New Zealand in South Africa 2012-13 January 23, 2013

South Africa struggling for one-day focus

South Africa's one-day series loss to New Zealand came as a surprise, but the 50-over game has not been a priority for a while. That needs to change.

New Zealand's one-day series victory has been hailed as "one of our biggest ever wins in the limited-overs game," by their captain Brendon McCullum and rightly so. Not only is it the first time New Zealand have triumphed in a series of any format in South Africa but it has come off the back of humiliating Test defeats. To have risen from those lows and then scale such heights deserves enormous praise.

But the equivalent amount of disappointment does not appear to be felt by South Africa. These defeats do not substantially differ from their form in the fifty-over format since Gary Kirsten took over.

Since October 2011, South Africa have played 18 ODIs, won nine, lost eight and had one no-result. They have won two series against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, lost two against Australia and New Zealand and shared one with England. Through it all, no-one has looked too bothered.

With the focus on Test performances and getting their hands on the coveted mace, ODI inconsistency was not just tolerated, it was forgotten about. South Africa are one of the few teams who have the luxury of putting 50-over cricket at the back of their minds because they've managed to convince their fans there are more pressing things to think about.

That has to change now, with a Champions Trophy on the horizon and a World Cup to plan for. By then, they will have to find game plans that work and a way to make to progress from a vice that has come back to haunt them again: losing games from positions where they should win.

If South Africa take anything out of this New Zealand series it should be a warning sign that they have not rectified a problem of old. Worse, they seem to be coming up with new ways to let the upper-hand slip.

At Boland Park, New Zealand were 140 for 8, chasing 209. South Africa's bowlers should never have let them get there. The ninth and tenth wickets added 47 and 22 respectively with the former being the second highest partnership of the innings.

That speaks of an inability to be in control at the death, something Peter Kirsten, who commentated on both matches isolated as his biggest concern at the moment. "Ryan McLaren and Dale Steyn just weren't up to the mark and McLaren has been particularly disappointing," he said. Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Rory Kleinveldt may be better options late in an innings, with both able to find that yorker length that evades someone like Morne Morkel.

In Kimberley, South Africa slid from 167 for 1, in search of a competitive but not impossible 280 to 252 all out. They lost nine wickets for 85 runs, five of them through run-outs. Colin Ingram, who was at the other end when both Graeme Smith and Faf du Plessis were found short of their ground said the team "have to be more aware of where the fielders were." That may be the technical reason for South Africa's collapse but the mental one should probably be addressed with greater interest.

South Africa are known for freezing. Ingram insisted they did not jam up in the second match but the evidence says otherwise. The cause for the panic has not yet been found but Kirsten suggested something that could explain it. "I'd like to see more settled batting positions," he said.

If South Africa take anything out of this New Zealand series it should be a warning sign that they have not rectified a problem of old. Worse, they seem to be coming up with new ways to let the upper-hand slip

The floating batting order has not worked. That may be because the players are unable to adjust quickly enough to the demands of different positions or because they feel pressured into performing well in every position and inevitably fail trying to do that. It seems the concept is before its time with the current South African unit who clearly defined roles. Its time they are given that.

Further insecurity has been created by the resting of players like Jacques Kallis and the rotating of premier quicks. The replacements appear to see their opportunity as do or die. They all know that Kallis will be back for a major tournament and do not seem to be sure what to do to make sure he does not return at their expense. Workload management is important in the modern age but when players think every chance is their last, it becomes a balancing act.

Personnel will also come under scrutiny in the aftermath and it is important to note that South Africa were without many of their big-name regulars. In the absence of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers they were missing 196 caps. "We also have to remember that JP Duminy is a big all-round loss," Kirsten said.

The captaincy issue has already been debated in these pages and it will continue to hamper South Africa because they are obviously uncomfortable with this much change. Graeme Smith is the only senior (in terms of age and number of matches) player in the squad for the third ODI. He was seen in regular communication with the bowlers during the second match, but will also want to be careful not to step on toes now that he is not the designated leader.

Kirsten described de Villiers style of leadership as having a "slight immaturity to it that you will get with an inexperienced captain." The same could be seen in Faf du Plessis. South Africa's Test squad has reached the stage were almost all of them are seen as wise heads. To have the complete contrast in the limited-overs is taking its toll.

The Test teams' maturity is not yet evident in the one-day side, neither is its confidence or stability. Now that the ODI side have decided to model themselves on the Test side, maybe a more measured style of play will take effect - not in the sense that South Africa revert back to conservatism but in that they learn when to press an advantage and when to hold back a touch.

"Our Test side is top of the rankings and in the last couple of days we've spoken a lot about where we want to go as a one-day side," Ingram said. "We want to get our win percentages up. The focus is definitely on the number of games we can win because that will take us over the line in big tournaments as well."

With winning even when it does not matter a priority, the third one-dayer in Potchefstroom will be South Africa's chance to start climbing the ladder.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent