Australia in South Africa 2013-14 March 6, 2014

South Africa face winds of change

Graeme Smith was the last of South Africa's old guard. The roots of the new one need to grow deeper

In one summer, South African cricket has lost 30 years. The retirements of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis took away three decades of experience and ended an era. Not just any era. South Africa's most successful era.

Before the 2013-14 season began, South Africa's Test side had lost only one series in eight years. That was to Australia at home. They had gone from Antigua to Auckland, and Birmingham to Brisbane, and did not lose for 14 series.

That run isn't as good as those of the great sides - Australia were unbeaten for 16 series between 2001 and 2005 and West Indies for 29 over 15 years - but it broke new ground for South Africa. It made them serious contenders to be considered among Test cricket's legendary outfits. They might not have the longevity, but they do have the ingredients.

Comparisons between Clive Lloyd's West Indian attack and this South African one began when Vernon Philander's rise completed a three-pronged pace battery. With Kallis as the fourth seamer, South Africa had the complete set, though they lacked a world-class spinner. But so did that West Indian team.

Comparisons with Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting's Australia for ruthlessness, however, could not be made with certainty. South Africa were known more for the art of not losing rather than the art of winning. They play hard but their aggression has not yet been sharpened to be as crafty or nuanced as Australia's. Still, when they wiped the floor with last summer's opponents - New Zealand and Pakistan - there were signs the killer instinct was awakening.

The defining characteristic of this South African side was resilience. It was their greatness. They learned conditions around the world, sometimes better than they did the ones at home, and developed a style of play suited to every location. They learned how to get themselves off the ropes and put the opposition on them. The ability to counterpunch is no less a skill than the ability to land the first blow.

Now, South Africa will have to stage their most difficult counterattack yet. This is the challenge Smith talked about 19 months ago, when his team wrested the Test mace from England. He said they would have to learn to stand firm when the wind came to blow them off the mountaintop. The South Easter has arrived.

The great sides of West Indies and Australia had more than one wave of success, and that is why they became iconic. South Africa need a second wave, because the first has washed ashore.

Not only are Smith and Kallis gone, the leader of the triad Mark Boucher went before them. Though South Africa rose to No. 1 without Boucher, who was forced into retirement before that England series by injury, they had been infused by his influence. Boucher remained best friends with Kallis and Smith and close to the rest of the squad. He joined them at training sessions and on team-building camps.

The other person instrumental for South Africa's successful team environment is also no longer a part of the set-up - their former coach Gary Kirsten. Like he did with India, Kirsten took a group of talented individuals and turned them into a winning team. He did that by allowing players the freedom they needed to become a family.

The majority of that family is still around, and they will have to fill the gaps left by the absentees. Dale Steyn has already put his hand up to do that. On the team's early morning flight to Port Elizabeth for the start of the Twenty20 series against Australia, following the Newlands Test defeat, he tweeted a picture with the captain: "Bouch, Kallis and now Biff gone! Officially the old man in the team looking after the new kids!" The photograph was of Steyn sitting next to Quinton de Kock. The young wicketkeeper was fast asleep.

South Africa's coach Russell Domingo spoke about his desire to see AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander use what they learned from Smith, Kallis and Boucher and become icon players themselves. De Villiers and Amla have already done that with their batting. Now they need to it through their leadership.

De Villiers already does to some extent as captain of the ODI team, and Amla does it quietly through example. That has its own benefits because as much as South Africa need to find a new core of seniors, they also need to find suitable personnel. They have already seen how difficult that can be, in the quest to fill the Kallis-sized hole.

Because there have been very few like Kallis in cricket, South Africa have had to try out different lower-order allrounders to find a replacement. It is too early to tell which of Ryan McLaren, Wayne Parnell and Kyle Abbott is the long-term solution, especially given Philander's ability to do a similar job in the tail.

Now South Africa have the additional task of finding an opening batsman, possibly two. Alviro Petersen is only just clinging on to his spot. Dean Elgar was fighting him for it, but now that Smith is gone Elgar has an easier vacancy to fill. The opening duo of Petersen and Elgar will not inspire the same confidence as Smith and Petersen, or Smith and Elgar, or Smith and anyone did.

It's that syndrome South Africa will have to get over. The only way to move on from losing Smith - and Kallis and Boucher - is to make a clean break. No comparisons, no longing for their return and no excuses. It needs to be balanced against making sure they get the appreciation and praise they deserve for their all they have given South African cricket.

When last spring sprung, nobody would have said with certainty that both Kallis and Smith were about to join Boucher and Kirsten as men who had decided the autumn of their careers was over. Domingo has already endured one winter of discontent in his first assignment as national coach with the ODI side, in Sri Lanka last August. He will not want another when he takes the Test team there this July under a new captain. Should South Africa come through that unscathed they can look forward to a good home summer. A summer of new beginnings.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on March 12, 2014, 9:01 GMT

    As a SA fan, i dont believe their are any fans that believe our team is as good or comes close to the two great teams of the past. but as the current best team who would you compare them to? re. new players coming in, i would rather take young talent than ageing experience. with dekock, van zyl, abbot etc i dont think the transition will be as bad as people think.

