South Africa have a considerable amount of catching-up to do to reach the same white-ball standards as a team like England, according to their coach Mark Boucher.
Speaking after South Africa failed to win a match in a home T20 series for the first time in the format's history, Boucher acknowledged that England are in a different class when compared with other teams.
"England are step ahead of, not only us, but quite a few different teams in world cricket," Boucher said, after the team's defeat in the third T20 at Newlands. "We've got a way to go. If you look at this England team, when they got together probably in around 2017, they were also asking a lot of questions of themselves trying to find a balance that was going to suit their style of play. These guys have won a World Cup and are oozing with confidence. Their players are a lot more developed than what our players are. Our job is to get our guys in our team feeling what these guys are."
Boucher and his support staff's work has been made many times more difficult by the almost nine-month period of inaction forced upon the national team by the coronavirus pandemic, and its effects on team selection, both of which left South Africa "exposed" in certain areas.
"We didn't have allrounders due to various reasons so we lacked a sixth bowler. You can't hide behind that. Sometimes in T20 cricket, you've got a bowler who goes. And most teams, especially a team like England, tend to fancy a particular bowler on one night and you need a bit of cover for that individual, and we haven't been able to do that," Boucher said.
Dwaine Pretorius and Andile Phehlukwayo have both been unavailable for selection for this series which forced South Africa to field XIs made up of specialists. They opted for a six batsmen-five bowler split, which meant they had no alternative but for each bowler to deliver a full quota of four overs. In the first match, they tried to use Heinrich Klaasen for an over of part-time spin, which backfired, while in the second, Lungi Ngidi was costly and in the third, Lutho Sipamla and Tabraiz Shamsi leaked runs, but South Africa had no-one else to attempt to apply the brakes.
While Boucher was mostly satisfied with the team's batting efforts, he lamented the lack of a left-hander, with David Miller also unavailable for this series. "Maybe (we could also have had) a left-hander in the middle-order, especially to a legspinner like Adil Rashid who turns the ball in to the left-hander. It showed in the England batting line-up how valuable that can be," he said.
Despite the forced absence of some first-choice players, Boucher insists South Africa are beyond the trial phase of their T20 World Cup preparation and want to fine-tune rather than figure out their overall squad. "We haven't been experimenting. We've been using the resources that we've had," he said. "We've had a couple of unfortunate circumstances that caused us to play combinations that we knew were not correct but we had to do it. We want to get into a situation where we are solid on a T20 squad."
He also defended the team's demonstration of their new aggressive, but smart, style of play, which has yet to be fully explained. It seems to suggest a more proactive approach to shorter formats than is usual for South Africa, who tend to err on the side of caution. Boucher said he felt the team showed signs of clever thinking, even though it didn't always work in their favour.
"I do think they were smart. We were thrown a couple of curveballs," he said. "A smart decision would be to play six bowlers but the balance of the side wouldn't have worked out. On the field, I like the core group of guys to make decisions, and they made those decisions. We continuously talk about smart decisions and what we felt we did right and what we felt we could do better. We want to keep growing.
"In the first two games, we were smart, we just didn't play the big moments that well. If you look at the games, it came down to one or two overs that cost us. That's just big moments that we didn't play as well as England did and hence the results. The first two games were a lot tighter than people may think. This game not so much. I thought we had enough runs. We just didn't execute with the ball and England are a powerhouse side and they are going to punish you."
Balking at the big moments has often been a criticism levelled against South Africa, but that's not something they can dwell on right now. Rather than a close scrutiny of what they didn't do in this series, Boucher hopes his squad can apply a wide lens to this series and see it in the context of their rebuilding process and the summer ahead, as they look to close the gap between themselves and teams like England.
"Days like today are tough because we haven't won," he said. "We will try and encourage the guys that they need to trust the bigger picture. There are a couple of hard lessons being learnt at the moment but we are not going to quit. We are here for the long haul."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent