JOHANNESBURG - South African cricket finds itself in this weird place, as plans off the field come to fruition, but the playing side of things looking increasingly off-colour.
The stinging defeat in the opening T20 International against England raised yet more eyebrows, and the feeling that something more than a loss of form is at play grows by the day.
If it were a football club, rumours would be rife that they were playing for the manager to get the sack. Of course, the noises from within all maintain that everyone gets along with everyone, and the goal is now 2019. It's only two British summers away, but it's never looked further away for some players than it has of late.
South Africa trudged to 143 for three in Wednesday, having lost those three scalps early doors. Farhaan Behardien and skipper AB de Villiers scored undefeated half-centuries, but, for the most part, it looke like really hard work. "It was a situation I'm quite used to coming into, having done for the Titans," Behardien pointed out.
It was a crisis, as the tourists looked in danger of folding for a truly astonishing total. Behardien and De Villiers steadied the ship, to be sure, but they never left the harbour. "We tried, but we couldn't get it going. If AB de Villiers is struggling to get the ball away, then you know how tough it is," Behardien confessed.
That point is true, because De Villiers himself maintained that they were trying to get going for most of the second half of the innings. Liam Dawson and young Mason Crane kept a lid on them, and Behardien rose his luck at times, but England were always in control. One may have thought that South Africa would learn from the English bowlers, who bowled an inexhaustible number of varieties, keeping the batsmen guessing.
Crucially, all of England's bowlers kept the ball pitched up. Half-trackers don't ask questions as sincere as fuller lengths. It's always been the way, whatever the format. Mark Wood dropped a few short – especially the one to greet Behardien – but that came with genuine gas.
A good team like South Africa picks those things up, and uses them to their advantage. Instead, one Wayne Parnell over disappeared for 23 inexplicable runs. Heads dropped, hope evaporated, and conversations switched to 'by how much' instead of 'let's wait for the SA spinners'. Runs were spilt in the field, Behardien himself dropped a dolly on the boundary.
It was all a great big mess.
It was in keeping with this tour, and no one can quite put a finger on how such a big window of opportunity for success has shrunk into a porthole to a sea of doom. South Africa appear distracted, and they went through the motions on Wednesday. Patrons who paid hard earned pounds went to the food and drink vendors at the back, and made a point of supporting them for a while longer, because no one expected the procession that was.
People expect better from the Proteas, at home and abroad. There was a sense of giving up after that Parnell over, a case of when, not if they would lose. This team, these players, have never looked so beleaguered. And it has all happened in the blink of an eye.