'Rebuilding key to reclaiming No. 1 spot' - Domingo
Rebuilding South Africa's Test side as seamlessly as possible following the twin retirements of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis will be key to regaining the No.1 Test ranking, according to coach Russell Domingo. South Africa were displaced from pole position after the ICC's annual update, which saw Australia leapfrog them into top spot, by a 0.35-point margin, following a summer of rich returns for Michael Clarke's men. But Domingo is not pressing the panic button just yet.
"I am a little bit surprised because I thought there was quite a substantial gap between the No.1 and No.2 ranked side but that's the way it is," Domingo told ESPNcricinfo. "We just have to get on with it and play cricket again."
South Africa were assured of holding on to the No.1 ranking even if they lost all three Tests against Australia earlier this year and received prize money of $475,000 on April 1 for topping the rankings. However, they slipped 0.35 points behind Australia after the update at the end of April which dropped results from 2010-11 and weighted series from 2012-13 at only 50%, giving more recent results more emphasis.
Between July 2012 and March 2013, South Africa won eight of the 11 Tests they played, including series victories in England and Australia and a clean sweep of all five Tests against New Zealand and Pakistan at home. But, between October 2013 and March 2014, South Africa's results dipped. They won just three of the seven matches drew a series with Pakistan in the UAE, triumphed over India at home and tasted their first series defeat in five years, against Australia at home.
For Australia that victory and their Ashes triumph, which were both achieved in the past summer, was enough to see them edge ahead of South Africa but their stay at No. 1 could be short-lived. South Africa play three Tests, including one against Zimbabwe, before Australia next take the field in whites and they are targeting those matches as a way to reclaim their crown.
To do that, South Africa will also have to hold their own in Sri Lanka, the place where they last lost a Test series away from home in 2006. They will travel there as a team under reconstruction who, for the first time in almost a decade, will not be led by Graeme Smith.
His successor is expected to be announced in June and is likely to be one of AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis. Both are already international captains, in the ODI and T20 formats respectively, which should make the changing of the guard nothing more complicated that a formality but Domingo still recognises there will be a need for some adjustment and he hopes that can happen smoothly.
"The Test side will take on a new shape now, especially with Kallis and Smith not being there so .the main thing is getting the new leader in place and forging the relationship with him," Domingo said. "It's important that we pick the right person and that person has some time to establish how he wants to do things."
Smith's absence also leaves South Africa in the market search for another opening batsman. Dean Elgar is the frontrunner - not only has he already been part of the Test side but his regular position is in the top order - but names such as Quinton de Kock and Stiaan van Zyl have also been mentioned.
Van Zyl was the leading run-scorer in the most recent edition of the first-class competition, which also saw Justin Ontong, who ended five runs behind van Zyl, surge back into contention. While Domingo would not be drawn on who his preference is, he emphasised that whoever the selectors choose to add to the mix would need to be given time to establish himself.
"There's a big difference between scoring runs at franchise level and at Test level and that's why replacing Kallis and Smith will be the big challenge," Domingo said. "Whoever comes in, it is important that we are patient with him. There are big boots to fill."
Patience was also the quality Kallis called for after Smith's retirement in March. Then, Kallis told the media that bridging the experience gap would be the largest hurdle for South Africa's Test side in the immediate future. "There are going to be some younger players and a little bit more inexperience than usual so there will be more pressure on them," Kallis said. "But there are enough quality players in the system to make sure South Africa always stays there and thereabouts."
Since the rankings system was put into place, in 2003, South Africa have never found themselves outside the top six and have spent the bulk of that time in the top three. Their hovering around the No.1 ranking without actually claiming it was put down to lack of ruthlessness but they resolved that during their run in 2012-13.
Now that those results are no longer valued as highly as far as the rankings are concerned, they have to find their killer instinct again if the hope to summit again. That will be a challenge given the transition period the Test team is going through and what Domingo called the "stop-start," nature of South Africa's schedule.
South Africa will play only five more Tests in 2014 with substantial gaps between them - two in July, one in August and two more in December against West Indies. That will be followed by one more in January before the 2015 World Cup. "It's very much a stop-start Test schedule for us. One-day cricket is the the priority with the World Cup coming up so we don't have many Tests. We only play three Tests before the Boxing Day Test so that's disappointing. It would be nice to play more Tests," Domingo said. And longer Test series.
"The three series I've been involved in so far - two of them have been two-Test series," Domingo said, referring to the series against Pakistan in the UAE last October and India at home in December. "All Test cricket is pressured but two-Test series are always a little more pressure. You can just have one or two bad sessions and then you can't win a Test series. It would be nice to play more three or four-Test series but there's nothing we can do about that."
Lamenting South Africa's lean fixture list is something everyone from Smith to Domingo has done publicly while accepting it is beyond their control. Take the small example of Australia having played 37 matches in the period under consideration for the latest rankings, compared with South Africa's 26. With the FTP still under negotiation and South Africa not among the Big Three, the chances of them playing more often seem slim. That may be the reason Domingo did not mention more fixtures as another way South Africa could seize back top spot.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent