The last 10 overs with bat and ball were the downfall of the Proteas as they succumbed to a seven-wicket defeat at the hands of Australia and lost the series in the fourth one-day international at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Friday.
The batting was once again too dependent on AB de Villiers, who top-scored with 91 off 88 balls, with the lower middle-order fading away after his dismissal, a meagre 51 runs being scored in the last 10 overs as they finished on 267 for eight.
Nevertheless, the South African bowlers started strongly and reduced Australia to 98 for five midway through their innings before centurion Steven Smith and Matthew Wade added 121 in 20 overs.
The dismissal of Wade, beautifully caught by Ryan McLaren rushing in from deep backward square-leg off Wayne Parnell, for an invaluable hand of 52 off 59 balls, left Australia needing 49 off 34 balls with four wickets in hand.
The plan in those death overs was not always obvious, but there was no denying the awful execution of the South African bowlers as length deliveries, leg-stump full tosses, wides and even a no-ball were delivered, leaving captain De Villiers exposed.
Dale Steyn is obviously still the go-to man in terms of skill and experience, while Kyle Abbott (10-0-43-1) showed that he is capable of challenging for a 1st XI place, but the back-up seamers, McLaren and Parnell, were unable to stick to the plan.
The warning signs that another horrible World Cup choke is on the cards are there after the way South Africa unravelled in the crucial death overs both when batting and bowling.
Much credit must also go to Smith for a wonderful century, the 25-year-old eventually being bowled by left-arm spinner Robin Peterson when the scores were tied for 104 off 112 balls. His star is clearly on the rise and it was an innings of great composure and skill under pressure.
Smith’s ability to manipulate the ball around the cavernous MCG and his speed between the wickets meant he kept a brisk run-rate going throughout his innings despite only scoring seven fours.
Wicketkeeper Wade came in with Australia looking down and out and first had to tame a rampant Steyn. His eagerness to get on the front foot and play positively enabled him to build a match-winning partnership with Smith.
James Faulkner then came in and was allowed to target his favoured areas as he belted 34 not out off 19 balls to finish the chase.
The South African bowlers managed to put the Australians under severe pressure in the first half of their innings.
Abbott showed the depth of new-ball bowlers South Africa have – both Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were on the sidelines on Friday – with a superb opening spell of one for five in four overs, his wicket being that of David Warner, trapped lbw for four as the paceman straightened a delivery back into the left-hander.
McLaren did not have a happy start to his bowling stint, conceding 17 runs in his first two overs, but he did claim a key wicket when a full, wide away-swinger found the edge of Shane Watson’s bat and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock was presented with a simple catch.
That brought Smith to the crease and he produced a top-class knock even as wickets continued to fall at the other end.
Aaron Finch (22) gave Parnell a bonus wicket by pulling to deep square-leg and skipper George Bailey was resident at the crease for half-an-hour before his old problem of flashing outside off stump at length deliveries presented itself and he was caught behind off Steyn for 16.
Glenn Maxwell can be devastating on his day, but his poor footwork was exposed by Steyn in his next over, finding another edge for him to be caught by Hashim Amla at slip for just two. De Villiers can feel well-pleased that his positive field-placing brought reward.
But Australia can seemingly always rely on runs from their wicketkeeper (whoever they choose) and Wade stepped up to support Smith, who showed that he can be a world-beater.
Earlier, De Villiers had once again dazzled and David Miller can book his ticket to the World Cup, but the rest of the South African batting once again disappointed as they faded away to 267 for eight.
The Proteas are fortunate that they can call on De Villiers, already established as one of the all-time greats, as he was once again the mainstay of the innings, scoring 91 off 88 balls in another great display of skill and exquisite placement of the ball.
Miller was the one batsman to provide sturdy support to De Villiers, playing a fine knock of 45 off 61 balls as they set up the innings with a fourth-wicket stand of 122 in 20 overs.
But unlike South Africa, whose problems extend from the batting relying too heavily on De Villiers to dodgy death bowling, Australia can rely on their bowlers in the last 10 overs to really turn the screw. Once they removed Miller, caught in the covers in an attempt to hit over the top in the powerplay, they restricted the Proteas to a meagre 51 runs in the last 10 overs, while claiming four more wickets.
Fast bowler Mitchell Starc was outstanding with his mix of yorkers and slower balls as he finished with one for 40 in 10 overs – figures that don’t do justice to his performance. Fellow paceman Pat Cummins also bowled better than his figures of two for 61, being a threat throughout, while Faulkner was also brilliant at the death with his back-of-the-hand deliveries, finishing with two for 45.
South Africa will be concerned that De Kock continues to struggle at the top of the order, scratching his way to 17 off 38 balls before popping a lame return catch to off-spinner Maxwell, who had had him dropped at slip in his first over.
Fellow opener Amla was looking good, however, as he cruised to 18 off 20 balls. He had identified the balls to go after well, collecting three fours, and was quite within his rights to pull the shortish delivery Nathan Coulter-Nile bowled to him in the sixth over, but unfortunately he hit it straight to midwicket, where Cummins hung on to a sharp, dipping catch.
Faf du Plessis also looked in good touch as he scored 28 off 37 balls as South Africa reached 70 for one in the 16th over. But Cummins, returning after Du Plessis had hit him for two fours in his previous over in the first powerplay, got some extra bounce outside off stump and found the edge of an attempted steer, the ball nestling safely in wicketkeeper Wade’s gloves.
De Kock had fallen in the previous over and South Africa were in some strife on 79 for three.
But De Villiers once again showed that he is in a different league, improvising brilliantly, while still playing off the basis of a sound technique, and hardly ever seeming to take a risk. He only collected six boundaries, but scored at better than a run-a-ball on a slowish pitch without breaking a sweat.
With the bowlers at their mercy – Australia’s attack was also one short when Coulter-Nile limped off with a hamstring strain – both set batsmen found ways to get out. Miller was trying to hit over the top in the powerplay, but could only skew Faulkner high into the covers, while De Villiers charged down the pitch to Cummins and was reaching for a slower-ball bouncer, a tennis-like shot going to deep midwicket.
After that, the remaining batsmen could not find ways to dominate the impressive Australian attack, with Farhaan Behardien managing just 22 off 23 balls.