depth

Five takeaways from South Africa's 3-0 Test whitewashing of Pakistan

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
South Africa celebrate after a wicket, South Africa v Pakistan, 3rd Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day, January 13, 2019

South Africa celebrate after a wicket  •  Getty Images

Pakistan were not as competitive as they might have hoped to be, but South Africa's 3-0 series win made for compelling viewing. The home side banked on pace, but there were also vital contributions made by the batsmen, and though none of the three Tests went to the fifth day, a fast-moving style of cricket held the public's attention. Here are five things we learned.
Pace is pace, bru
South Africa has always been a fast bowling hotbed, and the current generation is in such good shape that Pakistan, well stocked with seamers themselves, were easily out-bowled. The main difference between the two attacks boiled down to one thing: pace. Pakistan's quicks operated at around 135kph, while three out of four of the South African fast men were consistently 10kph quicker than that. True, Vernon Philander doesn't need extreme pace to succeed, but it can't hurt that his bowling partners had opposing batsmen ducking and weaving. Duanne Olivier, consistently the fastest bowler on either side despite the heaviness of his short-ball workload over three Tests in quick succession, also ended up as the leading wicket-taker in the series and proved the adage that "pace is pace, bru".
Bowler-friendly pitches make for great cricket
South Africa coach Ottis Gibson's message to his batsmen was that 500 needn't be their target on bowler-friendly pitches and, in a series where 400 was breached only once across 12 innings, the wider point for the cricket-watching public was that ball dominating bat can be just as exciting, or even more so, when compared to runs galore. There wasn't a single session across the three Tests that didn't demand the viewer's attention. At times, batsmen thrived, but the bowlers were never out of the game and as a result this series was without the lulls that can afflict run-fests. Every run made had context, meaning and import.
Steyn's still got it (and so does Amla)
When Dale Steyn left the field midway through the second day of the third Test, clutching his right shoulder and angrily thumping the side of the Wanderers tunnel, South Africa feared the worst. It has been a long road back to full health for Steyn, and another serious injury at this stage could have been disastrous. But he was back on the field after lunch, and in the second innings led the attack once more, bowling more overs than anyone else, and at serious pace too. Steyn, as his captain and coach have said recently, is a freak of nature, a once-in-a-generation athlete, and the fire in his eyes has not dimmed one iota. He will remain a force to be reckoned with both at the World Cup, and in Tests to follow as he sets his sights on 500 scalps. The whispers around the form of another of South Africa's elder statesmen ahead of this series have also been firmly hushed: Hashim Amla remains as vital to South Africa's plans as Steyn.
Home is a fortress, winning away is the next step
South Africa have now won seven Test series in a row at home, but it's been almost two years since they last won an away series, against New Zealand. Since then, South Africa lost in England, albeit with a depleted side, and then floundered in Sri Lanka. This is undoubtedly a formidable Test team in their own conditions, and their rise to No. 2 in the Test rankings has been hard earned and thoroughly deserved. Home is a fortress, but South Africa will need to start winning away as well to reach Test cricket's summit, and re-visit the heights set when they remained unbeaten away from home from October 2007 to November 2015. After the World Cup, they have a trip to India - currently ranked Test cricket's No. 1 side - to look forward to in October. South Africa's ability to adapt and compete in that series will be a true marker of their progress and standing.
South Africa are building depth
When South Africa were struggling through their tour of England in 2017, missing not only AB de Villiers but also a slew of other players through injury, a feeling started to grow that the domestic system was not producing the ready-made Test cricketers it once had, and that the shallowness of their stocks was being exposed. South Africa lost the Basil D'Oliveira trophy, but gained the services of Gibson after that tour, and one of his first acts as national coach was to set in motion a programme to groom the country's fast bowling talent. Fast forward a year, and the increased depth and strength of their quicks is plain to see. Importantly, moves have been made in other areas too. Theunis de Bruyn's century in Sri Lanka last year showed his mettle, while Temba Bavuma has continued to develop into a world-class pressure-absorber in the middle order, Aiden Markram is the real deal, and Zubayr Hamza gave a glimpse of what he may be capable of in his debut innings.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town