Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
SA v ENG (1)
IND v NZ (1)
PAK-W in AUS (1)
Ranji Trophy (17)
WU19 WC (2)
Super Smash (1)
BPL 2023 (2)
The 20-odd steps from the Wanderers dressing room to the field is not the longest walk in world cricket but it may be the loneliest. The journey is hidden from prying eyes by a tunnel but you can still hear everything. On a crowded day, that noise is amplified by the banging of hands against the sides of the structure; on a quiet day, the only sound is silence.
When a side is fielding, they make that walk as a team. When they are batting, they make that walk alone. And as Saturday afternoon grew long, it would have become gruelling for South Africa. They lurched from 23 for 1 to 31 for 4 to 67 for 8 and eventually 83 all out; the anger and irritation at their inadequacy grew louder; the hope disappeared.
Suffering from their own self-doubt after several innings of underperformance, South Africa seemed set for an implosion and Stuart Broad's sensational spell sped that up. They were as stunned by him as they were by themselves and showed signs that frailties have now been firmly lodged in the mind.
"Batting is an incredible psychological challenge because one mistake can lead to the end of an innings," Boeta Dippenaar, the former South Africa batsman, told ESPNcricinfo. "Those who are most successful can block out the noise and only worry about the next ball."
While bowlers have multiple chances in the course of a match to make a breakthrough, batsmen are at risk of failing every ball; and the more a batsmen has failed, the more likely he is to fail again. "Someone like Stiaan van Zyl - when he goes out to bat he is thinking about what he has done wrong in the past and what can go wrong again. But someone like Jacques Kallis or AB de Villiers - they don't think of anything too much and just let natural ability take over," Dippenaar said. "They call it being in the zone, when you actually can't tell anybody afterwards what you were thinking, you were just thinking about the next ball."
How easy is it to get in the zone when struggling for form? "Almost impossible," Dippenaar said. "When you are confident you feel like you can walk on water. When you are low on confidence, you feel useless. That's where the challenge comes in. When you are low on confidence, you have to be able to bulls**t yourself into believing good form is an innings away. Players who succeed can handle that well."
Dippenaar admits if he had cracked this balancing act earlier, he may have had more to boast about than 38 Tests and three hundreds. "If I had known all of this when I started playing, then I would have had a longer career," he joked. Instead, he is better remembered for his patches of poor form which included a period of 17 innings with only one half-century and seven single-digit scores early in his international career and one half-century in nine innings at the end. These days, better known for his astute analysis as a commentator.
His advice to South Africa's ailing batsmen is to band together and not allow the outside influences to invade their space. "International cricket can be lonely. When you're doing well, there is a natural affection for you from the fans and the media but when you're doing badly that's gone," Dippenaar said. "Then it's up to your team-mates to support you and it's also up to you to realise you have a responsibility to the team."
With no Test wins in the last 12 months since their victory over West Indies in January 2015 and a winless streak that has extended to nine matches, South Africa have a responsibility that extends further than their own dressing room. They have to answer to the thousands who support them, thousands who were left as shellshocked as they were by Saturday's events.
By tea-time, some started leaving the Wanderers, unwilling to watch a defeat inside three days. On social media, those who bought tickets for Sunday expressed their unhappiness. "Stop making TV ads and start winning matches," said one fan referring to the Protea Fire campaign which aims to let outsiders in on matters such as team spirit. Those flames seem to have been put out and if South African cricket wants to stoke them again, they need to give their supporters a reason to believe that they believe in themselves.