Vertigo kicks in as South Africa stumble from summit
Reaching the summit is one challenge, staying there is something entirely different. When South Africa took Australia's crown as the No. 1 Test team in the world, they seemed to have the makings of a side to hold that spot. A strong-willed captain, a mighty batting order, a great allrounder and a fearsome strike bowler.
They couldn't do much to prevent the mace being handed over to India at the start of this month as they hadn't played Test cricket for eight months, but after an innings-and-98-run thrashing at Durban, they look anything but world-leaders. It's the nature of the defeat that is causing the greatest alarm. South Africa have always been beatable, but they rarely get hammered.
Overcoming Australia on their home soil proved such a pinnacle for Graeme Smith's team. It was the fruition of two years' building and followed a victory in Pakistan, a draw away to India then an historic series win in England. Each of those achievements was memorable in its own right, but when Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla knocked off the runs at the MCG that was the moment a generation (and more) had waited for. Since then, alas, there has been a steady slide.
Defeat in a dead rubber at Sydney could be excused - particularly as it came with just 10 balls of the match remaining - but the loss of the return series in South Africa was a real shock to the system. Questions were asked about how the team had prepared, while familiar differences of opinion emerged between the captain and the selectors.
The eight-month hiatus from Tests allowed that particular dust-cloud to settle, but South Africa's performances in limited-overs cricket also suffered. After a crushing defeat in the semi-finals of the World Twenty20, they flopped at home in the Champions Trophy, with a first-round exit, and went on to lose the one-day series against England. Now this innings defeat at Durban has ensured that a year that began with so much promise has turned into one to forget.
"We have to honest with ourselves and look in the mirror. We represent a lot of people's hopes in South Africa and just weren't good enough," Smith said of his team's capitulation. "We haven't played the same amount of Tests as we did in 2008, but 2009 really hasn't lived up to the hype we managed to build last year, and that's disappointing.
"As a team we reached a point and haven't been able to go to the next level. That's something we need to address as a team and maybe as a leadership group. From a coaching perspective we need to look at why we haven't been able to take the next step, and that's something hopefully we can reassess in 2010 and make it a better year."
The similarities between South Africa's post-Australia blues and England's post-2005 Ashes hangover are stark. Under Michael Vaughan, England reached their zenith during that memorable summer and seemingly had a team to dominate for years to come. But it wasn't to be. They just couldn't reach those levels of intensity again for consistent periods. The could be becoming true for South Africa.
Injuries, too, played a part, perhaps more so in England's case but the recent problems for Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis haven't helped the hosts. Then there's the loss of form and confidence. Steve Harmison was never the same after 2005, while Makhaya Ntini is now a shadow of his former self.
And what of the coaches? Duncan Fletcher backed his players to the hilt until it got too much during the 2006-07 Ashes drubbing, when the performances were indefensible and relationships reached breaking point, not least between Fletcher and his captain, Andrew Flintoff. Things are not as dire for Mickey Arthur, but the warning signs are there. He has the utmost faith in his players and his game plans - however, sometimes the call to change becomes too loud to resist.
Smith, though, is cautious of knee-jerk reactions. "We've had one collapse and as disappointing as that is, I don't think it's a call to make massive changes," he said. "It's disappointing when it does happen, it never looks good, but generally the top six have been solid even in this series. Maybe we got a little tentative and didn't commit to our shots as well as have.
"The guys have got good records. It's always important to have these wake-up calls, but disappointing when it does happen. In this series the guys have batted well and handled conditions well, even in the first innings here, 340 was a good effort but we have to go away and improve."
However, his support of Ntini sounded less fulsome than in the days leading up to this Test when he had made it clear there was never a chance of him being omitted despite Friedel de Wet's impressive debut at Centurion. Former players have been critical of the decision, and public opinion may even be swaying against Ntini.
"Makhaya would be the first one to put his hand up and say he's disappointed with the way he has bowled," Smith said. "He comes with a lot of experience and has performed well over a period of time. We have given him all the support we can from behind the scenes and he is an important cog in the line-up. We need to look at all those aspects going into Cape Town and see what we can do.
"We've got a crucial Test starting out the year and we need to make those decisions and move forward pretty quickly. We can turn it all around in a few days time."
Newlands is a stronghold for South Africa and their three previous Tests against England since admission have been crushing victories, including two by an innings. The difference, though, is that on each of those occasions they have entered the New Year Test on the back of a draw, not a confidence-sapping defeat. The force is against them and they will have to dig deep. Smith will be glad there's only one day of 2009 remaining.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo