South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 3rd day February 14, 2014

South Africa in danger of being scarred

South Africa have become known for their ability to fight back from tough positions, but that skill deserted them on the third day at Centurion as a ragged performance in the field flashed warning signs

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There was the din of disinterest, frustrated fans were fidgeting in the hope of something to cheer and even the slow hand clap seemed to have lost energy. The South African flag was held limply in the hands of its owners, the Australian one was being draped over a banister at Castle Corner.

Could anything have illustrated it better?

Just three days into the series, South Africa were so far behind in Centurion that it seems as though they will start tomorrow from Pretoria. Their batsmen had been burnt by the bustle and bounce of Mitchell Johnson and their effort in the field seemed singed by those remains. It was, and the comparison to a series of a similar name is intended, ashen.

It may well be too early to draw comparisons but they are too striking not to. In Brisbane, Australia recovered from 100 for 5 to post a first innings score of just under 300, bowled England out cheaply and then piled it on, led by a century from David Warner. And it does not end there.

The issues England faced ahead of the series opener were experienced by South Africa too, but to a greater degree. Matt Prior was doubtful then with a calf injury, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Graeme Smith and Vernon Philander all had niggles in the lead-up, JP Duminy hurt his wrist in the warm-up, Steyn was ill on the first day of this Test and Morne Morkel had shoulder trouble on the second.

England had a debate over who their third seamer should be. South Africa's selection conundrum was who to pick at No.7, in the absence of Jacques Kallis. They opted for Ryan McLaren and although mid-match may not be the best time for them to question that choice, they might be doing exactly that. Would Wayne Parnell's pace and alternative angle have made a difference? Should Rory Kleinveldt or even Kyle Abbott have come into contention? And, after glancing at the batting card, maybe they should have rather beefed up in that department?

But where South Africa sunk further than England in that game was with a flat fielding effort, sprinkled with fumbles and underpinned by the three times they dropped Warner.

It is an overused mantra that dangerous players in particular should not be given second chances. Warner got his when he was cramped for room by a Vernon Philander short ball and could not control his hook shot. Dean Elgar, the substitute fielder who had only just come to cover for Steyn, ran in from fine leg and had both hands under the ball but it burst through. It happens.

He got a third chance the next ball. It came against Morne Morkel; a short-of-a-length delivery which Warner pushed, edging to Alviro Petersen at second slip. Petersen had to take it above his head and the combination of jump and grab failed him. It happens

Then Warner got a fourth on 51 when he flashed at McLaren to offer Graeme Smith a high chance at first slip. The captain went for it one-handed but missed. It happens.

When something happens three times, it should serve as a warning to everyone to be on high alert. They should know that another chance cannot be allowed to escape them. But with Warner on 106 - albeit with the damage already done - he was given a fifth life-line when Philander missed an opportunity to run him out when he was sent back by Alex Doolan.

That was the worst of the misfields but there were others. The single Duminy allowed through off his own bowling when he did not get down in time to cut it off; the rare occasion when Faf du Plessis could not cut one off in time in the covers, which allowed Doolan the two runs he needed to get to his fifty; the misfield off Robin Peterson as the day grew long to allow Shaun Marsh to punish the bowler he had already scored 10 off in the over for two more.

Fielding is a benchmark for a team's psyche and on the evidence of today's play South Africa are low on morale, justifiably so. Their much vaunted bowling attack could not bring them back into the game as it has done so effectively in the past.

Steyn's first ball threatened to. In fact, the first three overs of his first spell did. He held his line on middle stump to bombard Warner and Doolan with enough bouncers to let them know it would not be easy. Philander started well, too. He maintained a probing channel and teased them with the subtle movement that has accounted for so many before.

The follow-ups were not quite as menacing. There was too much width from Morkel, too many short balls directed down the legside instead of at the body, of which McLaren was one of the guilty parties and Robin Peterson was as ineffective as expected. All those things will give South Africa plenty to think about for the next time they have to bowl Australia out. They need a better plan than the one we saw at Centurion Park and they need to carry it out properly.

Before they can even get to that, they will have to consider what they are going to do in the other half of their game, with the bat. Sometime tomorrow, probably quite early, they will face Mitchell Johnson again on a surface which has shown inconsistent bounce. Chasing a score over 450 may have seemed possible against India at the Wanderers two months ago but it will be a much more challenging, if not impossible, task here.

Instead, what South Africa have to concentrate on is how much of a fightback they can pose. One of the rare occasions England pushed Australia at all was the final innings of the third Test. This is only a three-Test series, which does not leave South Africa much breathing space. The spirit of Adelaide and Johannesburg means they cannot be written off, but a draw from here would set a new benchmark. At the very least they need to make Australia strain every sinew for victory so that their confidence is not too shattered for Port Elizabeth.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent