de Kock and Phehlukwayo signal South Africa's rise back to the top

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South Africa will take more from this series sweep than just the win; though that is, of course, the most important thing. This is only their second ODI series win out of their last five completed series – and both of them have been clean sweeps, having beaten Australia 3-0 at home in early 2020 – but this is also a series of important comebacks.

Lungi Ngidi’s bowling loads, and Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen’s runs – which included much-needed centuries – headlined the last four weeks. But there are two other important contributions from the ODIs that should not go unacknowledged.

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Quinton de Kock and Andile Phehlukwayo, the top run-scorer and leading wicket-taker of the ODI series against India, respectively, both came in from the cold and brought some heat which bodes well for the way South Africa are building in this format.

Let us start with de Kock’s performance, which was assertive as ever and spoke nothing of a man who has just begun one of the most difficult endeavours of adult life: fatherhood. In fact, after the second ODI in Paarl, he described the first few weeks with his new-born daughter Kiara as “chilled”, and looked as carefree as he always has. It could well be that de Kock’s retirement from Test cricket was as much about broadening his family responsibilities as it was about lessening his burdens in cricket; and it is hoped that South Africa’s white-ball sides will see the benefit of that.

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The first twinkles of de Kock’s rejuvenated form came in the second ODI in Paarl on Friday, where his opening partner Janneman Malan described some of his shots as “ridiculous”. The same word could be used to describe his 124 in the third match at Newlands. There was the square drive, the reverse-sweeps, the ramp and the straight six back over Jayant Yadav’s head.

There was the carefree strokeplay, the innovation, the control and the partnership with the suddenly-more-urgent-looking van der Dussen that resulted in South Africa asking India to pull off the highest successful chase at the ground. This series is also the first time since 2020 that de Kock has topped the run charts in an ODI series.

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“When he has freed his mind up, that’s when he has played his best cricket,” South Africa head coach Mark Boucher said after they swept the series 3-0. “He has got that freedom about his game. You can’t have all six of your batters playing like that; you can have one or two. It’s great to see Quinny back and smiling again. He has got a daughter that he is looking to get back to. It puts life into perspective. Hopefully we can reap the rewards of him being freed up.”

de Kock will not be seen in national colours again until at least March – when South Africa host Bangladesh for three ODIs – which gives him another six or so weeks to enjoy his life outside of bio-bubbles and restrictions. If this is the result, then as much as South Africa will miss de Kock in the longest format, it may also just pay off in the shorter ones. And the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year could end up being the litmus test.

de Kock and Phehlukwayo signal South Africa's rise back to the top
© AFP/Getty Images Quinton de Kock’s innings in the third ODI had carefreeness, innovation and control © AFP/Getty Images

The same may apply to Phehlukwayo, who has fallen out of favour in T20Is, and was, but a reserve player at the World Cup last year, but who has shown glimpses of what he is capable of on slower surfaces in this series. In an attack with the threats of pace and bounce from Ngidi and Marco Jansen, and the squeeze from the spinners Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi – as also Aiden Markram – Phehlukwayo probably disappears into the shadows, which is exactly what makes him dangerous. His wickets in this series have all come at crucial times, and two of his five dismissals were those of Rishabh Pant – both cheaply.

In the first ODI, Phehlukwayo went around the wicket to Pant, caught him overbalancing as the batter tried to flick the ball away and had him stumped down the leg side. He also managed almost exactly the same dismissal in the second ODI against Venkatesh Iyer.

And in the third game on Sunday, Phehlukwayo removed Shikhar Dhawan just as India had taken control of the early part of the chase when he dug it in short, tempting the opener into the hook and having him caught behind off a top edge. Four balls later, Phehlukwayo had Pant again, as he advanced on a wide ball and sent an attempted aerial drive to sweeper cover. And then there was his final over.

South Africa had eight runs to defend off 12 balls, and Phehlukwayo had conceded at more than six runs to the over before he was tasked with bowling the 49th. Though he has not been asked with closing out a game recently, his skills in that department have not dimmed.

Phehlukwayo’s first ball was slow, full and wide of off stump, and Yuzvendra Chahal could only push it to mid-off. His next was in the slot, and had to be dug out to mid-off again for one. The third was full again and invited a drive, but Bumrah could only send it as far as Bavuma at mid-off yet again, and that was where South Africa all but won the game. Phehlukwayo finished the over with two dot balls – both slower deliveries – and a single, and left Dwaine Pretorius five to work with in the final over.

It could well be argued that none of the deliveries that got Phehlukwayo wickets will be described in the same terms as some of those bowled by Bumrah or Ngidi because he doesn’t move the ball the same way they do; but in the most pressure-filled moments in this match, Phehlukwayo held out.

His use of the slower ball, especially on surfaces that don’t offer the same advantages to the express quicks as those on the Highveld, remains impressive, and even if he isn’t considered South Africa’s premier seam-bowling allrounder, he is testament to the depth of talent in the broader pool of cricket in this country.

So all-in-all, it’s not de Kock and Phehlukwayo that are back, rather this summer against India suggests South Africa are back too.

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