A man with a beard marched onto the Durban outfield as though he owned it. Behind him bounced a toddler with the giddy gait of someone who may one day own the place himself

That man could easily have been Hashim Amla and his son Abdullah. Instead, it was Moeen Ali carrying on like the king of Kingsmead with his crown prince, Abu Bakr. South Africa were nowhere to be seen.

About 45 minutes later, the embattled opening pair of Dean Elgar and Stiaan van Zyl trudged across from the Friendship Pavilion to the changerooms. Their legs were a little less heavy than they had been for the last five days but their expressions were still worn. The mingling they had done did not change the reality that this defeat had demoralised them.

Even Elgar, who was "the positive light" in his captain's words, did not really have a reason to feel good about himself. Although his century provided some cheer - it was only the second scored in a Test by a South African this year - he lacked support. It is difficult for personal satisfaction to show in that sort of space and that applies to his team-mates too.

As individuals, the South Africans have had their confidence crushed. Even those with considerable reputations like Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy don't seem to have the same self-belief that was so central to their match-winning and match-saving efforts in the past. The captain himself is the most affected.

Amla is carrying the leadership like a lead balloon. He can't focus on it while his own form remains an issue and he can't fix his own form while the team keeps failing. "Not getting runs has been the most disappointing for me. It's more of a confidence thing and the thing about it is that you only get confident once you get the runs," he admitted. "You can be doing everything well in the nets and putting the work in behind the scenes but it's got to materialise to runs on the board in the big games. Hopefully that will happen for me."

With the seniors understandably self-absorbed, the rest of the line-up are not getting the guidance they need to make the step-up. They look suitably lost, as does their overall strategy.

South Africa are refusing to pick an opener to open and insist makeshift players have earned the right to be retained. They don't want to dispense with anyone in their misfiring middle-order because they expect them soon to turn what Amla hopes is a "short corner".

"We know we've got quality there. The key is for us to get that quality firing," Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach said. "It can just take Hashim Amla to hit two or three great drives and off he goes or Faf du Plessis to hit a couple of good shots and everything just clicks into gear."

They can't settle on a spinner and they keep getting out to the opposition's. Dane Piedt's five-for showed he has the potential to become the first-choice but compare his economy rate to Moeen Ali's and you wonder how South Africa will hold an end.

The part-timers can deliver a few decent overs but that's not how it should be. The batsmen shouldn't have to bowl and the bowlers shouldn't have to be taught to bat better as is the case now. Lance Klusener was specifically called in to work with South Africa's lower-order before this Test, a match in which van Zyl and Elgar bowled eight balls less than Morne Morkel in the second innings. Granted, Dale Steyn's injury gave them more to do but they still had to do it and they may have to again given the frequency with which Steyn breaks down.

Compare England, who have the luxury of four seamers and who can allow James Anderson the time he needs to recover because, "it's not about whether he can get through, it's about can he give the best account of himself," as Alastair Cook explained.

South Africa will be happy with Steyn just getting through. They showed as much in India when they took last-minute calls in each of the three Tests after he was injured in the hope he would be able to play. Each time, they must have known they were cutting it too fine but they also knew they did not have too many other choices. They will do the same before the second Test, where they will again run the risk of Amla having only 10-men, something he is struggling to manage.

"Immediately, it changes things in the game. The options are very limited not having Dale Steyn, who you would consider one of your banker bowlers, who you can rely on," Amla said. "But things like this happen. Guys get injured and you've just got to deal with it and use some of your other resources. It puts a lot of workload on the other seamers in the team, which you have to manage, especially having two days turnaround for the next Test but you have to deal with it."

That is essentially how South Africa are playing. They are dealing with things, not dominating. The only consolation they can take is that, as a collective, they are clinging on. South Africa's attack has kept them in the game even as it is being depleted but there is a distinct feeling that any more disruptions will send them into free-fall. "There's been a lot of talk about the batting, about AB's retirement, about Dale's injury, about everything. It's important for us to stick together as a team and shut out the noise," Russell Domingo, the head coach, said.

Perhaps it was always coming. Although it seems like yesterday that Graeme Smith, sans barbe, with a little one in tow was galloping onto the pitch to take a final picture as a team-mate of Jacques Kallis, that was actually two years ago.

Since then, South Africa have only played 11 Tests, won four, lost four and drawn three. They are now at a tipping point. When we see who jogs jauntily across the Newlands outfield in a week's time at the end of the second Test we may know whether they have finally tumbled or if they have managed to turn things around.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent