Cape Town - South Africa had shuffled some baby steps forward, despite 2-1 defeat, in the still extremely recent, highly competitive Twenty20 international series with England.
On Friday at a stunned-into-silence Wanderers (so much for a raucously hostile Warner-Smith welcome, eh?) they lurched several large, clumsy paces backward in the first of three contests with southern hemisphere arch-rivals Australia.
The Proteas were truly given a bloody nose: thrashed by a gaping margin of 107 runs as they posted their lowest completed total (89) against any customers in the format, well within the prior ignominious landmark of 98 all out against Sri Lanka at Colombo in August 2018.
It was also a new low against these foes, considering the previous statistic of 101 for seven in a full 20 overs at Melbourne in August 2014 – their worst earlier “all out” against the Australians had been 114 at Brisbane in January 2006.
This was boys against men at the rosily-attended Wanderers ... a situation we might fairly reasonably have anticipated would have been the other way around for game one, considering that Quinton de Kock and company had just come off the usefully tense exertions against the English, whereas their foes were catapulted into action on the highveld not terribly long off their long-haul travel here.
In short, virtually everything went wrong for the Proteas after the one - ultimately very inconsequential - positive of winning the toss, and installing the visitors.
Their upfront bowling was harrowingly all over the show, to the extent that Australia slammed 70 for one in the first powerplay of six overs, a damaging spell of bravado from which the host nation never really recovered.
In that period, “short and wide” was the dubious major hallmark from a frontline seam attack of Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada, so much so that a baffled Shaun Pollock, in SuperSport commentary, said: “This just falls into Australian laps, considering what they’re used to (on surfaces) back home ... I thought, opening up with these three experienced bowlers, they’d hit the top of off and build pressure.
“Instead South Africa looked more like an inexperienced attack in those first six.”
Criminally, South Africa also gifted an effective two extra overs, as the Aussies posted a total just inside the 200-mark, through 12 wides - a wholly unacceptable tally in such an abbreviated format of the game.
While he wasn’t the worst offender in that specific department, Rabada had a “comeback” match to forget after his supposedly rejuvenating little hiatus from the game - he has just returned from a jolly in the United States but some of his deliveries almost seemed to fly straight back to Chicago.
The pace bowler, albeit having his share of ill-luck with miscued sixes and fours alike in the thin air, was belted for 45 runs in only three overs, his worst economy rate (15.00) in 22 T20 international bowling dates and most brutal personal treatment since figures of 4-0-50-2 (12. 50 runs per over) against England at Mumbai in the ICC World T20 of 2016.
Steyn at least was significantly improved in return duty later in the Australian innings, where the visitors nevertheless went well north of the average day/night total (164) for the bat-first side in T20s at the Bullring.
South Africa’s extremely scratchy fielding was no help at all to the hard-pressed attack, either: there were at least three notable instances of costly, near-comical “I’ll leave it for you” miscommunications between pairs of fielders under high balls; the kind of stuff that simply shouldn’t happen to that extent at this level of competition.
But then there’s the batting, the real sore point of the night from a Proteas perspective where 44 for seven, ahead of some consolation late hitting by Rabada and one or two others, most glaringly summed up their frontline plight.
It is true that the absence of two currently in-form customers - Temba Bavuma, and an eleventh-hour withdrawal by Heinrich Klaasen due to a limbering-up injury - hardly helped the cause.
Yet it is difficult to escape a cold shudder these days in one of those rare instances - and this was one - where De Kock fails at the top.
You just sense “trouble” too easily from there considering the lack of satisfactorily consistent, proven match-winners further down the order.
South Africa must be the only fairly heavyweight nation, too, to inexplicably believe they can get away with having pad up, at the fall of the third or fourth wicket, someone at No 7 (Andile Phehlukwayo, albeit a known skilful bowler) with a batting average after 27 caps of 10 ... it slipped to 9.20 after his golden duck.
A dangerously expansive, more orthodox tail then begins with Steyn (at least in this fixture) at an also too-high No 8: the veteran strike bowler found himself taking guard as farcically early as the eighth over, and that just can’t be right.
The Proteas’ ongoing fallibility against spin came nastily back to the fore as, between them, the Aussie pair of Ashton Agar (he earned a hat-trick) and Adam Zampa bagged a riotous 7/33 between them.
This was a debacle for the Proteas, pure and simple.
It must emphatically not be repeated in the second, possibly series-decisive encounter at St George’s Park on Sunday.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing