South African supporters logging on to check the final scorecard on Tuesday morning might have regarded the 1-0 series scoreline as something approaching a failure. Against a side ranked eighth in the world, it's an underwhelming result, and it means that South Africa have lost a ratings point in their bid to reach the top of the world.
But as disappointing as that may be, the bare numbers do not tell the whole tale. Those who stayed awake through a few nights of the series will have recognised genuine signs of progress as South Africa look ahead to bigger tasks later this year. Rome was not built in a day, the saying goes, and over the course of the past three weeks the Proteas have certainly put building blocks in place that leave them in a healthy state going forward.
They may have failed to take 10 wickets on the final day at the Basin Reserve, but that was mostly down to dropped catches and there is no doubt that the bowlers made the greatest strides on this tour. Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel won the plaudits, but it was evident that the South African attack have moulded into a unit that is worth at least the sum of their quite significant parts.
At the start of the summer South Africa had two world-class fast bowlers upon whom results often lay. The best thing about the performances in New Zealand has been that those two bowlers have at times become support bowlers when others were the greater threats. It has allowed South Africa to develop a malleable attack who adapt to the conditions and each bowl according to what the team require from them at that particular moment.
On the whole they have been relentless, never straying from a line and length which required resolute defence from the opposition batsmen. That was reflected in the fact that New Zealand scored at well under three runs per over during the series. Even when the pitches have been flat and offered no assistance, New Zealand were never allowed to score freely and feel on top of the bowling. It's no wonder that Brendon McCullum labelled them "one of the best attacks in the world at the moment, and in recent history."
Two collapses dented the batting unit's report card, but each and every one of them contributed a heavy score at some point of the series. Mark Boucher averaged 36 and Jacques Kallis 39, with everyone else above them. There were innings of devout stoicism (Graeme Smith and Kallis in Dunedin), of devil-may-care counterattacking dashery (AB de Villiers in Hamilton) and others in between. Most importantly, at the end of the tour, South Africa have a settled batting line-up full of confidence.
That applies to the team as a whole, because had Kallis not been injured for the final Test then South Africa would have used just 11 players in the entire series. That reflects a settled team with the right combinations who are ready for bigger assignments.
Yet in some ways Kallis' injury allowed South Africa to put a cherry on top. Injuries are inevitable in this new world of never-ending cricket, but they now know that the quality of their bench strength. JP Duminy's century showed a batsman who has come of age, advancing his game and becoming more confident about himself as a player and a person. The calmness with which he both spent his time at the crease and presented himself off the field was very different to the twitchy Duminy from his first run in Test cricket.
Marchant de Lange had a tough Test in Wellington, but he provided a physical presence which aided South Africa's short-ball battering, and he would have had two wickets on the final day were it not for a couple of dropped catches. As Smith said afterwards: "It was tough for Marchant - he bowled a lot into the wind today and it was a big learning curve for him. The learning he'll take out of this game will be crucial for him going forward."
Those same South African supporters who will read a 1-0 scoreline as a failure will also have had one eye on the England tour. This series has been a process towards that, and in that regard there is very little that has not been accomplished.
Tristan Holme in Wellington