South Africa seek to fill Kallis-sized hole
For the first time in 18 years, South Africa's selectors will have to pick a Test squad without one of its certainties. Jacques Kallis' retirement has left a gap many have said will be impossible to fill.
While it's understood a player of his magnitude cannot be replaced, South Africa have to, as Shaun Pollock said, find a way to move forward without him as quickly as possible. They have a lot to ponder as they search for a new strategy in the post-Kallis era.
The first consideration is the No. 4 spot. For years, it was thought AB de Villiers was being groomed for that role. De Villiers is the most outrageously talented and adaptable batsman in South Africa's line-up and is capable of switching between the two most important roles in that position: he scores runs under pressure (like at Headingley 2008, and in Hamilton 2012 and Johannesburg 2013) and is the best person to have on hand when there is a platform to take off from (Perth 2012 being a standout illustration).
But de Villiers is not an automatic pick for No. 4 because he is already heavily burdened. He keeps wicket and is also the team's vice-captain; there's also a strong chance he will eventually succeed Graeme Smith, and though that is not imminent, it is something to bear in mind for the long term.
That's why Faf du Plessis is likely to fill the No. 4 spot. Du Plessis' batting style is similar to de Villiers' in that he understands when to attack and when to defend, and has the skills for both. Batting is his only responsibility, although he is also expected to take Kodak-moment catches, so he is a good pick for the crucial role.
Du Plessis also prefers to bat higher up and has openly said so on several occasions. In his 11-Test career, he has already been pushed up three times. The first was against Pakistan in Cape Town last February, when he came in ahead of Kallis, with South Africa in trouble at 50 for 2. The second was in the next match, in Centurion, when Kallis sat out because of injury, and the third, and most telling, was against India in Johannesburg in December 2013.
In that last match Kallis had bowled more than his quota of overs and the team management wanted to give him an extra night's rest. South Africa needed a consolidator and du Plessis was trusted with the job. His century, crafted with patience, took them to the brink of a historic win. It was a performance that underlined his claim to be slotted in at No. 4.
Because Kallis' place in the batting line-up is likely to be occupied by one of de Villiers or du Plessis, the change to the XI will have to happen lower down, at No. 7. That spot has been occupied by an extra specialist batsman since Mark Boucher's retirement in July 2012, and South Africa have always said it is a berth they would like to use creatively, which suggests some experimentation could be in order.
Without Kallis, the only way they can keep a specialist batsman in that position is if JP Duminy becomes their premier allrounder. That would mean forsaking the specialist spinner, a role that has yo-yoed between Imran Tahir and Robin Peterson, though neither has taken ownership of the spot, and tasking Duminy with filling that role in order to include another seamer and maintain the side's balance.
Duminy's offspin has developed significantly. He has shown himself capable of holding up an end and he makes timely breakthroughs, but whether he is good enough to operate as the sole spinner is still a matter of debate. South Africa could try him out at home, where spin rarely plays a role, before deciding if he is a viable option for away Tests as well. In that case, Dean Elgar, who has been on the fringes and has played a handful of matches, would slot in as the additional batsmen. South Africa's XI would then look like this:
Smith, Petersen, Amla, du Plessis, de Villiers, Duminy, Elgar, Philander, Steyn, Morkel, extra seamer (Tsotsobe/Abbott/Kleinveldt).
Another, more likely, option for No. 7 is to slot in an allrounder. That person will be more of a bowling two-in-one, as opposed to Kallis, who was seen as a batting allrounder. Even though there appears to be a dearth of these rare cricketers around, South Africa have some options in that regard.
Ryan McLaren is first name that pops up. He established himself as the first-choice allrounder in the ODI team when Kallis was unavailable for bilateral series, and blossomed once given a regular run. McLaren has only played one Test, against England in 2010, but more than 100 first-class matches. He has a batting average of over 30, with three centuries and 20 fifties, and has taken 329 wickets at 25.47.
Wayne Parnell is the other option. After falling by the wayside, following an impressive start that included three Tests, he has made a full recovery from a serious groin injury, plays regularly for his franchise, and is performing well. Parnell has racked up two List A hundreds, has even opened the batting for the Warriors, and is in good form with the ball. So far in the 2013-14 season he has eight wickets at 12.75 from one match.
South Africa could also look for the allrounder within the group they already have, where three candidates emerge. Rory Kleinveldt is a regular member of the squad and someone who is considered front of the queue. Kleinveldt has scored one first-class hundred and nine fifties and has been one of the most consistent wicket-takers in the domestic game.
The other two options are already part of the team. Both Vernon Philander and Robin Peterson are capable of batting at No. 7. They have three Test fifties each and have batted South Africa out of difficult positions in the recent past - Philander at Lord's in August 2012, Peterson in Durban in December 2013.
If South Africa make use of one of them, they will have a free spot to toy with in the XI, which can be used for either an extra bowler or batsman. The team would look something like this, with the unallocated role able to move anywhere in the order:
Smith, Petersen, Amla, du Plessis, de Villiers, Duminy, No. 7, Philander, Peterson, Steyn, Morkel
Mike Procter, the former convenor of selectors, who admits his panel "never thought of a team without Kallis", is in favour of this approach. He would use the gap to bring in a specialist wicketkeeper, because even though de Villiers' batting average has increased since he took over from Boucher, Procter thinks he is better off as a batsman only. "His batting will progress even more if he does not keep." Some may wonder how much better de Villiers can get but Procter believes he can score match-winning double-hundreds if freed from the gloves.
Should South Africa go this way, they will have to bring in one of the reserve glovemen - Thami Tsolekile or his Lions team-mate Quinton de Kock. Tsolekile is probably the first choice. His issue has also become political because of the lack of black African players in the team. South Africa's Test side has gone more than three years without a member of the country's biggest demographic group and it is understood CSA board members are pushing for Tsolekile's inclusion.
But there is a wave of public support for de Kock, who went from a promising youngster to proven international in the space of a week in which he scored three consecutive ODI hundreds against India. De Kock has played 19 first-class matches, averages 51.96, and has scored four centuries. He is only in his second season as a franchise cricketer and the selectors are wary of rushing him, as current convenor Andrew Hudson confirmed when the squad for India was announced. They also believe his glovework could do with some improvement. De Kock will definitely come into the picture in the future but the Australia series may be a little soon to expect his inclusion.
What all this highlights is that South Africa have options. There is depth, they have different players who offer different skills, and several capable candidates. Kallis' absence will require a rethinking of strategy, but that is not an insurmountable task. Nobody can fill in for the sun but if the stars band together in the correct combinations they can produce something that could be just as good.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent