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The 1-0 series win over India embellished South Africa's strengths and reputation. The team, however, needs to find a lead spinner and adopt a forward-thinking outlook to prepare for life without Jacques Kallis
Firdose Moonda in Durban
December 31, 2013
Steyn and de Villiers stand out
If the South African Test team believed in omens, they may have been concerned about the one staring them in face before this India tour. Before the tour, they had been undefeated in 13 series. Fortunately, they don't need lucky numbers to keep winning.
Instead the figures worked in their favour. One is the most important number, because that's the margin by which they sealed the series victory, but there are many others for them to take heart from as they extended their lead at the top of the Test rankings. They took their count of Test wins in this calendar year to seven with only one defeat, and gained two points in the Test rankings to widen the gap between themselves and their nearest challenger, India, to 16.
That distance will come in handy because South Africa have a dearth of Test cricket in the next 12 months. February's series against Australia is their biggest challenge, followed by matches against Zimbabwe away and West Indies at home. At least they know they are almost fully equipped for those tussles.
From this India series, South Africa regained the form of the two batsmen in their batting line-up who were lacking it, reconfirmed the value and skill of their pace trio and reclaimed as their own the one ground in the country that was considered an away venue. Those gains will go some way in offsetting the questions that still exist over who their best spinner is and the loss of their greatest-ever player.
Faf du Plessis and Alviro Petersen ended as South Africa's highest and joint second-highest run-scorers of the series. Du Plessis' century in Johannesburg illustrated the arts of patience and determination and proved that what he did in Adelaide 13 months ago was not a once-off. Importantly, it came with him batting at No.4, which will be an indication to South Africa that he is the best candidate to step into the gap Jacques Kallis has left. Du Plessis has the technique and temperament to anchor an innings so others can bat around him.
Petersen went into this series with a string of sub-30 scores to his name. In nine innings before the Johannesburg Test, he had failed to cross 30 once. In his first knock at the Wanderers, he scored 21. Under pressure in the second innings, with South Africa in the red, he composed a careful 76 and shared a century stand with Graeme Smith.
He followed that up with another hundred-run partnership with the captain in Durban, in which Petersen also raised his bat to a half-century. Although India's attack did not pose the same challenges as Pakistan - the latter's variations make them tougher - that he came through the India series unscathed will have bought him time in the team. Du Plessis and Petersen were South Africa's main worries in their line-up before this series and for both to have proved themselves again sets them up well for 2014.
Kingsmead was the other concern. Located in the heartland of the largest Indian expat area in South Africa, it has gained a reputation for favouring opposition. South Africa's two most recent defeats there were against subcontinental opposition and, with India visiting this time, it seemed the conspiracy would continue.
The pitch was not a typical home surface - on appearance and in the way it played. It was slow, sans much pace and carry, offered little for the seamers and was difficult to score freely on. Despite that, South Africa found a way. Dale Steyn helped himself to what he has called one of his best five-fors in the game and notched up his 350th wicket - in the same year he also took his 300th - giving yet another demonstration of why he is the most highly-rated bowler in the world. Vernon Philander showed he has the ability to adapt to surfaces of this nature while Morne Morkel continued to be miserly, quick and extract bounce.
|More pressing will be adjusting to life without Kallis. South Africa need only look at India, who played their first series without Sachin Tendulkar, to see that it can be done but they will have to think carefully about how they're going to go about it.|
There are no problems in South Africa's pace department, with plenty in reserve, which will set up an intriguing battle of the bowlers against Australia, but there is a worry in their spin cupboard. Neither Imran Tahir nor Robin Peterson is the answer. The former's confidence took a knock on an unhelpful surface at the Wanderers and he returned to bad, old habits of offering full tosses. The latter ended the Durban match with four wickets but that can be considered flattering.
Peterson was largely unthreatening - two of his scalps were off terrible shots, another one went to a sterling catch and the fourth was not out. Sometimes that kind of luck is what it takes to spark a run of good form, so he may have that on his side, along with his contributions with that bat, but South Africa still need to keep looking. They have Simon Harmer and Eddie Leie knocking on the door, but may not want to introduce either against Australia, although they could be called on later next year.
More pressing will be adjusting to life without Kallis. South Africa need only look at India, who played their first series without Sachin Tendulkar, to see that it can be done but they will have to think carefully about how they're going to go about it.
Kallis' worth was evident more in his last Test than it had been throughout the year. He scored a typically circumspect century to lay the platform for the win and bowled his share of overs in the first innings. The balance he adds to the team will take some re-strategising to maintain in his absence.
Allrounders, especially pace-bowling ones, are hard to come by and while Ryan McLaren is one option, South Africa will have to sift through a few other ideas. Du Plessis should move to No. 4. They could then bring an extra batsman, specialist wicket-keeper or bowler in at No.7.
Apart from the changes in personnel that will take place, South Africa will also need a change of mindset. As Smith said, the person who comes is not Kallis' replacement because there is no such thing. That cricketer will simply be another player trying to fulfill a certain role.
That's the right approach - a positive, forward-thinking mindset, which South Africa were accused of lacking after the Wanderers Test. They came within eight runs of the highest successful chase in Test cricket history and chose to play for the draw because they did not want to lose. Giving up on a chance to make history was seen as too conservative and defensive.
It was also seen as a fear of failure. After Durban, South Africa did not have reason to regret not going for broke in Johannesburg. Even though it will not stop people wondering whether a lingering fear of failure still exists in the South Africa change-room, surely after 14 unbeaten series, there is not much to be afraid of.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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