Selection decisions reveal long-term plans
Not so long ago, a South African side would have been incomplete without one of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla or Dale Steyn. But, when South Africa take the field against Sri Lanka in Kimberley and Johannesburg, they will be without the trio, breaking a mould that few thought they could ever escape.
On the face of it, it appears South Africa have gone into complacency mode with the series won and the opposition struggling. Widen the lens and they have laid the first brick for a construction that is set to be complete in three years time. It's forward planning in the extreme but for this team its necessary.
Although Gary Kirsten did not say it explicitly, one of his future priorities will be winning a World Cup. South Africa's inability to secure ICC silverware has become the stuff of legend and Kirsten wants to systematically eliminate the causes for their consistent failure at the final (or even quarter-final) hurdle.
For now, the issue being targeted is over-reliance. No longer will a steadying innings by Kallis or a treble strike from Steyn be the only path South Africa will travel on for victory. In the next two matches of this series, they won't be able to call on either and Kirsten hopes, as they showed in Bloemfontein, they will find a way to win without the so-called marquee players.
"We want to be able to win game with a greater squad of players rather than just 11. South African cricket has got more to offer than just 11 players that can win games for us," he said. "It's important that we develop and grow players and have a squad of 16 of 17 players that we can pick from at anytime. It allows us to rotate better. It allows us to rest players that we think need rest because we'll know that the guys are ready and have got the experience."
It is a yarn that has been spun so many times before, it is now worn out, but this time, things feel a little different. Yes, the same was said when Bob Woolmer took over with innovation at the top of the agenda, when Mickey Arthur talked about a brand of brave cricket and when South Africa took three spinners and a big-hitting No. 7 to the 2011 World Cup. Yes, every time something was a little different and the most important thing stayed exactly the same. And no, it is way too early to tell whether the difference has sunk in properly or if it will continue to sit at the top, superficially present but materially absent.
All that exists for now is the evidence since the new era started, when AB de Villiers led for the first time little over a week ago. He has not been challenged too much in his tenure so far but has impressed nonetheless. "He has been quite creative in the field," Kirsten said. "He has also given bowlers a lot responsibility. He brings freshness to that role which is good for the side."
de Villiers has also taken on a treble role of captaining, keeping and batting in the top six and Kirsten said it is not easy. "He does find it pretty tough, taking on the role of keeping and being a new captain is not easy, so that's a big credit to him. Graeme [Smith] has been a fantastic help to AB over this series from a captaincy perspective."
Smith stepped down as one-day captain after the ill-fated World Cup and is on the brink of losing his place in the team after a run of poor performances. Smith has not scored a century since the Champions Trophy in 2009 and has managed just one half-century in his last 17 matches. Convenor of selectors, Andrew Hudson, confirmed that the opening role will be "discussed," before the tour of New Zealand but Kirsten said Smith should be cut a little slack.
"He is going through a tough time and he has acknowledged that. There's a lot of pressure on him and he knows he needs to perform" Kirsten said. "We've got to support him as much as we can in the team. He deserves a little bit more than others because of the service he has given to this country as a leader. He has been the stand-up guy, the face of the team for many years and he needs support."
Another former captain who finds himself out of favour is Johan Botha, who is in the squad but has not played a match, and seems unlikely to. "We've given Robbie Peterson a crack in this series. Johan is aware of that, he understands that," Kirsten said. "There will be times in future when we will call on Johan to play an important role in this team. While it can be tough on guys, it does create opportunities for other players."
Opportunity is the buzz-word of the South African change room at the moment. It is the seed they are planting that they hope will germinate into a tree of future success. For now, it is still but a tiny leaf on a branch that has a long way to grow. Kirsten believes the growth starts now. "We know there are certain situations that we have to win and guys are taking the responsibility. I am excited seeing guys wanting to embrace those moments."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent