England continue to self-harm
Like a sprinter running with an anvil in their pocket, England made life unnecessarily hard for themselves in the second ODI against South Africa.
As if winning was not hard enough against a team that are now rated No. 1 in all three formats of the game - the first time any side as achieved such dominance - England made it considerably harder with a display so full of self-inflicted injuries that all scissors and sharp objects should be removed from the dressing room immediately.
If England learn one thing from the summer of 2012, it will surely be that they cannot be so generous towards Hashim Amla. For all his elegance, class and range of strokes, Amla has been helped by some remarkably profligate cricket from England throughout this tour. He was, after all, dropped during the Oval Test before he had reached 50 on his way to a match-winning triple-century, and at Lord's before he had made 10 on his way to a match-winning century. He is too good to be allowed to bat twice every innings.
Here Amla might have been run out for 1 had Samit Patel picked up and thrown cleanly. He might have been given out lbw for 37 had England utilised the DRS. He might have been caught on 42 - a simple chance - and on 92 - a far more difficult one - had Craig Kieswetter performed better with the gloves. Give Amla four or five lives and he will thrash any side.
With Matt Prior and Jonny Bairstow pressing hard for his position, Kieswetter could ill-afford such a poor performance. It extended beyond his catching, too, as England also squandered an opportunity to utilise the DRS. Reviews showed that Amla would have given out had England called for a review from a delivery from Samit Patel that pitched in-line and would have hit the stumps. When they did utilise their one review, against JP Duminy, the ball had pitched well outside leg stump. It has to be Kieswetter's judgement, as much as the bowler's or the captain's, at fault in such situations. He is the one man in the perfect position to make an informed decision and, in this game at least, he failed to do so.
Perhaps England's biggest self-inflicted injury came in their selection of the squad. England's best player, in the form of his life, was absent. Not just absent, but absent making 163 runs on a pitch on which none of his Surrey team-mates could pass 34. Kevin Pietersen may be belligerent, egocentric and infuriating, but he is England's best player in all formats and they could have done with him in Southampton.
Pietersen has apologised for his transgressions, he has made himself available and he would, on merit, walk into the England side. The ECB, through their intransigence and unforgiving attitude, are in danger of damaging the English game just as much as the player. England may console themselves with the thought that current team is united and will stick together. But so do lemmings and sheep. Unity is not, in all circumstances, such an overwhelmingly positive characteristic.
There were other opportunities. Had Alastair Cook's throw been better, Dean Elgar might have been run out on 12. Had James Anderson's throw been better, Amla might have been run out on 62 and had Kieswetter not behaved like a man with an allergy to cricket balls, AB de Villiers might have been caught off Tim Bresnan for 1. But England's fielding, so impressive won they won the Ashes and the World Twenty20, has become consistently fallible of late. Worryingly, they appear to have few answers as to why that might be.
"It's so frustrating," Cook, England's ODI captain, said afterwards. "You watch us practise - we practise incredibly hard - and no chances go down. Nothing has changed in the last two years in terms of what we do in our fielding practises but, in the last month-and-a-half we've started to drop very good players. And very good players punish us. If you want to compete with the best, you can't do that and Amla has made us pay again."
Cook was admirably frank in his assessment of his side's performance. He accepted that they had underperformed in all areas and, though he admitted the batsmen had been forced to chase a total some way above par on a slow, low pitch offering substantial assistance to spin bowlers, he picked out the batsmen for fault after some "soft dismissals". Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan, who both slapped long-hops to fielders, and Kieswetter, who played horribly across the turning ball in a manner that bodes ill for his chances on the subcontinent, were particularly culpable.
"You can blame the soft dismissals with the bat, and we were sloppy in the field," Cook said. "We bowled well for some of it and for some of it we didn't. So you can say all of those things. It's almost more frustrating when you set high standards and you don't come anywhere near that. It was not one of our best days. We didn't play very well. If you're going to chase 280, someone in the top four or five needs to get a hundred. Twenties and forties aren't going to win you the game."
Losing against a side as good as South Africa is no disgrace. Until this match, England had won their last ten completed ODIs and were top of the ICC rankings. That run of success was bound to came to halt at some stage and most dispassionate observers always accepted that their No. 1 ODI status flattered them a little. England are also only 1-0 down in the series with three games to play.
"This result doesn't change anything," Cook said. "It's frustrating. It's annoying as a captain and all the players will be hurting. But you don't throw everything out of the window because of one bad performance. It was a surprise when we got the No. 1 status and today just shows how much work we still have to do."
Cook knows, however, that this game featured a catalogue of errors - with the bat, with the ball but most of all in the field - that will undermine any opportunity to gain a foothold in this series. England's biggest challenge is to cut out the self-inflicted injuries that have become worryingly ubiquitous of late.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo