South Africa discover what could possibly go wrong

Bavuma channelling Perth performance for inspiration (1:06)

South Africa batsman says he's thinking about how South Africa came back in Perth, against Australia in November 2016. (1:06)

The warning signs came as early as January when South Africa found out that AB de Villiers had ruled himself out of the four-Test series against England. Having spent time recovering from elbow surgery and contemplating his workload, de Villiers decided he would not be ready in time. For South Africa, at that time, it didn't seem that bad.

De Villiers had not played in the last three series against New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka, and South Africa had won all of them. In fact, there didn't seem to be room for de Villiers in a line-up in which everyone had had at least one innings of substance across those matches. What could possibly go wrong from there?

Five months later in May, Dale Steyn followed suit albeit for different reasons. Steyn was still undergoing rehabilitation on a broken bone in his shoulder and had not bowled since sustaining the injury in November 2016. Though he was running and hiking, he knew his bowling fitness would not be back in time for the Tests. For South Africa at that time, it didn't seem that bad.

Steyn hadn't played for most of the Australia series and all of the Sri Lanka series. And, even though Kyle Abbott had Kolpak'd, between Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Duanne Olivier and Chris Morris, South Africa seemed to have enough in the tank. What could possibly go wrong from there?

This is what went wrong:

Captain Absent

Faf du Plessis' first child was due to arrive in the first week of July so he always knew there was a chance he would miss the Lord's Test. But when his daughter was born a week before the series opener, it began to look as though the timing would be on du Plessis' side. Unfortunately, his wife Imari had a difficult birth and, though both her and the baby are healthy and safe, du Plessis needed to stay home a little longer. He was unable to make it to back in time for Lord's but should rejoin the camp ahead of Friday's second Test at Trent Bridge.

South Africa's contingency plan was that their senior opening batsman, Dean Elgar, would lead, Temba Bavuma would move into du Plessis' No.5 spot, and reserve batsman Theunis de Bruyn would be brought into the line-up. For the most part, that worked. Though Elgar failed to call for a review that would have seen Stuart Broad dismissed for 4 in the first innings, he scored a gutsy half-century and the middle-order mostly came good. They could not, however, make up for three of the top four failing, or the emulate Joe Root's 190, the bedrock of England's first innings.

Rude Rabada

Kagiso Rabada's temper showed itself in January when he was involved in a physical altercation with Niroshan Dickwella in an ODI. Rabada shoved the Sri Lankan and earned himself three demerit points. He will have known that one more would result in a suspension.

But Rabada wasn't thinking of that when he saw the back of Ben Stokes in the third session of the first day. Rabada had been unsuccessful in the morning and afternoon, and England were piling on the runs. So, when Stokes nicked off, Rabada gave him a send-off, albeit not a very creative one. "F*** off," said Rabada and the stump mic picked it up.

Rabada was called to a hearing and admitted his guilt, but the decision has been met with fury from former players. Graeme Smith called it "ridiculous", even though he understood that the swearing incident alone was not the reason Rabada had been punished, while Kevin Pietersen said the ICC was robbing the game of its stars.

And robbing it of a narrative, because there is some history to this. The last time South Africa played England in a Test series, in the 2015-16 home summer, Stokes had some choice words for Temba Bavuma. "You are absolute shit," Stokes said to Bavuma early on in his innings at Newlands. Bavuma went on to score his maiden Test hundred and Rabada, who plays for the same franchise as Bavuma at the Lions, took it on himself to defend his team-mate by delivering bouncer after bouncer to Stokes later in the series. The pair will have to wait until The Oval to resume their rivalry.

Fears over Philander

The last thing South Africa needed was another injury to the pace attack. For a short while, it appeared Vernon Philander may have been the latest to be indisposed after he was unable to bowl at the start of the England second innings because of a blow sustained while batting. Philander was struck on the right hand by a short ball from James Anderson when he had yet to score although he still managed to compile an aggressive 52, which suggested the injury was not too bad.

Though Philander regularly wrung his hand out in pain, he did not appear to have much trouble holding the bat or finding the boundary, which he did seven times. Among his shots was a hoick into the leg-side that would have required a heavy bottom hand, something he may not have been able to play if there had been severe damage.

Philander was taken for an x-ray immediately after South Africa's innings ended which thankfully showed no fracture but severe swelling. After a little while in the dressing room he returned to the field shortly before the close of the third day and the indications were he would bowl on Sunday - which is just what South Africa needed to hear.

In reserve, they have Morris and Olivier - who have played three Tests between them - and Andile Phehlukwayo, who is uncapped. With an already relatively inexperienced line-up, the thought of a similarly green attack will not inspire much confidence in South Africa's ability to compete in the series. And compete they must, to prevent even more from going wrong.