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As is so often the way in professional sport, it was those who endured the most pointed barbs who had the last laugh as South Africa romped away with the tri-series trophy in Harare and an early psychological edge ahead of next year’s ICC Cricket World Cup.
Faf du Plessis, the undisputed player of the tournament, fittingly underpinned his team’s six-wicket win with more than nine overs to spare with an innings of 96 that ended just one ball before the winning runs were struck.
While he’s too much of a polished diplomat to say it, Du Plessis would have enjoyed putting his arch-rivals to the sword after he was goaded with a chorus of barking dog noises when the teams last locked horns in the Test arena in a fiery encounter in Cape Town.
He became the target of endless taunts and noted he had learned never to pick up the ball and return it to Australian fielders because they turned on him "like a pack of dogs".
Yesterday, the Australians were sent home with their tails between their legs as Du Plessis – who survived a tough chance on 34 when Aaron Finch was unable to hold a fly ball running backwards from mid-off from the bowling of Mitchell Johnson in the 17th over.
It was a rare chance and a costly miss.
Du Plessis was denied the honour of becoming the first batsman in ODI history to score four centuries in a single one-day series when, with scores level, he miscued a drive to mid-on in search of the boundary that would have carried him to the landmark and his team to victory.
But iust as they did in their first win over Australia in the tournament’s opening week, Du Plessis and his long-time friend now ODI skipper AB de Villiers ensured Australia’s bowling analysts will have work to do by carrying their team to victory with a fourth wicket stand of 91.
Perhaps they will need to study how Kane Richardson, who missed the final with a bout of gastroenteritis that compounded his already sore side, got the prolific South African No.3 to tread on his stumps as he seems suddenly immune to conventional methods of dismissal.
Or maybe they need to replicate the way in which Dale Steyn, who was also on the end of an angry verbal spray from Australian captain Michael Clarke on the tense final day of the Cape Town Test, can get the ball to reverse swing when it’s less than 15 overs old.
Steyn, who ultimately received an apology from Clarke who conceded he had overstepped the gamesmanship line, tore the heart from Australia’s batting with a couple of inspired spells and finished with 4-35 as Australia was reduced to 9-217 from their 50 overs.
South Africa’s supposedly regimented adherence to a game plan ensured they were happy to chase down a total – which ultimately proved below par – but it proved a sound strategy as they outbowled and outbatted their fierce foes.
And it was the pace and reverse swing of Steyn, as noted by injured skipper Clarke who was tweeting from his couch in Sydney, that proved the difference with the ball as he accounted for four of Australia’s top seven batsmen.
Reverse swing? Class bowling— Michael Clarke (@MClarke23) September 6, 2014
Reverse swing in the 28th over, with 2x white balls this means it's really the 14th over.. Hopefully we get it swinging as well..— Michael Clarke (@MClarke23) September 6, 2014
The difference between reverse and natural swing, reverse swings a lot later and is much harder to pick up. Very hard to start against— Michael Clarke (@MClarke23) September 6, 2014
First time I have seen it in this series.— Michael Clarke (@MClarke23) September 6, 2014
Although India remains the top ranked ODI team in the world at present, the strength and depth of South Africa’s batting and bowling heading to familiar conditions in Australia for next year’s World Cup means they may yet fulfil De Villiers’ prophecy of lifting a trophy that has thus far eluded them.
Sent in to bat for the fifth time in five matches this tournament, the Australians began at a good clip. Phil Hughes, who has looked Australia’s form batsman of the series since given his chance at the top of the order, and Finch were rattling along at a run per ball until Hughes made too good contact with a drive off Steyn and De Villiers hauled in a blinder at short cover.
From there, the innings quickly shed momentum as Steve Smith (10) fell to a mistimed pull shot and Bailey misread Imran Tahir’s googly and was bowled for 12.
Finch was finding the going equally tough on the two-paced pitch that made shot making with surety a risky affair, a struggle best exemplified that the normally fluent scorer played-and-missed four times in the same Morne Morkel over in which he brought up his 50.
But the definitive moment of the innings arrived six overs later when Steyn was able to achieve what few other bowlers have been able to achieve in spin friendly conditions in Harare and got the ball to reverse swing, even though the white ball he was using – one of two employed in each ODI innings – was just 14 overs old.
The first strike came at the start of his sixth over when he got a fast, accurate delivery to tail back at Finch and past the probing inside edge of the opener’s bat who was furious when he heard the sound of his middle stump being sent flying.
Next ball would have accounted for many a set batsman, and given it was the first one Glenn Maxwell faced he had little chance of keeping out the missile of more than 145kph that zeroed in at his legs as he was pinned to the crease and adjudged consummately lbw.
At this stage, Australia’s top half were out of action with just 115 on the board and more than 20 overs remaining, with the team’s youngest (22-year-old Mitch Marsh) and oldest (36-year-old Brad Haddin) in charge of the rescue.
But Marsh was unable repeat the incandescent heroics of the teams’ encounter earlier in the week when he chopped another in-dipper – this time from left-armer Wayne Parnell – on to his stumps.
And when Haddin became Steyn’s third victim – in identical fashion to Maxwell – the instant he returned for his third spell Australia’s challenge was to survive their full 50 overs rather than post a match-winning score.
It was only an enterprising 71-run stand between James Faulkner (39) and Mitchell Starc (29 not out) that carried them past 200.
But even then, it was going to require someone to produce a Steyn-like spell, and end Du Plessis’ golden run, if it was to be sufficient.
Australia XI: Aaron Finch, Phillip Hughes, Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, George Bailey (c), Mitchell Marsh, Brad Haddin (wk), James Faulkner, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Ben Cutting (12th)
South Africa XI: Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villers, JP Duminy, David Miller, Wayne Parnell, Dale Steyn, Aaron Phangiso, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir, (12 tbc)