  • Gerald on March 10, 2014, 11:41 GMT

    @Waheed_Vadi - I don't so much mind Faf being captain, but it would probably be with the understanding that it is temporary. Despite his 50+ average I don't know if Faf has the ability to ensure his place in the team long term.

  • Gerald on March 10, 2014, 11:40 GMT

    Yeah... I said this almost a year ago. The challenge for SA will be when their old guys start retiring, like it is for any team. Can we replace them? The next tricky period will be when Steyn goes (bowler at 30), then AB and Amla (batsmen at 30).

    Unfortunately Alviro Petersen has blocked the pipeline for a while now. So instead of having a settled young guy to take over from Smith we have one seriously average opener with a new guy. Worrying because now we either have to have two new openers or persist with mediocre Petersen, who at 34 years of age can't be long for the playing field either. Well done SA politics you have caused a crisis up front.

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2014, 17:57 GMT

    Now is not the time to look back and split hair who the the best team was. It is time to renew and look forward. I like the comments by Vadi, Creebo77 and Coetzee. Faf must be captain in all short forms of the game, but AB must be the test captain and WC in the short term. When De Kock is ready he can take over. AB and Hashim Amla are vital cogs in the batting line-up and should bat 4 and 5 with Miller at six and Duminy at 7. Why not blend the young Markram in now with Dean Elgar and Siaan van Zyl at three? Morne Morkel must start to get wickets or ship out in favour of Abbott. It is also important to have a left-armer i.e Parnell or B. Hendricks or even both if Morkel is not improving. Morkel must also work on his batting, he has become a walking wicket. It is painful to see him bat, even embarrassing.

  • creebo on March 9, 2014, 10:40 GMT

    Play philander as all rounder with 3 seamers,7 duminy as spinner,de kock as keeper ,also bring in stiaan van batsman currently in sa,morne morkel needs a bowling coach.

  • Bob on March 9, 2014, 9:59 GMT

    It's pointless asserting a particular side is or was the best of all time. It's hard enough with individuals, except that Bradman dominated as a batsman more than any other in any era. We can have some vague idea about sides we have seen and fantasise about particular sides playing each other. My fantasy tournament would involve the 1970 SA side, the 1973-5 Aussie side, 1 or 2 of the WI sides from the 1970s or 80s, one of the Aussie sides from the 1990s, the 2005 English side and the 2007 Aussie side. Sorry, Saffers, the current SA side isn't even in the same ballpark. I think it would become a function of the venue to pick a winner - in Australia or SA, I would pick the 1973-5 Aussie side, simply because Liillee and Thommo (pre-shoulder injury) were irresistible. (They beat WI 4-1, and that was the the WI side that went on to be irresistible itself). In England, the 2005 English were awesome. The challenger would be SA 1970. Of course, in India, any number of Indian sides. Such fun!

  • Steve on March 9, 2014, 1:08 GMT

    Excellent article. Firdose is NOT saying the current SA side compares with the great WI & Aust teams, but the potential may be there. To quote Dungar.Bob in an earlier article...SA inherited a power vacuum and it wasn't created solely by the Aussies losing their grip either. During the Aussies time there were at least 3 other very good teams running around. India with Tend, Dravid, Laxmann, Sehwag and Singh were a brilliant side. Pakistan with Waquar, Wasim and Ahktar were an awesome bowling side and then there was South Africa with Donald, a young Kallis, Kirsten, Pollock etc who were also very, very good. 3 of these sides declined at pretty much the same time. That's when SA took over. Who have they had to beat to stay there? nobody much. The rest of us have been rubbish..

  • Dummy4 on March 8, 2014, 16:18 GMT

    Make Faf captain.

    Bring in (experienced with a few years left in him) Cook as opener to help with the transition.

    Duminy as all rounder (remains on balance the best spinning option in SA)

    Either give De Kock the gloves or bring in Miller.

    And tell Morkel that he should be the one taking the wickets (He is at least as quick and nasty as Mitch, if not more so). Otherwise drop him for another wicket taker.

  • Waheed on March 8, 2014, 9:17 GMT

    Continued: I also think that the travelling squad members should be future Test players who are being groomed into their roles. There is no need to carry around aging players who will never get a game anyway (Tsolekile) or over-weight average players (Kleinveldt) who will never make an impact! Look at how well the system worked with JP Duminy - he was carried around all over the world and groomed into a Test player. So when the opportunity came for his inclusion in 2008, he was ready to come into the side and make an impact!

  • Waheed on March 8, 2014, 9:16 GMT

    Continued: On the captaincy issue, I would make Faf Du Plessis captain based on the fact that I don't think we should burden AB with 3 roles (batsman, keeper and captain). I feel that his batting would suffer and that is not what we want. He is currently the best batsman in the world by a mile and then some and the fact that he keeps wicket means that he basically assumes an allrounders role which allows us to play an extra batsman/bowler in the order. I also like Faf's temperament and think his leadership style will be a continuation of the groundwork which Smith has laid for the future leaders of this team. He is more of a natural leader than AB and I think that he would fit the role better at this point in time.

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