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Graeme Smith was the last of South Africa's old guard. The roots of the new one need to grow deeper
March 6, 2014
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 correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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