It has been almost four years since Graham Gooch's side beat New Zealand 2-0, England's last success overseas. But if improvements have come at home, there has been little evidence to suggest that this team has at last begun to travel well.
That was until 10.28 last Friday morning, when it seemed that they suddenly had South Africa pinned to the boards, their ninth wicket just gone for a paltry 153 runs. But just as it appeared that England were making the running early on, they froze.
Instead of completing the rout by being ruthless, they settled back, waiting for South Africa's final act of self-destruction. Atherton's patience - and reluctance to ring the changes, or at least his pace bowlers' necks - made him just as culpable, because he settled for medium-term solution rather than attempting short-term resolution.
In a low-scoring game, the deflation suffered by the bowling side when there is a last-wicket stand worth 72 is near incalculable. You could see what a lift it had given the South Africans as Allan Donald tore in with the new ball. And how, conversely, England were still fretting over missed opportunities when Atherton, unusually for him, went looking to score from a ball he would normally be happy drop at his feet off a dead bat.
Happily for England, the bold but contentious dual selection of Mark Ilott and Peter Martin worked out well, though South Africa were guilty of carelessness on a grand scale. England were not quite so guilty when it was their turn to bat, a point the South Africa coach, Bob Woolmer, made at the end of play on Friday, claiming that at least his team had bowled the opposition's batsmen out.
Once England resumed their innings at 123 for five, they began shakily as Graeme Hick, unbeaten on 16 overnight, edged Allan Donald for four through a vacant third slip. It was a position England had also left unmanned for long periods, particularly during the opposition's now famous last stand, which was a testament to both captains' unwillingness to attack. With John Crawley, his hamstring torn and heavily strapped, due in next with a runner, much of England's ability to get back into this match rested upon Hick and his partner, Dominic Cork.
As neither has the kind of defensive technique suited to long occupation of the crease, they went for shots instead, adding 29 runs without further alarm in the 32 minutes of play. The only other features were some scintillating stops by Jonty Rhodes at cover and, by way of contrast, a clumsy misfield by Hansie Cronje that went for four.
Cronje, no doubt rueing the missed opportunity thrown South Africa's way at the Wanderers, has seemed self-absorbed, a characteristic admired of artists and poets, but not of captains shepherding cricket players.
He is by consent a popular figure, but his detractors believe a political motive may be behind his appointment. They believe that because the traditional pool for supplying cricketers - the English speakers - is diminishing daily as those people move abroad fleeing what they see as an uncertain future, the diehard Afrikaaner population must be wooed if standards are to be retained.
Therefore, given that the township programmes, designed to take the game to black youngsters are unlikely to bear much fruit at least for a decade or two, having Cronje as a moodily handsome figurehead is as good a way as any.
It is an interesting theory, with just enough whiff of conspiracy about it. However, if the agenda was really geared around creating mass interest in the game, then Paul Adams, the Cape coloured who bowls like a dervish, should be appointed immediately. With the series looking as though it will be deadlocked at nil-all, this young man could yet be the catalyst to spark a result.
Scoreboard from Durban
(Third day of five; South Africa won toss)
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings 225 (P Martin 4-60).
ENGLAND - First Innings
(Overnight: 123 for 5)
G A Hick not out 31
D G Cork not out 23
Extras (lb4, nb7) 11
Total (for 5, 188 min, 48.1 overs) 152
Fall: 1-2 (Atherton), 2-13 (Thorpe), 3-83 (Smith), 4-93 (Stewart), 5- 109 (Russell).
To bat: J P Crawley, M C Ilott, R K Illingworth, P J Martin.
Bowling (to date): Donald 12.1-1-57-2 (2nb), Pollock 15-2-39-0 (4nb), Matthews 12-5-31-3, McMillan 9-3-21-0 (1nb).
Play abandoned for day because of rain.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and D L Orchard.
TV Replay Umpire: K E Liebenberg.
Match Referee: C H Lloyd.Reuse content