It was, though, a devastating result at The Oval. Maybe a mystic few saw it all coming but the magnitude of South Africa's first-Test win must be a surprise to most. England may yet produce a monumental turnaround and salvage the series but that seems unlikely. If they don't, the damage done to England's self-perception will have deeper consequences.
It's all so different to a year ago but the No. 1 ranking is clearly toxic. India arrived last year with that lofty status but unravelled spectacularly, losing all four Tests as England grabbed the crown. At that stage it seemed right to talk about legacy building. Though incomparable to the great teams in history, England seemed to have a formula well suited to their era. They were skilful, disciplined and with their best years still to come. Moreover they had a structure in place that was the envy of set-ups around the world.
Instead, since the end of that 2011 summer, England have lost five Tests out of nine. After The Oval, the UAE results look less an aberration to be cast aside and more a stark warning of things to come.
It has left Andrew Strauss with the toughest challenge of his captaincy career. If confidence is a habit born of winning, then every defeat must etch away at the belief that separates the best teams. What's more, the stability that helps individuals flourish in their roles is now under significant strain.
Andy Flower and Strauss can't wave-away the five-bowler question by pointing to the results. The rotation policy that kept key players sidelined can no longer be defended with the crisp repetition of the rankings. Even the attritional, bowling-dry strategy that underpinned England's climb up the rankings is not so easily justifiable any more. Twice in four series England have found opponents attuned to their pace and prepared to out-leave them.
It is premature for now, but it does not take much for cast-iron certainties to dissolve. Another defeat and the management team that have had the board dish up their every passing whim will come under more scrutiny. Hell, even the national structure may soon no longer be able to call itself the nursery to the best team in the world. It didn't take many losses to start doubting Australia's once totally hallowed system.
The 'aura' that teams long to create is less a force to lord over the opposition and more a sense of comfort that binds a team together. 637 for 2 changes that.
It doesn't all crumble overnight. And it's grossly unfair to all those who have strived so hard to turn England into a top team to write-off their chances. After all, over the last two years England have won 14 of their last 25 matches compared with South Africa's six from 14. Yet before India arrived in England they had won nine and lost three as world No. 1s. During their first Test last summer, though, they felt like a team heading the wrong way and have lost every Test since.
England are a fine side and one home defeat doesn't change that, but it does change how people feel about them. Comeback and confidence will never be surer but subside as grimly in the rest of the series and nothing will be sacrosanct.