TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
WHEN AB de Villiers launched Moeen Ali towards the cheap seats beyond long-on in Bloemfontein on Wednesday night, SA needed to score 19 more runs off the last four balls of that 20th over to nose ahead of England on the Duckworth/Lewis equation in the first one-day international.
At the crack of the bat Ben Stokes came wheeling around the boundary on a wing and a prayer, making a desperate lunge towards where he hoped the ball would be in the instant before it sailed for six.
It was, and the smack of leather on palm the ball made as it lodged in Stokes’ hand was heard far beyond Bloem.
With that, the match was de facto decided – even though it took a thunderstorm to make England winners by 39 runs.
The game had the makings of a bracing contest, what with England scoring 399/9: their highest total against SA, their second highest in all their 660 ODIs, and the highest yet seen in an ODI in Bloemfontein.
SA reached 250/5 in the 33.3 overs they faced before the rain came and washed away the varnish of relief that the home side winning the fourth test at Centurion, a dead rubber, would have applied too thickly among South Africans.
“It’s not ideal, but England played the cricket today,” De Villiers admitted.
That said, there were reasons for SA to be cheerful.
Top of the list was Quinton de Kock’s career-best 138 not out; an effort as measured as it was mature, a wonderful example of how to make the best use of what Chris Morris, between innings, labelled “the goodness of the pitch” and how take advantage of England’s mediocre bowling.
Faf du Plessis’ 55, meanwhile, was a welcome reminder of just how good a player he is.
De Kock and Du Plessis put on 110 of 83 balls in a stand so solid it would have made SA supporters remember the good times.
In a different match involving a different team – a side who had not encountered the trials and tribulations SA have faced in recent months – De Kock and Du Plessis might have done enough to clinch victory.
But, these days, whether SA win or lose or even what kind of mood they’re in seems dependent on a particular player. And he was caught Stokes bowled Moeen for eight last night.
Besides, it wasn’t as if England had come to be seen and conquered. “They hit us hard early on; you don’t get 399 if you don’t bat well,” was Morris’ summing up of their innings, which featured a seamless 105 by Jos Buttler and half-centuries by Stokes, Alex Hales and Joe Root.
SA bowled poorly, particularly with the new ball. England were 75/1 after 10 overs and consequently cleared for take-off, and it took a blitz of 4/20 in 18 balls at the end of the visitors’ innings – two taken by Morris – to keep them under 400.
But it all depended on De Villiers. He failed, and so did SA.