With the defence of their World Twenty20 title only a few days away, England played yesterday less like champs than chumps. It is possible that they are wary of peaking too soon before the tournament starts in Sri Lanka next week, but then it is equally conceivable that they have as much chance as winning there as not sweating.
South Africa won the first match of three in this NatWest Series, effectively warm-up matches despite the stark contrast in surroundings, by seven wickets. It was all but inevitable after another inept exhibition of batting by England which demonstrated virtually none of the requirements necessary in developing a substantial innings in short-form cricket.
On days such as this it is all too tempting to suggest that their batting order is desperately short of a limited-overs genius, a bold maverick who can fashion shots at will and take a game by the scruff. But Kevin Pietersen may never be back if talks between him and the England management fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion, so they simply have to get on with it.
Had it not been for a last-ditch eighth-wicket partnership of 33 from 27 balls between Graeme Swann and the captain, Stuart Broad – the voices of experience speaking – it would have been worse than the 118 for 7 that England managed.
Even then the bowlers offered brief encouragement by reducing the tourists to 29 for 3, but it really was just a case that if you stayed in you won the match. That is what happened, and South Africa duly went 1-0 up with an over to spare.
Jacques Kallis marked his return to the side with an elder statesman's unbeaten 48 from 44 balls, including seven fours. He was given some well-deserved time off during the recent one-day series, part of which he spent in New York. He might look as though he did not entirely avoid those huge Stateside portions, but he also seems in ominously good order.
For England, it started to go wrong almost from the moment that Alex Hales was run out backing up for a single that never existed. Until then he and Craig Kieswetter had looked comfortable with each other.
By the seventh over England were three down, Kieswetter having shuffled across his stumps to be lbw and Ravi Bopara edging Dale Steyn to slip. There is no shame at all in being out to Steyn, who was again excellent, bowling his four overs for 13 runs in four separate spells, but Bopara looks hopelessly out of sorts.
England really cannot afford to go into the next month with him so bereft of form and confidence. Twenty20 is a form of the game in which things can turn round quickly but, equally, each ball is vital to the cause. To Bopara at present the crease may as well be an alien planet.
There were a few overs when Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan exuded the outlook of men who knew there was a job to do and that they knew how to do it. Both bristled with good intentions and inventions. At 64 for 3 after 10 overs, a total approaching 150 was still possible. But Morgan was bowled essaying a pull shot against the smart off-breaks of Johan Botha and England, crucially, lost wickets in the 11th, 13th, 14th and 16th overs. Part of the trouble was that everybody was batting as if it was a lost cause. South Africa played the more precise cricket but England made it seem pinpoint.
To have any hope of winning, England needed quick wickets. Their opening bowlers obliged, with Jade Dernbach having Richard Levi caught at slip and a rapid Steve Finn catching Faf du Plessis unawares and lbw.
When the tourists' captain, AB De Villiers, was caught behind driving at Dernbach, South Africa were 29 for 3 and England were in with a chance. But Kallis and Jean-Paul Duminy assembled a go-as-you-please partnership of 90, South Africa's highest for the fourth wicket in Twenty20. At present one of these sides looks ready for Sri Lanka. It is not the holders.
South Africa won toss
†C Kieswetter lbw b J Botha 25/1/3/24
A D Hales run out 11/0/2/6
R S Bopara c J Botha b Steyn 6/0/0/11
E J G Morgan b J Botha 10/0/1/11
J M Bairstow c J Botha b J A Morkel 15/0/1/17
J C Buttler b Peterson 6/0/0/9
S R Patel c Kallis b Peterson 4/0/0/7
*S C J Broad not out 18/0/1/22
G P Swann not out 18/0/3/13
Extras (b3, lb2) 5
Total (for 7, 20 overs) 118
Fall 1-27, 2-40, 3-50, 4-66, 5-76, 6-80, 7-85.
Did not bat S T Finn, J W Dernbach.
Bowling Peterson 4-0-27-2; Steyn 4-0-13-1; Tsotsobe 2-0-22-0; J A Morkel 3-0-12-1; J Botha 4-0-19-2; Kallis 3-0-20-0.
R E Levi c Swann b Dernbach 8/0/2/7
J H Kallis not out 48/0/7/44
F du Plessis lbw b Finn 4/0/0/3
*†A B de Villiers c Kieswetter b Dernbach 10/0/2/6
J P Duminy not out 47/0/4/54
Extras (lb1, w1) 2
Total (for 3, 19 overs) 119
Fall 1-9, 2-14, 3-29.
Did not bat J L Ontong, J A Morkel, J Botha, R J Peterson, D W Steyn, L L Tsotsobe.
Bowling Finn 4-0-22-1; Dernbach 4-0-31-2; Broad 4-0-18-0; Bopara 2-0-20-0; Swann 4-0-16-0; S R Patel 1-0-11-0.
Umpires R J Bailey and R K Illingworth (Eng).
TV Umpire M A Gough (Eng).
Match referee A J Pycroft (Zim).
South Africa lead the three-match series 1-0