Atherton, though, was more upbeat about the defeat than he was a year ago. Then, the added humiliation of being beaten by Australia once again was further frustrated by having a team not entirely of his own choosing, a situation that led him to making a written plea to the England selectors, urging them to make more youthful selections.
It is something that has been heeded, and this time Atherton had the men he wanted, though he did admit in hindsight that an extra opener might have solved the batting problem at No 3. In fact the only time England's first two wickets managed to make 50 in the crucial first innings of the match was when Jason Gallian arrived for the fourth Test in Port Elizabeth.
It is a lamentable statistic considering this series was billed as a battle between strong English batting and the South African bowling, which the adverts described as "predatory". Atherton thought this inaccurate at last Fridays' press conference, when he said: "Once you get in against their bowlers, they are not difficult to get runs against." It may have been true, but few other than the England captain could have made such a claim.
In the end it was a series so closely fought by two well-matched sides that a result seemed improbable. Both captains, each a man of caution in different ways, were constantly under pressure, Hansie Cronje to keep South Africa's sporting advance going and Atherton to prove that England really had turned a corner after last summer's drawn series against the West Indies.
However, rather than trying to force the issue, both waited to scavenge on the other's mistakes. Considering much of the bowling was fast, it made for some slow cricket. And that only when the weather allowed it, six days being lost to rain.
But like the slow-motion replay by which we all too readily sit in judgement of umpires these days, dramas that unfold slowly reveal far more about players than a flash of non-stop action. The key to such a waiting game is the ability to absorb the slow-drip pressure and both captains responded differently to the pressure.
Cronje, who started the series by handing the initiative to England after putting them in at Centurion Park, never found his batting touch. Also at Centurion, Graeme Hick was thought to have come of age with a savage innings, his finest yet. However, by the end of the tour there were still signs that he had mislaid the key of the door.
Unsurprisingly, particularly after failing to beat England at the Wanderers, Cronje's mind seemed elsewhere, and he failed to make even a single fifty. His aggregate of 113 runs in the series was a disaster and suggests that South Africa have just as much of a problem filling their No 3 spot as their opponents.
By contrast, Atherton still appears to relish the pressures of captaincy despite his side's increasing reliance on his making a score, a habit that South Africa obviously noticed when they let it be known the England captain had been specially targeted by their bowlers.
With patience and concentration once again at the core of his method, he had another fine series. But if the pressure occasionally told, his example to team-mates of how to perform at Test level was exemplary.
His only relevant batting failures were in Cape Town, where, by no small coincidence, his team fell too. England had been under pressure twice in previous Tests, in the second and again at St George's Park in the fourth, suggesting that South Africa's series victory was deserved.
But if Newlands was a last-gasp disappointment for Atherton, the high point was seeing him totally inebriated in a Johannesburg bar, still surrounded by adoring team-mates six hours after his epic defiance of the South African bowlers at the Wanderers. It was a scene that even in its crudeness spoke far more poignantly about the emotive nature of cricket than observing the winners or losers of this dreary series could ever do.
Inevitably, from amid the swirling rain clouds and the grey cricket, brighter moments surfaced. For South Africa, the emergence and impact of Paul Adams should be an enormous fillip to both the young and the previously disadvantaged in South Africa. His belated presence animated the series, and although his wrist spinners thrilled, it was his batting in South Africa's last-wicket stand that broke the stalemate.
Adams' emergence has the kind of fairy-tale quality many have been waiting for here. As a result, there is much pressure on his young shoulders, not least from the way he bowls, and purists will be hoping his presence will inspire more thoroughly than his unique action.
Shaun Pollock, too, emerged from obscurity, heading the home side's bowling averages with 16 wickets at 23.5. He is a fine young cricketer who can become a genuine all-rounder. He announced himself in the series by striking several of England's top-order batsmen about the head and body.
Only a foot injury slowed his advance, and should the mercurial Brett Schultz make a sustained return South Africa will have three fast bowlers capable of the breakthrough. Of these, Allan Donald is the most experienced, a fact that helped bring him 19 wickets and the Man of the Series award, an honour gained in spite of niggling injuries that kept him below his best.
In his post mortem, Atherton thought the difference between the two sides was the presence of an all-rounder, Brian McMillan. His presence allowed them to play a balanced side if needed, and England will be hoping it is a challenge that Dominic Cork will accept. As England's best performer with the ball, he has the perfect base from which to improve his Test batting.
As a bowler he is out on his own, and there is a danger of burn-out. Atherton is aware of this, and Peter Martin's emergence will be heartening news for Cork, as well as those who have championed the Lancashire man's steepling outswingers.
It was these players' ability to swing the ball that led to Jack Russell - who had a brilliant tour with both gloves and bat - breaking Alan Knott's England record for dismissals in a series. Moreover, Russell's 27 victims were taken in five and a half innings, a phenomenal rate.
However, brilliantly though Cork and the others bowled on occasion, Kirsten, Cullinan and McMillan always cobbled together a score the South African bowlers could work with. This has been a feature of the home side's cricket ever since their return from isolation, and their captain's keenness on defensive fields makes them hard to beat.
Ironically, that is just the quality Atherton wants from his side. But if the series became deadlocked as a result, it was more the pressure that overcame England in Cape Town than South Africa's tactics eventually coming to fruition. That, and the first result pitch of the series.Reuse content