England have never won a one-day series in South Africa. Three previous attempts in the past 14 years have ended in outright failure, accompanied by the conclusion that the team were going nowhere and needed restructuring.
Too often in that period England sides have looked as if they were cobbled together by a bunch of cowboy builders rather than assembled, piece by confident piece, by a team of designers who knew what they were doing. There has always been the promise that England will have a regularly competitive one-day team one day. One day, some day, never.
When the latest series of five matches begins here today – if the heavy African rain which has persisted for two days should relent – the tourists will as usual start as outsiders. They trail by a distance in the ICC rankings and, unlike South Africa, have yet to produce a sustained sequence of positive, planned and successful cricket.
Yet there is some reason to believe that England can give South Africa a decent game in the next two weeks when the one-day caravan will go from Johannesburg and Centurion, down to the south coast at Cape Town and Port Elizabeth before finishing in the east at Durban.
If they are defeated there should not be clarion calls for change. Some thought has gone into this squad. It is impossible to agree with every choice and some new and recalled players have yet to make a convincing case. But at least it has been picked with a deliberate policy based on audacity and aggression and the 2011 World Cup in mind.
South Africa have also tweaked their options with a view to what is to come, quietly letting go the stalwarts Herschelle Gibbs and Makhaya Ntini.
It would have been helpful to England's cause to play their first-choice team today. But, as with all England tours, various joints and muscles appeared to surrender almost as soon as they hit foreign soil. Stuart Broad, whose shoulder has stubbornly refused to accept that injections are meant to do it good, and Graeme Swann, who has an intercostal injury of the sort which invariably provokes sagacious, knowing shakes of the head to indicate just how tricky it might be to clear up, will both miss the first two matches of the series.
There is much more optimism about the prospects of Paul Collingwood, who stands to break Alec Stewart's one-day caps record for England if his back recovers, and Jimmy Anderson, whose knee problem is said to be no more than a niggle. But then optimism about England cricketers has been so often misplaced that a degree of scepticism is inevitable.
James Tredwell, who took 69 first-class wickets for Kent last summer, making him the leading English bowler in the County Championship, as well 14 in one-day matches, has been called into the squad as cover. So, too, has Liam Plunkett, the Durham fast bowler.
Neither is likely to play today, especially as Tredwell arrived only yesterday and could not bowl because of the weather. But the captain, Andrew Strauss, did not entirely exclude the possibility. If Adil Rashid's leg-spin were to be overlooked in favour of Tredwell's off-spin, England would find it extremely hard to justify it merely because of South Africa's top-order left-handers.
It would lend credence to the view of the South Africa coach, Mickey Arthur, that England were not showing faith in Rashid. Not that Strauss was going down that road yesterday, instead following the credo of the team's coach, Andy Flower.
"When you come to South Africa you expect things to be said in the press," Strauss said. "No doubt there will be more of it as this tour develops. We've always refrained from making big comments about the opposition because the world is round and they can come back to haunt you pretty quickly."
If England's hand has been forced by injuries to some extent, they have a genuine batting conundrum. They are likely to resolve it by using their ninth different first-wicket combination in the last 25 matches. Joe Denly was brought as the preferred partner for Strauss but his form has been indifferent while that of Jonathan Trott has been anything but.
It is a welcome change that the one-day series is coming before the Tests. Too often, it has come afterwards, when as Strauss said, the players are jaded. Drained both physically and mentally more like. It does not happen at home where the last one-day international, it was confirmed yesterday with the release of the 2010 fixtures, will be played on 22 September after a summer of eight Tests.
Strauss said that if his employers at the England and Wales Cricket Board ever wanted his input he would be prepared to give it. He should hold back no longer. Twenty20s, 50-over matches, Tests – it should be an order set in stone.
G C Smith
J H Kallis
A B de Villiers
J P Duminy
A N Petersen
J A Morkel
M V Boucher (wkt)
R E van der Merwe
D W Steyn
C K Langeveldt
A J Strauss (capt)
I J L Trott
K P Pietersen
P D Collingwood
E J G Morgan
M J Prior (wkt)
L J Wright
T T Bresnan
A U Rashid
J M Anderson
Umpires: R J Tucker (Aus) & M Erasmus (SA)
TV: Sky Sports 2, 12.00
Under pressure: Three with points to prove
His captain said tellingly yesterday that Trott, born and brought up in South Africa, is "here to make runs and not make friends." So far, despite the odd lunch with former compatriots, that is precisely what he has done, making three fifties in warm-up matches and looking utterly determined and dependable.
No player receives more plaudits from his colleagues than Anderson. Leader of the attack, on his day he can make the ball talk. There is the faint suspicion that he does not perform well enough often enough in the absence of swing. But before his knee began to trouble him he was mightily impressive.
The most experienced player on either side with 294 appearances, he has suddenly been reinvented as an opening batsman. It is calculated gamble because Kallis has spent much of his career being too one-paced for some tastes. But he has the talent and insists he now has the application.
England captain Andrew Strauss's one-day batting average against South Africa. This pales against his overall one-day batting average, which stands at 32.3.