South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town March 11, 2009

End of South Africa's innocence

South Africa's greatest strengths on their triumphant tour of Australia were unity and dignity. Those two qualities are disappearing fast

South Africa's greatest strengths on their triumphant tour of Australia were unity and dignity. Those two qualities are disappearing faster than the shine off a new ball. Their unity started to go when the selectors cut Neil McKenzie and Morne Morkel, which clearly displeased the captain Graeme Smith. Their dignity took a hit when those same selectors gave Ashwell Prince the leadership and took it off him less than a day later.

The coach Mickey Arthur has always been a fan of the "the innocent climb". It's a concept put forward by the NBA coach Pat Riley, who believes that when a team comes together unselfishly and feels itself growing stronger, turf wars and power struggles are put aside. It described perfectly the South Africans in Australia. That's no longer the case.

A team that had been run quietly, calmly and successfully by Arthur and Smith for the past few years has started to whiff of internal tension. The new convenor of selectors Mike Procter has already annoyed Arthur by plumping for JP Duminy over Prince for this home series. After the Durban loss, which confirmed South Africa's first series defeat since mid-2006, Procter and Smith sat next to each other to talk about the decisions, but it was about as united as they would get.

Smith spoke first and voiced his disappointment that the same XI that he had taken into all five Tests against Australia this season was about to be ripped apart. It was natural that Smith was despondent - he had a broken hand and his team had just lost the series - but his body language took an even more negative turn when Procter began to speak.

As Procter explained his rationale for leaving out McKenzie and Morkel, Smith slumped back in his chair, turned his head away and looked off into the distance. It was like he didn't want to listen. Procter's opening statement, which he directed to Smith and Arthur, who wasn't present, gave a strong hint that his panel's choices had been unpopular with the team.

"Neil Mac has done a wonderful job," Procter said. "He came in as a makeshift opening batsman and had a fantastic year last year, so it wasn't an easy decision to come to leave him out. But there does come a time when decisions have to be made. Sometimes it's very tough. At this stage, the selectors obviously feel for Graeme and Mickey because those guys that have been left out have obviously been together for a long time."

Smith's choice of words was equally revealing. After noting that it was naturally disappointing for a group to be split up after achieving so much together, Smith said: "Unfortunately the way of life or the way of sport is that if the selectors feel you haven't played well enough then it's a natural progression that things are going to change."

If the selectors feel you haven't played well enough. It was impossible not to derive that Smith was thinking specifically about McKenzie when he said those words. As McKenzie's opening partner over the past year, Smith knows how hard it is to face the new ball against world-class attacks in a wide range of conditions and consistently give the team strong starts.

A permanent part of the Test top order since the start of 2008, McKenzie had a strong calendar year and finished it with 1073 runs at 53.65. He was a key man on the tours of India and England but his form tailed away and he managed only one half-century against Australia.

Losing McKenzie will be a major change in the South African structure. Hugely popular in the dressing room for his humour and affability, McKenzie also has a sharp cricketing brain and was the acting captain on the field when Smith had a broken hand during the Sydney Test. That he was not given the same responsibility in Durban was telling. At 33, it will be difficult for him to come back.

He and Smith will be replaced at the top of the order by Prince, who is not a regular opener, and the debutant Imraan Khan. It's a risky strategy to play two unfamiliar openers but Procter was adamant that the middle order could not be altered. Hashim Amla, he said, didn't like opening.

But how does the preference of Amla, a supremely talented batsman who has failed to fulfil his promise in the five Tests against Australia, earn more weight than that of Prince, the man who was supposed to lead? Amla opened in Smith's absence at Kingsmead and showed no discomfort with the new ball as he scored 43.

It's just another example of confused logic, as was the decision to make Jacques Kallis captain for Cape Town after initially handing the job to Prince. They're the kind of moves that do little to inspire confidence.

How must McKenzie feel to have his Test career all but ended by a panel that reverses its decisions so quickly? What must the supporters be thinking about the rapid promotion and demotion of Prince? And how nervous will the to-ing and fro-ing make the rest of the squad?

South Africa must rediscover their unity and their dignity. The players and fans deserve better than to lose the innocence of the innocent climb.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo