England are one match away from being dethroned as the top Test side in the world. After taking three years to achieve their dream, they are threatened with it turning into a nightmare in less than a year, after their heavy loss in the first Test by an innings and 12 runs to South Africa yesterday.
Andrew Strauss, the England captain, said: "I don't sit there ranking defeats but obviously we got outplayed on the last four days of this game. We set the game up well on day one, South Africa used the conditions to their advantage on the second day and never let us back in the game."
The outcome of this series will decide who moves to top place in the ICC rankings. If England lose 3-0 they will slip from first to third, and if that was unthinkable on Thursday night when they were 267 for 3, it seemed a stark possibility by the time South Africa had completed their victory shortly before tea on the final day.
It was a victory of huge proportions, much more one-sided than the margin on the friendliest of pitches suggests. South Africa bowled out England in their second innings for 240 after they had made 637 for 2 declared. It was the fifth victory in Tests by a side losing only two wickets.
While Strauss said he retained his confidence in his team's ability to come back, the message from South Africa's coach, Gary Kirsten, carried a barely concealed warning.
Kirsten said: "It was a great performance and you're not always going to have it run that way. You're going to be put under pressure and the game is going to unfold differently. But we think we can play like that on a regular basis rather than it being a one-off Test match. I'm not saying we'll be 650 for 2 again but we feel we can put in performances like that on a daily basis."
If they can, England's goose is assuredly cooked. But England have nine days before the second Test at Headingley to work out what to do next. It will be spent not on trying to work out where they went wrong but on what the tourists did right.
Strauss added: "One of the advantages of having a week between matches is you have time to take stock. There are some lessons for us to learn. Andy Flower, our coach, will chat to players individually and everyone needs to go away and steel themselves to play some good hard cricket next week."