LONDON, 20 JUNE: They had James Anderson at the peak of his powers, a man strong in the knowledge that on a muggy morning at The Oval no one had more reason to believe he could achieve anything he wanted.
They had Jonathan Trott bringing fresh evidence that on top of his formidable ability he may indeed have a new understanding of quite what constitutes team-work.
So why is it still necessary to be sceptical about England’s ability to get it right at last when they go into their fifth one-day international final at the weekend against the winners of today’s superior slugfest between India and Sri Lanka?
It is because they still managed yesterday to turn something promising no less than the evisceration of a South Africa again mortally weakened by the absence of such pillars as Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel into some kind of passing drama.
It didn’t last for too long, it is true, but after reducing South Africa to 80 for 8, who did England send in for the kill?
Who was deputed to administer the coup de grâce as Anderson, whose impact in the morning had been shattering, had overs in hand and a look on his face guaranteed to chill the blood of the most obdurate opponent? It was Ravi Bopara and Joe Root.
Shane Warne, who has such little reason to be optimistic about the impending Ashes series, naturally seized upon this rare opportunity to direct a little scorn in the Pommy direction.
This was the time to apply a fist to the throat, suggested the old scourge of England.
But instead of the `death bowling’ that is supposed to finish off beaten opponents we had something inexplicably resembling a pardon delivered at the foot of the scaffold.
Ninety-five runs later, thanks to the superb opportunism of the clean hitting young David Miller — surely a talent about to announce itself on a more regular basis — and No 10 Rory Kleinveldt, South Africa had a chance.
Not much of one, admittedly, but when Alastair Cook and Ian Bell went quickly, we were back in that troubling sense that this is a team which, for all its varied gifts, still needs a serious lift up the competitive ladder.
Before the semi-final the big debate concerned the identity of the champion chokers of the ODI game.
Both South Africa and England had their credentials but there could be only one winner after Anderson and Steve Finn delivered the early blows and then the excellent James Tredwell brilliantly undermined what was supposed to be the rest of the serious resistance.
Except, of course, if the South Africans, having not felt the English fist when they were down, managed to heal themselves.
The hitting of Miller, especially, and one delivery from left-armer Robin Peterson which left Trott briefly bemused and encouraged captain AB De Villiers to apply a little pressure around the wicket, were probably never going to create such a miracle, not after Stuart Broad was finally given the chore of closing down the South African innings.
However, inside the hard edge of some outstanding individual performance, especially with the ball, it was difficult not to recall that extraordinary recent decision not to enforce the follow-on in the last Test match against New Zealand.
The subsequent justifications were as absurd as yesterday’s reluctance to drive home a massive advantage.
Such timidity will certainly not do against the sublimely aggressive new generation of Indians or the enduring brilliance of the Sri Lankan stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene in the Edgbaston final.
The threat of rain in Cardiff today could hardly be more of an affront to the dazzling prospect of the replay of the last World Cup final, when the old India was just too strong to be stopped even by the superb batting of Jayawardene.
The new one is, of course, promising to create fresh possibilities in the form of such prodigies as Shikhar Dhawan, Dinesh Karthik and Ravindra Jadeja.
This is the challenge facing England after the latest self-betrayal by South Africa on the big stage. No doubt it is one to which they bring considerable strengths. Trott was again a paragon of concentration, and rather brisker about it, Tredwell could hardly have been a more impressive stand-in for Graeme Swann, and the brooding Finn perhaps produced the single most significant blow of the day when he hustled out Hashim Amla.
Root, when he isn’t expected to apply the killer touch with a ball in his hand, remains a miracle of maturity.
He joined Trott in the important business of insisting that the South Africans abandon all hope.
And then there is the destructive power of Anderson.
It is no mean hand to carry against the consistent brilliance of the Indians or the enduring talent of Sri Lanka.
However, as the redoubtable Warne was saying, there is a pressing need for it to resemble, at the most crucial moments, something resembling rather more a coiled fist.