Wounded SA must learn hard lessons

South Africa's long tour ends with little to show (2:23)

Firdose Moonda and Melinda Farrell look back on a tough tour for South Africa, capped off with a final defeat at Old Trafford (2:23)

Dean Elgar's left index finger was heavily strapped. He didn't know if it was broken or not because he decided an x-ray would be a "waste of money." Some South Africans (read: Graeme Smith) wanted Vernon Philander to have the same attitude to "so-called" injuries so that South Africa could get on the park with the players they most needed.

Heino Kuhn's left thigh was heavily strapped. He picked up a hamstring injury on the first day that caused him to hobble about in the field for the next three. He chose that over the physiotherapist's bench because he knew he needed to be on the field to open. Maybe he also knew it would be his last chance to show that 15 years on the domestic circuit had produced someone who was capable of making the step up, even if it was only on one leg.

That was the stage South Africa had reached. Their openers were injured, their spinner was injured, the man they consider their MVP, Philander, was injured and had already returned home, their other allrounder was injured and remained behind, perhaps only to help massage their injured egos. It's been that kind of tour.

When South Africa set sail three months ago, they left with expectation and hope. They were going on a mission: to win a major trophy and another Test series away from home and to expose some exciting new talent in T20 squad and with the A side. They will return with nothing.

After a warning sign in the ODI series, they endured an embarrassing first-round exit from the Champions Trophy, lost the T20s and then went down 3-1 in the Test series - their first defeat in England since 1998. The team song, belted out when a trophy has been won, has not been sung once on this tour, the dressing room silent for all sorts of reasons.

Behind the scenes, uncertainty spread from AB de Villiers' future to Russell Domingo's. The de Villiers saga has dragged on since England toured South Africa at the start of 2016 - 18 months - and Domingo's position has been up in the air for seven, since CSA announced it would seek a new coach at the end of January. The effects of these long-running issues should not be brushed aside, especially as they are still ongoing. De Villiers remains conflicted over his future commitments while Domingo's successor could have been sitting in the opposition change room all along. If it is Ottis Gibson that takes over, he will have to heal an injured side.

"Moeen correctly asked for a review against Amla and then plucked the last two specialist batsmen. South Africa's hopes of saving the series, which had taken hours to ignite, were put out in 10 minutes"

South Africa's personnel problems have been documented throughout the tour but they came to head at Old Trafford, where absence of authority in the batting line-up was glaring. So was the confidence and there are several reasons for that.

England have a high-quality attack with the one of the best new-ball pairs going. In every innings of this series, James Anderson and Stuart Broad did some damage up front, which speaks as much to their skill as it does to the problem South Africa have with their top two. In Toby Roland-Jones, they found an honest third-prong, so much so that he almost doesn't believe it when he has taken a wicket and then there's Moeen Ali. South Africa have a history of difficulty against spinners and he put them in all sorts. In tough batting conditions, against a pack with so many options, a South Africa line-up that is not as strong as it has been in years gone by, could not match up.

And yes, for an hour in the afternoon session, with the injured openers gone and the new No. 4 Temba Bavuma left to wonder if he or anyone else would be able to fill the Kallis-sized hole in that position, when Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis were purring along it looked like maybe, just maybe, South Africa could find a way.

Amla survived the immediate post-lunch burst from Anderson, during which he was struck on the hand and managed not to get an edge to a delivery that nipped back, seamed and climbed on him as it whistled past and then launched into counterattack mode. He reverse-swept not once, not twice but five times and found sweet timing against Roland-Jones and then Ben Stokes. When his fifty came up - this third in the series and fourth in his last 14 innings - it seemed a much-needed century might follow. Amla has only managed three figures once in the last year and fears of a decline were well-founded.

Unlike JP Duminy, who was painful to watch because it looked like someone who used to know how to bat and was struggling to remember, Amla has always appeared to be someone who knows exactly how to bat but was only able to in fits and starts. At Trent Bridge, he seemed to be returning to the Amla of old and then at Old Trafford he gave South Africa momentary belief.

At the other end was the skipper, the man who made his name at as the master of the blockathon but had done more leaving than playing this series, the one who said he wanted to bat in a situation where "all hope is gone" and see what he could make from it. For all his command as a captain, du Plessis does not have the same superstar quality as his predecessor, de Villiers, and he knows it. He has to work much harder for his runs and he prefers it that way, because then he can show his men what he wants from them. For the first time in this series, he batted as though he was setting the example. He was cautious, he came out of his shell when opportunity presented and he didn't let the situation overwhelm him.

As du Plessis and Amla built, memories of South African sides who have shown resilience on the road for most of the last decade - they have only lost two series away from home in that time, including this one - came back. But they were short-lived.

Moeen has been a menace to South Africa all series and after correctly asking for a review against Amla, he plucked out the last remaining specialist batsmen, Quinton de Kock and Theunis de Bruyn, in the space of three balls and it was over. South Africa's hopes of saving the series, that had taken hours to ignite, were put out in 10 minutes.

Keshav Maharaj was the next man in. He had an injured hamstring and an injured finger and at one point in his innings danced down and hit the same Moeen who had found a way through the rest over his head for six. Maharaj was not out at the end and is one of the few who can hold his head high from this tour. He was South Africa's second-most successful bowler after Morne Morkel and did a tireless job, often holding up an end for longer than a session to allow the seamers to rotate and always having something to show for it.

Perhaps that's the way South Africa will need to remember this series. Even though they were wounded several times, they won some battles, some of them against themselves. Even though they lost the series, they learnt. Even though they were injured, they put in what effort they could. This time, it was not enough.