Suddenly, the world's best cricket team are looking a little peaky. These formidable foes, widely expected to duff up England this winter, have so far, by and large, carried all the menace of a sunflower. Was this why South Africa were called the Proteas?
Matters may change this Friday at Newlands, Fortress Newlands that is, where South Africa have won 24 of the 27 one-day internationals they have played there and have not been beaten for six years. But lose, as they look capable of doing, and doubt and disquiet will descend like the mist on Table Mountain, quickly and seeming as if it will never shift. England will have seized the initiative.
When Allan Donald, the great former fast bowler, said last week that South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, was already concerned about his team's ability to take 20 wickets in a Test match, he might simply have been having a bit of fun. Indeed, Arthur dismissed it out of hand.
But on Sunday in the second of the one-day internationals the fallibility of the South African attack was plain to see. After a brisk start, they were incapable of exerting any threat on England: they could not contain by either stopping runs or taking wickets and they were outsmarted. The batting too lacked resilience as it had in the recent Champions Trophy. There is more to it now than early-season diffidence.
If they were like this in the limited-overs version of the game, their concerns might be compounded in the longer version of the game. Arthur recognises what is at stake and in some of his candid pronouncements – he never ducks a question or issue – a certain concern can be sensed that South Africa may not be as good as he hopes.
"I was disappointed on Sunday and we have got to improve," he said. "I think we know we are in for a long, hard winter. Our execution on flat wickets as bowlers is something we need to hone and I'm just a little bit worried in terms of our younger batters going on to make big scores when they're set. But I'm still confident that we have the right recipe somewhere down the line."
The leader of the attack in both Test and one-day sides is Dale Steyn but he has yet to place his authority on proceedings by taking early-order wickets. He needs support, and in recalling Charl Langeveldt to the one-day team at the age of nearly 35, and placing their trust for the Tests in Makhaya Ntini – when his enduring powers are evidently in decline – they have shown that the cupboard is not as well stocked as they would like England and everybody else to believe.
Wayne Parnell, a fast 20-year-old left-armer, has made immense strides and is coming back from injury, and yesterday Morne Morkel, who toured England last year, was added to the one-day squad. They dare not rush Parnell, and Morkel, for all the bounce he is capable of extracting, has the same radar supplier as Steve Harmison.
The batting looks extremely robust but in the short form it has begun to depend too much on their magnificent captain, Graeme Smith. On Sunday, neither he nor the rest of the order batted with sufficient intelligence. In making a mess of how to play on a particular pitch, it was reminiscent of England.
The injury to Jacques Kallis, their star all-rounder has unbalanced their team and their thinking. Kallis is perhaps less badly missed in the one-day side than in the Test side, but when he is not there South Africa fret about what to do and how to play. Good old Jakes is always there and if he is not the conductor of the orchestra then he is the first violinist and one of the trumpets. Only yesterday Arthur said he was like a 12th player.
It is perfectly understandable that Kallis should have this effect. Since he made his debut in 1995, Kallis has played 295 of South Africa's 354 one-day internationals and 131 of their 147 Tests. If he has not been influential in every match, his sheer indomitable dependability is too easily overlooked.
South Africa simply do not know whether they need one more batsman or one more bowler, or someone who can bat at seven and bowl properly. It has the potential to be messy and there is already the sense that the media and the supporters are becoming impatient.
The audiences have been disappointing at all the international matches so far, all three of them up north. There has simply been too much cricket in the highveld lately – the Champions Trophy was played there barely two months ago – and the reluctance is understandable. Fortress Newlands should be packed on Friday since their last ODI was last April when a rampant South Africa hammered Australia.
Arthur and Smith should hardly be written off yet. As with England, South Africa's limited-overs side is in transition. This series is the first part of establishing a squad and strategies for the 2011 World Cup. But they view the Test rubber as the essence of their season.
Having won in England and Australia and drawn in India in the past 18 months they desperately want to avenge the Test series they suffered against England at home five years ago. Losing the one-day series, however, would be a disaster in terms of preparation. England can sense an opportunity here: South Africa may not be as powerful as South Africa presumed and England feared.Reuse content