After 205 days, it was back to earth with a bump for England in Cape Town on Tuesday.
The last time Eoin Morgan’s side had played a One-Day International it was that wonderful sun-soaked July evening at Lord’s when the most unbelievable sequence of events saw them beat New Zealand in a super over and win the Cricket World Cup.
Back playing the 50-over format, after what feels like a lifetime, there were no such dramatic instances of good fortune and no winning feeling as South Africa romped to a seven-wicket win.
After a successful but wearing Test series against the Proteas, England have opted to try and cover several bases in the following three-match ODI series, in which they now find themselves 1-0 down.
Blooding new players
The 2023 World Cup in India, where they will aim to defend their crown, is in the back of the minds of Chris Silverwood and his staff, while the Twenty20 World Cup in Australia later this year is of greater concern.
Blooding new players for those experiences and getting regulars into white-ball form while simultaneously resting key, all-format figures is not an easy balance to strike – and so it proved on Tuesday.
With no Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer or Adil Rashid, England’s side had a new look to it.
Tom Banton and Matt Parkinson made their ODI debuts, while Test regulars Sam Curran and Joe Denly were given opportunities to impress. This mishmash of a selection ultimately proved their downfall.
Stumbling middle order
As they have made a habit of doing, Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow got England off to a solid start after they were put into bat by new South Africa captain Quinton de Kock. But once both fell victim to mistimed shots on the slow pitch England stumbled.
The middle order came and went, undone by Tabraiz Shamsi’s canny spin, and it took Denly – a 33-year-old batsman unlikely to play in either of the upcoming World Cups – to steady the ship with an innings of 87 alongside Chris Woakes (40).
His efforts got the visitors to 258-8 – a far cry from their usual innings of 300 plus, but enough to give some hope of a win.
But if their relatively inexperienced batting was a problem, their bowling soon appeared to be more so.
With Woakes the only survivor from the attack which played in the World Cup final, it was to prove a tough ask to restrict the runs.
De Kock and Bavuma in control
De Kock and Temba Bavuma conducted the chase with ease, flaying the bowling all around the park to put on 173 together.
De Kock made 107 through inventive reverse-sweeps and powerful striking down the ground, while Bavuma’s quick hands and instinctive timing saw him fall just short of a century on 98.
The inadequacy of England’s bowling was highlighted by Joe Root coming on at first change, ahead of Parkinson, Tom Curran and Chris Jordan, while Denly’s part-time leg-spin was afforded more overs than Jordan and Sam Curran.
“We were way off the mark. We’ve got no excuses, we didn’t adapt to the conditions in front of us,” said Morgan.
“The new boys will learn a lot. The guys making their debut will have got a taste of international cricket. We need to continue to learn as we did in the past.”
After such a defeat England might be best served to return to their old formula on Friday in Durban, rather than trying to juggle so many objectives all at once.