Their bowling lacked bite, their much-heralded top three contributed 26 runs between them, and their captain was scathing about what he saw as a "pretty average" performance. And yet England still won the first T20I by five wickets with four balls to spare - ominous signs for South Africa, as they stumble towards next year's T20 World Cup.
In football, managers and pundits often suggest victories like England's demonstrate that the best teams find a way to win without playing at their usual level, and that seems to fit with this side. "When you win games like that and you've a lot [of improvement] to make up in all three facets [of the game] you can be pleased," said Eoin Morgan.
Since the start of the 2018-19 winter, England have won six and drawn one of their seven T20I series despite rarely - if ever - fielding their strongest XI. They are well on course for a seventh win in eight, and will hope to put the series to bed in Sunday afternoon's game at Paarl to give them the chance to be creative in the final game.
For South Africa, there were positive signs in defeat but the same old problems remained. An over-reliance on Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis to score the bulk of the runs? Check. An attack which came up short at key moments? Check. An imbalanced playing XI which meant a back-up wicketkeeper was the sixth bowling option? Check.
The biggest positive will have been George Linde's impressive debut, which saw him take 2 for 20 after whacking two boundaries at the death. Most pleasingly, he demonstrated his ability to bowl at both left- and right-handers, not only dismissing Jason Roy with his second ball but also keeping Dawid Malan tied down despite turning the ball into his pads.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLWLL England WLWWL
Tabraiz Shamsi has been a lock in South Africa's T20I side for the best part of three years now, but the jury is out as to whether he is a genuine match-winner or simply keeping Imran Tahir's spot warm before the T20 World Cup. Shamsi showed in the series against England and Australia in February that he is a canny operator with good variations, but was only afforded three overs in Friday's series opener as Jonny Bairstow took a particular liking to him. With England creating left-right partnerships throughout their batting order, he will need to find a way to keep the right-handers quiet - perhaps by using his googly more.
It has been a difficult nine months for Jason Roy in an England shirt - with injuries limiting him to only seven white-ball innings for them in that time, his highest score was his 24 against Ireland back in July. Roy spoke before this series about feeling refreshed and re-energised after withdrawing from the IPL to spend time with his young family, but managed a second-baller on Friday night. He has a huge amount of credit in the bank, and has fifties in three of his last six T20I innings, but can expect South Africa to target him with Linde's left-arm spin early on again.
The two Covid-positive players in South Africa's enlarged squad may be able to rejoin the group relatively soon, but the team doctor said on Thursday that they were highly unlikely to play a part in the series. Anrich Nortje was left out, perhaps with a focus on transformation targets, in the series opener, but looks set to replace Beuran Hendricks after his nightmare final over. That will mean a batting reshuffle, with Reeza Hendricks the most likely player to come in, possibly at the expense of Pite van Biljon. If Quinton de Kock decides he needs another bowling option in the top six, Jon-Jon Smuts could be handed another chance.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (capt, wk), 2 Reeza Hendricks, 3 Temba Bavuma, 4 Faf du Plessis, 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 Heinrich Klaasen/Jon-Jon Smuts, 7 George Linde, 8 Lungi Ngidi, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
England are unlikely to rip up their latest blueprint immediately, though could make changes for the third game if the batting line-up fails to click again. Instead, the most likely change would involve Mark Wood replacing Tom Curran to add pace to the bowling attack.
England (possible): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jos Buttler (wk), 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Jonny Bairstow, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Eoin Morgan (capt), 7 Sam Curran, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood
The pitch at Boland Park in Paarl tends to be flat, and it is set to be a 30-degrees scorcher on Sunday. The average score batting first in all T20s there since the start of the 2018-19 Mzansi Super League is 166, but there is a strong chasing bias: the team batting second has won nine out of the last 13 games there. In the same timeframe, Shamsi is the leading wicket-taker on the ground, with 14 wickets. In terms of atmosphere, the ground is one of the best in the country, so the absence of a crowd will be keenly felt.
Stats and trivia
Dawid Malan has not hit a fifty in any of his last three innings - it is a measure of his consistency in T20I cricket that this is the first such streak in his 17-match career in the format.
Faf du Plessis is 97 runs short of the 1500-run mark for South Africa in T20Is. He would be the third man to get there after JP Duminy and AB de Villiers. Jos Buttler is 38 short of the same landmark.
Jonny Bairstow's half-century was his first at No. 4 in T20I cricket, and means he has now hit at least one fifty in every position from opener down to No. 5.
England have not played a full men's international at Boland Park before. They played an intra-squad warm-up in Paarl on Monday, and against a South Africa A side in a T20 friendly on their 2016 tour.
"It's always very special. It doesn't matter how many times you've done it. The time away from the game really made me miss the game of cricket again so to come back and play for the Proteas is just as special as it always has been, especially against a quality team like in England." Faf du Plessis is delighted to be back in the green and gold
"I would imagine the more time we spend together and the more we play, the more we will get used to roles that we play and start to gel like we have in 50-over cricket. It is not doom and gloom but hopefully we will improve and progress in the next couple of games." Eoin Morgan thinks England have plenty of room for improvement