South Africa are in deep trouble. If they do not start digging now – and they will need mechanical diggers rather than beach spades – their carefully designed world will cave in on them.
Until four weeks ago, South Africa were officially the No 1 ranked Test side, a status for which they had lusted for years. When they were deprived of it, rather unfairly by India, who play a minimum amount of Test cricket and treat it as a diverting plaything, it became their express desire to win it back quickly.
Yet before noon yesterday their durable captain, Graeme Smith, was saying: "We were outplayed, we've got to be honest with ourselves. We represent a lot of people's hopes in South Africa and we just weren't good enough in this game. We've got to look at ourselves in the mirror and bounce back."
South Africa were cocks of the walk a year ago. They had drawn with India and beaten England and Australia, all away from home. When they were then defeated by Australia at home it seemed a mere blip, a lack of concentration at the end of a long, long year.
But it is more than that. Their bowling looks lacklustre and their vaunted batting is lacking substance in too many spots. The third Test begins in Cape Town on Sunday and however South Africa react, it will be based on calculated risk at best. They did not envisage this. To be defeated by an innings and 98 runs, to be outplayed, was not in their plans for a second.
"We haven't really lived up to the hype we managed to build up in 2008," Smith said. "As a team we reached a point and we haven't really managed to go to the next level. That's something we've got to address as a unit."
In one breath, Smith was advocating caution for Cape Town, in another he was musing on possible radicalism. It was a mood that bespoke confusion. The captain knows that had they nailed victory in Centurion last week when England were hanging on it might all have been different, but he should also recognise that South Africa's chance of a win in that Test came belatedly out of nowhere. By contrast, England were winning all the way in Durban.
At the heart of South Africa's selection conundrum is their veteran fast bowler, Makhaya Ntini. He has taken two wickets in two Tests, and is patently sliding down the other side of the mountain. South Africa must decide whether to use him as a stock bowler or drop him, which would bring another set of problems because he is the only black player in their side. A case could be made for either.
But their batting misfired horribly in the second innings at Kingsmead, wilting under pressure. Ashwell Prince is out of place as an opener, J P Duminy looks much too loose at six.
"I think Makhaya would be the first one to put his hand up and say he is disappointed with the way he has bowled," Smith said. "He comes with a lot of experience and we have given him a lot of support behind the scenes. He is obviously an important cog in our lives. Maybe our batting got a little bit tentative and we didn't commit to our shots as well as we have done." They have to commit now as never before.Reuse content