Kepler Wessels: a champion of bloody-mindedness © Getty Images

A dozen years ago South Africa were a team with few stars, and only one man who knew anything at all about playing Test cricket. That man was Kepler Wessels, and he had faith in the old-fashioned adage that a captain's first and foremost duty to his country and his team was to make sure they could not lose before they even contemplated victory.

Wessels believed that if he could make his inexperienced South African team hard to beat then they might have a chance of actually winning matches. But first, he believed, they needed to inherit some of the bloody-mindedness he had learned while playing for Australia, maximise whatever talent they did possess, and then learn to play for each other.

Fast forward 12 years ... and where are we now? Exactly the same place. Almost. Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis have played 86 and 81 Tests each, but the team, collectively, has lost so much. The attributes of toughness and determination are one thing, but there is the talent to think of, too. Particularly the bowling talent.

In the early and mid-1990s, South Africa fielded a quartet of fast bowlers all capable of taking wickets, and there was no respite for the batsmen. Behind Allan Donald was a queue of good men just waiting to take their turn - Brett Schultz, Craig Matthews, Brian McMillan, Fanie de Villiers, Richard Snell and then, in 1996, Pollock himself. But now there are just two - and Pollock is overworked and suffering because the batsmen are content merely to keep him out, while Makhaya Ntini is struggling through over-exertion and an impatience to break through.

The batsmen are missing Gary Kirsten as badly as a ten-year-old misses his mum on the first day at boarding school, and they are subdued by the knowledge that, without a huge first-innings total, they have no chance of victory and are probably doomed to defeat.

So what you see today is what you get. South Africa aren't suddenly going to find the magic solution and bounce back to being the second-best team in the world, as they were for three or four years.

If they have looked like underdogs scrapping for a bone and hanging onto it for dear life over the first four days at Kanpur, it's because they are. And you can expect more of the same at Kolkata.

Neil Manthorp is a sports journalist based in South Africa and is a partner in the MWP Sports Agency.