England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day July 23, 2012

Losing at their own game

England were hammered playing attritional cricket in their own backyard - a defeat that may have signalled a power shift in Test cricket

This was not the first time The Oval has witnessed a setback for English cricket. It was here, after all, that the legend of the Ashes was born in 1882, that the West Indies completed their 'blackwash' in 1984 and New Zealand sentenced England to bottom place in the Test rankings in 1999.

But there has rarely been an occasion when England have been so comprehensively outplayed as they have been in this Test. The innings and 12-run margin of victory - crushing though it looks - hardly does justice to the overwhelming difference between the sides. South Africa only lost two wickets to England's 20. This was a massacre.

It may be, in time, that we come to look back on this performance as an aberration. We may come to place it along Perth in 2010-11 and Leeds in 2009 as a bump on the road. England have shown admirable pluck in bouncing back from setbacks in the past and it would be foolish to discount them now.

But it was hard to avoid the conclusion that we were witnessing the changing of the guard in this game. South Africa looked so far superior with bat and ball that it would take a remarkable swing in fortunes for England to level the series in Leeds. Their record there is not hugely encouraging, either.

The most worrying aspect of this defeat from an England perspective that it is becoming something of a habit. England have now played nine Tests this year and lost five of them. That is hardly the form of the No. 1 ranked side and, as Oscar Wilde might have said, to lose one game might be considered unfortunate, but to lose five suggests an underlying weakness. While they could hide behind the excuse that the first four losses were in Asian conditions - an acknowledged Achilles heel - this time there can be no excuse. They were taken on at their own game - attritional cricket - in their own backyard, and thrashed.

Nor will life become any easier. After this tour, England face a four-Test series in India. Bearing in mind England's record in Asia and the determination India will have to avenge last year's whitewash in England and it is hard to be wildly optimistic about their fortunes.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of this defeat is that so many of the injuries were self inflicted. In the second innings, Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior fell to horrible sweep shots, Ian Bell, who had been badly dropped on 20, guided one to the slips as if offering catching practise, Ravi Bopara chopped on to his stumps and Graeme Swann drove to extra cover. England did not deserve to salvage a draw from this game.

In the first innings, England showed that a complacency has slipped into their game. With the score on 170 for 1, England had a chance to bat South Africa out of the match; to apply the sort of scoreboard pressure that was later used against them. Instead they lost concentration and Trott, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen surrendered their wickets to careless strokes. All of them would do well to reflect on the remorseless way that Hashim Amla sustained his innings, ensuring that he made it count. All of them could learn from his hunger, his discipline and his concentration. All would do well to sell their wicket so dearly.

That is not to say that South Africa did not bowl well. They certainly did. Despite a sluggish pitch - the sort of slow track that does little to encourage spectators through the gates - every one of them gained movement in the air or off the pitch that was noticeable by its absence for the England bowlers. And that was enough to coax England's batsmen into mistakes.

England's bowling looked lacklustre and lame. They have been superb over the last couple of years so it would be wrong to overreact after one poor game, but the lack of pace and movement was alarming. There is growing concern, too, over the state of Graeme Swann's elbow. While there is no official announcement from the England team - quite the opposite actually; they suggest everything is fine - it would be no surprise if, sooner rather than later, Swann requires more substantial treatment for the problem than a cortisone injection.

"No doubt there will be speculation about Bopara's future but, after a long time in the wings, he surely needs security and support if he is to finally fulfil his undoubted potential"

That would present a significant challenge. Without the ballast of Swann's batting, it is hard to drop Tim Bresnan for either Steven Finn or Graeme Onions as England's tail would then start to look too long. Nonetheless, the calls for Finn, despite his patchy performance against West Indies at Edgbaston, will grow ever louder.

No doubt there will be speculation about Bopara's future, too. His dismissals here were not pretty but, after a long time in the wings, he surely needs security and support if he is to finally fulfil his undoubted potential. There really are not many better batsmen out there in county cricket, though someone like Nick Compton might, perhaps, have been perfect for this final day rearguard.

There is one other option. England could look at an allrounder for their No.6 or No.7 spot. While it may be a year too early for the extravagantly gifted Ben Stokes, Rikki Clarke might be worth consideration, as he could fill the role of fourth seamer and not obviously weaken the batting. It is Clarke's misfortune that he should mature so late - he is 30 - and with bridges smouldering in his past. But he is averaging 66.88 with the bat in first-class cricket this season and 19.27 with the ball and has developed, at last, into a fine all-round cricketer. He is also, arguably, the best slip catcher in the country. With Amla dropped by Strauss at first slip on 40 on day two, it is a skill worth bearing in mind.

But there is no point panicking or making wholesale changes. English cricket has been down that road before. It leads only to chaos and disappointment. By and large, the same 10 or 11 men will have a chance to make amends for this performance in Leeds. They will need to play substantially better to defeat a foe that, in this game at least, looked hungrier, tougher and more skilful.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo