A typically calm Hashim Amla century set them on their way, but South Africa had to overcome some scary moments in the field before eventually beating New Zealand by 20 runs in the first Momentum One-day International at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Wednesday.
For those looking for deliverance from the demons of the World Cup semi-final in Auckland five months ago, this time the Proteas held their nerve to close out the game, despite some spirited lower-order batting by New Zealand.
Amla continued his personal love affair with SuperSport Park as his third ODI century in 10 innings at the ground took South Africa to 304 for seven in their 50 overs.
Amla, who has also scored four Test centuries at SuperSport Park and averages 85 in the long format there, batted through to the end of the 45th over in stroking a marvellous 124 off 126 balls and ending a lean run in which he had not scored a half-century in seven innings.
South Africa are amongst the leaders in world cricket when it comes to using the new ball in limited-overs cricket and so the Black Caps, with regular opener Martin Guptill pushed down the order after he injured his hand in the field late in the Proteas’ innings, were understandably cautious up front.
In the temporary absence of Guptill, wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi (1) was pushed up the order but was dropped third ball at second slip before edging the last delivery of the first over low to Amla at slip. It was a sensational opening over by Dale Steyn, with Tom Latham being dropped first ball by Farhaan Behardien at square-leg, a tough chance diving low to his left.
Steyn was then seen off by Latham and captain Kane Williamson and, with Vernon Philander typically tight up front as well, the New Zealand innings was off to a slow start.
But Latham was composed and Williamson was all class, identifying the times to attack extremely well, and the fifty partnership was raised off 77 balls.
The arrival of ODI debutant David Wiese as the fifth bowler was identified as the time to step up the pace and the next 50 runs took less than seven overs to post.
The hundred partnership was up off 117 balls, but it was the guile of leg-spinner Imran Tahir that was causing the New Zealand batsmen the most trouble and he removed Williamson for 47 when the Black Caps captain tried to clear the infield but instead picked out substitute Dean Elgar, who was positioned between extra cover and a deep mid-off.
Guptill, coming in at number four, caused some flutters in crashing 25 off 23 balls before Wiese removed him and South Africa looked well in control when Philander dismissed Grant Elliott (4), caught at a well-placed slip, and Latham, trapped lbw for a determined 60 off 80 balls, in the 30th over.
New Zealand were 158 for five, needing to practically double their score in the next 20 overs, but South Africa were placed under pressure again as Jimmy Neesham and Colin Munro slammed 71 off 68 balls for the sixth wicket.
The visitors needed 79 to win in the last 10 overs and Proteas fans were clearly worried that victory would once again be stolen from them.
But AB de Villiers backed Wiese to return and a well-directed bouncer had Neesham caught behind for a run-a-ball 41, with Munro falling three overs later for 33, also at a run-a-ball, playing an ugly reverse-heave at Tahir at the start of the 44th over.
New Zealand still needed 61 runs from 37 balls, but the remaining overs were punctuated with boundaries as the Kiwis came within a sniff of a chance.
Steyn ended McClenaghan’s fun with a fast, full and straight delivery that broke the off-stump in two, before Philander ended the match with a run out thanks to some slick work at deep mid-off.
Tahir was the best of the South African bowlers, ending with brilliant figures of two for 40 in 10 overs, while Philander was also consistent, finishing with two for 51.
Kagiso Rabada struggled with bouts of waywardness and extras, finishing with one for 49 in 9.1 overs, while the radar of Wiese was off on Wednesday night, although the all-rounder did claim the vital wickets of Guptill and Neesham.
An obvious lack of intensity in the field was what captain De Villiers was most concerned with, but the batting of Amla and Rilee Rossouw made up for that.
With the experienced Morne van Wyk opening the batting with him and lasting until the ninth over as 46 were added for the first wicket, Amla seemed better able to focus on his own batting and go at his own, measured pace.
New Zealand had won the toss and elected to bowl first and both Amla and Van Wyk were troubled early on by the pace and bounce obtained by Adam Milne and McClenaghan. But they picked their shots well and were just beginning to up the pace when the left-armer McClenaghan switched to around the wicket and immediately had Van Wyk (16) caught off the shoulder of the bat in the gully.
Once the new ball lost its shine, however, the pace of the pitch quickly disappeared, and Rossouw had to deal not only with Milne, who was a handful throughout, but also the sudden change of pace when the medium-pacers and spinners came on with the softer ball.
Rossouw endured a torrid start, scoring just 14 runs from his first 36 deliveries, but he and Amla had several conversations and wisely decided wickets in hand were more important than the run-rate at that stage.
The stand between them grew to a record 185 off 203 balls, South Africa’s best for the second wicket against New Zealand, beating the 172 Gary Kirsten and Jacques Kallis added in Kimberley in 2000/01.
Once settled, Rossouw was able to speed up, bludgeoning six fours and three sixes as he scored 89 off 112 balls, while Amla switched between accumulation and all-out attack with superb judgement. He was particularly impressive against the spinners, using his feet well and invariably placing his strokes between the fielders.
Rossouw was beaten by a superb McClenaghan yorker, into the base of leg-stump and breaking it, in the 42nd over, and Milne then returned to snap up two wickets in the 45th over – the vital scalps of Amla and De Villiers (9).
Amla was also bowled by a magnificent yorker, while De Villiers pulled a short ball straight to cow-corner.
The double strike took away some momentum from the South African innings, but Wiese hit two sixes off McClenaghan at the start of the final over to get the home side over the 300 mark.
McClenaghan then started bowling short and just one more run was added before the innings ended with two run outs.
Fast bowler Milne was the best of the New Zealand bowlers with two for 51 in 10 overs.