South Africa v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Durban, 4th day December 29, 2011

Time for South Africa to introspect, again

South Africa's mental toughness has been questioned often, and defeats like the one at Kingsmead will continue that trend

A walk along the beach is said to be one of the cures for a troubled mind or a hassled heart and the South African team will have the time to test the theory. With no flight available from Durban to Cape Town until their scheduled departure on Saturday and a summer's day expected on Friday, they could do worse than spend a few hours reflecting on their fourth consecutive defeat in Durban.

In black and white, the two batting collapses are easily identifiable as the reason South Africa were unable to compete with Sri Lanka in this match. But, in the grey areas in between, it's what went on in the minds of the 11 men and their support staff that resulted in South Africa being outfoxed by a Sri Lankan side with a combination of craft and competence rather than simply confidence.

South Africa have been blamed for misplaced complacency, based on the expectation of a green pitch in Durban that will assist their quicks, distraction, from their families' presence over the festive season or the pure inability to be consistent for significant enough periods of time for their failing at Kingsmead. It seems that the mixture of all three was the cause for their current showing and it's something that the squad are unable to explain, be it through their senior players, coach and now even captain.

An enormously talented group of players has spent the past 12 months falling at the crucial hurdle so hard that bruising on their noses is close to becoming a tattoo. Often labelled as a team with serious mental weaknesses that are not been properly addressed, South Africa continually make attempts to build stronger mindsets. Over and over again, they fail.

"I thought we were really getting there after Centurion," Graeme Smith, South Africa Test captain, said. Not for the first time this year, he made no attempt to hide his distress. "I thought the side had really progressed but we took a step back here."

After a comprehensive win at SuperSport Park, South Africa slumped to an equally comprehensive defeat in Durban. What they got right in there, they got wrong here. Things like building partnerships, working as a unit with the ball and complementing each other's strong performances turned into batting collapses, periods of nothingness in the field and implosions of spectacular size.

Gary Kirsten said one of South Africa's chief concerns is that they cannot string two sessions of solid play together and once they find themselves a little wounded, they "can't stop the bleeding." Today, as on day two, that session came after a break. Post-lunch South Africa lost 5 for 45 and on the second day of the match, they crashed to 168 all out after being 100 for 3 at tea.

"We haven't started well after breaks in this Test match," Smith said. "Things are said, things are done and players look focused but it's one of the things I wish I could put my finger on for you. It's just not good enough and we've got to improve."

The same thing happened with ball in hand. After lunch on day three, South Africa's pace attack banged in misdirected short balls on all sides of the track. They were ineffective and expensive in that period, sorely lacking a containing bowler, who could tie up an end for them.

"We struggled to gain control with the ball," Smith admitted. "We picked up wickets but we lacked a little bit of structure and a little bit of consistency in our bowling, Maybe we weren't as patient enough as we need to be on this surface. We had a very aggressive attack going into this game and Jakes [Jacques Kallis] is not offering the same amount of overs as he once did but it does allow us to have more attacking options and a bit more flair."

With some uneven bounce and turn out off the rough on offer, there was enough for any attack to work with but South Africa were unable to and Smith said it could have been a problem of adjustment to a pitch that was not the traditional green mamba. "They [Sri Lanka] adapted to the conditions, which were a little bit slower, reverse-swing played a bit of a role and spin too," Smith said. "We've come off some good pace at Centurion and I am saying we didn't adapt well enough. We didn't match their skills on this surface. I wish I had a better excuse."

Having said that, Smith made it clear who would have to take responsibility for the loss. "It's not the bowlers' fault," he said. I can't blame the bowlers. When you are bowled out for 168, you are always playing catch up."

Now, South Africa will also play catch up in the series, which they were expected to have won by now but will have to claw their way back in. "We've been here before," Smith said. "We know we need to take our shotgun pellets in the next few days and we have to regroup and bounce back as a team and the only way to do that is to regroup and bounce back as a team."

On the whole, South Africa have to improve as a unit but, perhaps, more importantly, as individuals. Two of them that will have the most work to do are Jacques Rudolph, who has failed to impress since his Test return, and Ashwell Prince, whose position in the middle order is constantly under scrutiny, now more than ever before. Both men are deep-thinking characters who may benefit from a soul-searching stroll by the sea more than most.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent