Riches to rags for free-falling South Africa
Precisely a year ago, South Africa were on the verge of an historic series victory in Australia as they prepared to complete their run-chase on the final day at the MCG. Twelve months on, they are facing the prospect of a crushing defeat against a side they were expected to dominate on home soil. Something is amiss and, barring an end-of-year miracle, 2010 will start with plenty of soul-searching.
It isn't as though they are being narrowly outplayed in a close contest. On the fourth day at Kingsmead South Africa were trampled upon by a rampant England who had spent the previous day making them toil in the heat of the Durban summer. For a side that until the first week of this month, when India beat Sri Lanka 2-0, were the No. 1 Test team, this is proving quite a wake-up call.
"It's probably been the worst day of my cricket career," said Dale Steyn. "That's the brutal honest truth. We were looking to bat a day-and-a-half to save the game but that hasn't happened and we find ourselves in a deep hole."
South Africa's performance in the opening game at Centurion suggested they hadn't suffered from having an eight-month gap between Tests, but the last four days have reinforced the growing feeling that all is not well. Graeme Smith has had to rely on a bowling attack at half strength - Makhaya Ntini's form is shot to pieces and Jacques Kallis is only just coming back to full fitness - while some of the batting consistency among the top order is starting to cause concern.
Ashwell Prince's dismissal to Graeme Swann, the second time in the series he has fallen in the offspinner's first over, completed a poor match for the opener. That can happen to any player, but Prince has habitually preferred batting in the middle order. True, he made a century as an opener against Australia in March, but he had to be shoe-horned back into the side in order to make it, having lost his place through injury and been unable to regain it after JP Duminy's impressive emergence.
"After 48 Tests I've only opened once," Prince said before the series, "so needless to say I'm more comfortable in the middle order or have more experience there. But at the end of the day that's the only position available and I certainly don't want to say I don't want to be in the team."
Although he turned that Australia century into an imposing 150, opening is not a position to take on half-heartedly and South Africa need their first-wicket pair to set the tone for an innings. So far in this series the opening stands have been 1, 2, 3 and 27 with Prince falling first on three occasions. It's too early to draw strong conclusions, but it's shaping as a telling weakness.
The pedigree of South Africa's next three batsmen - Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers - is not in doubt, although their shot selection in the second innings at Durban left a lot to be desired. Amla tried an expansive drive against the turn of an offspinner moments before tea, while Kallis and de Villiers both left deliveries too close to off stump.
The next potential concern comes at No. 6 where Duminy has been given a working-over by England's quicks, and completed a poor match when he dragged Stuart Broad into his stumps first ball. However, it was Duminy who, a year ago at the MCG, did more than most to down Australia with a majestic 166. International bowlers are going to work out weaknesses over time, but Steyn believes Broad's success against the middle order owed a little bit to fortune as well as skill.
"He got a little lucky with JP's wicket, an inside-edge like that is not really what you are looking for, Kallis left a good ball and AB got one that Hawk-Eye says was hitting the stumps, but you never quite know," he said. "There was a bit of bad luck for us, but he bowled nicely with the ball coming back in. Credit to him for bowling well and we got ourselves in this predicament."
Steyn admitted South Africa's only real chance of escaping defeat is rain, although he did look back to the match at the MCG when he and Duminy added 180 for the ninth wicket. "I'll be watching videos of that tonight, I can promise you that," he said.
"That's why I say it's a funny game. Morne [Morkel] can bat, he's been around international cricket for a long time, and he's batting with someone who is probably one of the best wicketkeeper-batsman to ever play [Mark Boucher]. If they can put on a big partnership and we can get that lead of England's down, who knows."
That, though, would top anything achieved against Australia. Barring the weather this match is beyond salvation, and South Africa will have to take stock. Now is not the time to panic, but 2009 hasn't gone to plan and they need to sit down and make some honest assessments as to why - even if some of the answers won't be easy to take.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo