Does the Proteas' miraculous win over Pakistan signal a turning point in their ODI cricket fortunes?
Sportsmen and teams around the world refer to "a change of luck" being either responsible for or needed to end a losing streak or change an individual or collective outlook. South Africa's one day international captain, AB de Villiers, hopes that his team's outrageous, one-run victory against Pakistan in the first of a five-match series in Sharjah on Wednesday will be just such a catalyst.
South Africa managed to win one of the most unwinnable games in ODI history. Pakistan contrived to lose one of the most unloseable – depending on your point of view.
Having witnessed his team routinely crash to somewhere around 60-5 in a five-match series in Sri Lanka two months ago before attempting to scrape some respectability together, De Villiers looked on in a helpless state of déjà vu as the scoreboard read 63-5 and then 129-8 before all-rounder Wayne Parnell's career-best 56 helped put a total of 183 on the board.
Even respectability seemed a distant hope as Pakistan cruised to 165-4 with nine overs to go. Eighteen runs to avoid defeat from nine overs with six wickets in hand. In rugby terms, the home country were 50-7 ahead with 10 minutes to play. And lost.
"I never stopped trying and the same applies to the whole team. That was very important to our victory. I always thought if we could get them four down then we could get guys like Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi at the crease," De Villiers said. "They are both guys that can win the game in 10 minutes but they can also get out quickly because they always give the bowlers a chance. I said to Graeme [Smith] at slip: ‘We're not out of this game, we could win this.'
"Even when we had the first tailender in, the statistics would tell you that we probably had 0.1% chance of winning the game. But when you have a bowler like Imran [Tahir] who can turn the ball both ways then you are always in with a chance of a wicket," De Villiers said.
Pakistan's captain, Misbah ul Haq, spoke a thousand words in just a few sentences before the match when he said: "We know what to expect from them. Their culture is to play hard, a lot of fast bowling – we respect them and it is something we are used to." Polite way of saying: "Predictable, but you'll be fine if you're prepared to scrap."
When Misbah was asked about the presence of Tahir in the Proteas squad, his answer was part praise, part dare. It was a taunt: "You've got him but I bet you won't play him."
"Leg spin is always an attacking option. On any day a leg spinner can make a big difference – like what he did in the first innings of the Test match. But [we] played him much better in second innings; we faced a lot of overs from him," Misbah said.
"But," he continued, "leg spinners always give you an attacking option."
His inference that South Africa's natural inclination is to "play it safe" might well have been true had left-arm spinner Robin Peterson not been unwell before Wednesday's match.
South Africans tend to think automatically of leg spinners as a risky gamble. Like the fast bowling to which Misbah refers, it's a cultural thing.
But to see Tahir in action when the batsmen were tense and the game was on the line was to see and understand the difference between a situation in which the batsmen were free to leave, attack or defend at their discretion, and one in which they knew there was a bullet in one of the six chambers and it was only a matter of a time.
That is when the leg spinner is at his deadliest – against nervous men who are guessing, not confident ones who are reading him.
If the Proteas' one-day fortunes are turned around by this remarkable game, it seems reasonable to hope, if not assume, that De Villiers' own fortunes as captain will change, too. The calls of "too much" irritate him. Captain, wicketkeeper and prime batsman. Too much? Not unless he decides it is. Wednesday was his best moment as leader so far. It's fair to say he hasn't always coped well with pressure but he did this time. And, yes, he had some luck. The best captains always do.
"It was obviously nerve-racking at the end there, but I just tried to stay calm and focus all my energy into making the right decisions for the guys. Luckily tonight was my night when it came to doing that," De Villiers said.
Rooted in reality
The captain did not allow victory to disguise a woeful batting performance. In fact, he raised the subject himself.
"I can't say what went wrong with the batting because I don't know. I can't put my finger on it – except that we're not scoring runs or getting partnerships going.
"But I believe we'll get there, I really do. We'll just keep working hard and, as we just saw, it's a funny game this … things can turn around very quickly for you."
The second match takes place today in Dubai before the series moves to Abu Dhabi for the third and fourth matches next week.