Cape Town – South Africa, who have prided themselves in modern times on their Test-level resilience abroad, saw the balloon pop rather violently at Old Trafford on Monday.
By crashing to a 177-run defeat to England with more than a day to spare, the Proteas were simultaneously put out of their near series-long misery as England retained the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy by an emphatic 3-1 margin.
Several unwanted – at least if you are South African -- landmarks were posted in the process, not least being that it was the first time in the post-isolation era that one of the teams has won successive series; England had also prevailed 2-1 on our soil in 2015/16.
It was also just the second time in 11 bilateral series since SA’s return from the wilderness that either has won a series by a margin of more than one Test – Graeme Smith’s prior, altogether more watertight outfit in England of 2012 had earned a 2-0 outcome in a three-Test battle.
The dubious cherry on top is that England also earned the accolade of winning three Tests in any series against South Africa, home or away, for the first time since Colin Cowdrey’s team beat Jack McGlew’s tourists 3-0 (five-Test series) in 1960 – all of 57 years back.
It gives a distinctly feeble sort of look to the Proteas’ class of 2017 statistically, and sadly that is fairly warranted, a situation that leaves the national team shrouded in doubt for their immediate future in cricket’s premier format even as they still cling for the time being to No 2 status in the world behind India.
Fittingly, if that is the right word, South Africa raised the white flag once again to a far greater extent at the crease than they did with the ball.
The batting gets ever more flaky in a broad sense, and prone to house-of-cards collapses within innings even after fleeting signs of stability, and it was no different on “Blue Monday” as they folded to 202 all out in always unlikely pursuit of a target of 380.
Take away the fighting qualities, especially while they were together in just the fourth century stand of the series – effectively one per Test – of old pros Hashim Amla (83) and skipper Faf du Plessis (61) and there was precious little else of any backbone to admire as SA, once 163 for three, lost the last seven wickets for a miserly 39 runs.
Suddenly South Africa look so much more vulnerable on several fronts – though with the batting perhaps constituting some two-thirds of the woe – than the team which had gone 19 away trips since 2006 with only two series reverses before the English mission.
Particularly sobering is that, while the most crushing victory of the series was actually the Proteas’ by 340 runs in the second Test at Trent Bridge, all of England’s trio of wins were by gaping margins too: 211 runs, 239 runs and finally 177.
You could also safely submit, then, that South Africa have had four largely awful Test matches out of their last five, if you throw in the final contest of the eventually fortuitously won series in New Zealand.
As well as they had scrapped for a 1-0 edge ahead of it, they were almost certainly saved by the weather as day five of the decisive third Test at Hamilton was washed out with the Black Caps menacingly poised to level things up.
Developing pattern of ineptitude? It is hard to argue otherwise.
The fact that they came up short for genuine quality of performance by individuals in the England series is evidenced by the very, very rare event in that country of just one century being recorded by a South African – Dean Elgar – and no visiting bowler managing a single five-wicket haul despite the consistently workmanlike hallmarks of the attack as a group.
In the SuperSport studio, former Proteas stalwarts were not denying England’s supremacy, even despite the winners’ own shortcomings in some slots.
“They played the bigger moments better,” admitted Paul Harris. “Those three losses … were proper beatings for us. There’s a lot to do.
“We were found out technically, especially on wickets where the ball moves around.”
Meanwhile Robin Peterson tried valiantly to find some kind of silver lining, pointing to the reasonable gap now until a regroup chance at home to ordinary Bangladesh in the early part of the domestic summer.
“There’s nothing like a break to reassess, and plot your way forward.”
Many Proteas supporters are likely to amen to that …
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