This South Africa tour has been as nervously anticipated as the Ashes, but as the Test series draws closer, and the ODI matches bump to a close, we are left with yet another English series to squint at in confusion.
No one can deny that the current English team has a lot of talent - led by Andrew Strauss, in the form of his life, their batting includes a steady newcomer in Jonathan Trott, a scintillating Paul Collingwood, a returning Kevin Pietersen, and a host more. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are a good frontline attack, ably backed up by Tim Bresnan, who's proving himself as an international player, while Graeme Swann's off-spin is always a danger to opposing teams.
And yet, the team cannot seem to perform for two games in a row. Look at the Ashes - Cardiff, Lords, Edgbaston, Headingley, The Oval. The momentum swung terrifyingly to and fro like Mike Gatting on the end of a rope. Australia then ripped them to shreds in the ODIs. The English then took on the Champions Trophy and were unlikely semi-finalists. And now this.
South Africa have been shown up in this as much as England. Without Jacques Kallis, one of the finest cricketers in the world with bat and ball, they looked dangerously balanced to start with. Hashim Amla showed good form and deserved his opening spot alongside the wonderful Graeme Smith , but JP Duminy, although a fantastic player, isn't a typical number 4. AB de Villiers, arguably in the top 3 batsmen on the planet, was elevated to number 3, and then came the 5-6-7 combination of Alviro Petersen, Ryan McLaren, and Albie Morkel. Herschelle Gibbs was another absentee for the first match.
They made 250, which is a modest score in Centurion today, with Petersen Duminy and Amla contributing decent knocks. England were able to chase it down without too much problem, Jonathan Trott making 87 (he also bowled 7 overs for 21 runs) before Collingwood finished them off with a superb 5th one-day ton.
Once bitten, twice destructive. The second game displayed the potential of that South African side - Smith and Amla got the Proteas off to a hundred-run partnership before handing the reins to de Villiers, who cracked a rapid-fire century to boost South Africa to 354. England never believed a chase possible, with both openers falling for 24, and Collingwood's 86 would prove far too little in the end, with the away team falling 111 runs short.
But it wouldn't be an England tour without a turnaround. Having brought Gibbs into the squad but not started him, South Africa elected to bat in Port Elizabeth yesterday morning, and stumbled to a record-low home total of 119. James Anderson was simply fantastic, collecting career-best figures of 5-23, and showing a welcome return to his destructive pre-Ashes form. Trott and Strauss set the visitors off nicely and they completed the job efficiently.
So what happened? It's no coincidence that South Africa's triumphs on the tour have coincided with Graeme Smith having good innings, and their disasters have seen him make an early exit. It seems that without Kallis at the top to steady things, the team tends to panic after the captain falls. The lower order are fine when building on a big total and they can let loose, but put more responsibility on them and it's a different story. Ryan McLaren may call himself an all-rounder, but 11 runs in 4 innings is a stat that needs to change quickly.
South Africa have little choice but to bring back Gibbs for the next match; having brought him into the squad and then capitulated as they did it seems ridiculous to overlook him. The problem is that Kallis has not only weakened their batting, but their bowling as well. His 8 or 10 overs are extremely valuable as a steadying influence while Morkel, McLaren, and van der Merwe are bowling the rest. He hopes to be back for the Test series, but South Africa need to start finding options for when the big man can't make it. With him they appear almost impenetrable; without him there's a nerviness and precipicial element that they could do without.
So what's going to happen on Friday? I'm going to go the usual way - England dominated the last match, so South Africa will blow them away.