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June 9, 2014
If the way to begin a journey of a thousand miles is with a single step then South African cricket has finally put its running shoes on. The appointment of the new Test captain, Hashim Amla, and announcement of the squads to tour Sri Lanka next month marks the beginning of a new era, and coach Russell Domingo is itching to get started.
Domingo can hardly be blamed for his eagerness to get going. Although his tenure is not even a year old, it has been punctuated with elements of transition which began when Gary Kirsten left the coaching job last June. Then in the space of a summer Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith retired, leaving Domingo with a season sprinkled with sentiment but not altogether steeped in success.
South Africa lost their first Test series in five years - to Australia at home - and slipped from their No. 1 ranking. Winter arrived before they had the chance to begin rebuilding, leaving Domingo's plans paused for the last three months. Now, he can finally press play.
"Those (Kirsten, Kallis and Smith) are three great servants to South African cricket and they are going to be hard to replace. But the game goes on," Domingo told ESPNcricinfo. "We've now got to start trying to find some new icon players and some new heroes and we've got some of those in the group already."
Amla is one of them. AB de Villiers another. Dale Steyn a third. But the personality of the South African squad will change from what it was under Smith through the changing of the captaincy guard and the introduction of new players.
Two fresh faces will appear in the travelling party to Sri Lanka - batsman Stiaan van Zyl and offspinner Dane Piedt, who are both strong candidates to debut.
Dean Elgar is expected to be the new opening batsman, Quinton de Kock, who forms part of a touring Test squad for the first time, may make an appearance at No. 7 and Wayne Parnell is the additional fast bowler in the squad. Those names reflect a lack of experience but for Domingo, also an opportunity to mould the side his way.
"There are some fresh young players so it's an exciting time for our team. It's not going to be love and fresh air all the time. There are going to be some tough tours and some tough sessions for us but we've got the nucleus of a good side at the moment. As a coach, it's always exciting to have a new direction to go in and you can leave your print on the team a bit easier with some new players coming in."
The first assignment with this new-look outfit will be tough because it will be played in the place South Africa last lost a Test series away from home - Sri Lanka, in 2006. But things will ease off after that with a one-off match against a Zimbabwean side that has played next to no cricket since last September and a three-Test home series against West Indies. By the end of those matches and a tour of Bangladesh next winter, South Africa will know how the Test side is shaping up for future contests such as England at home in the 2015-16 summer.
Domingo does not have that much time with the one-day side. They need to have their blueprint for next year's World Cup in place soon, which Domingo started working on last season. "That's been going for the last two or three series. Our focus has been on trying to develop a style and a structure of play that we think will be suitable in Australia. So now we have to have a continuation of that process."
South Africa have not played an ODI since December, when they hosted India. They won the series 2-0 with the third match a washout to end a three-month period in which they also beat Pakistan in a five-match series in the UAE. Although South Africa lost the return series at home, they won seven out of 10 completed matches between October and December and the ODI outfit stabilised from earlier in 2013, when they were booted out of the Champions Trophy at the semi-final stage and lost 4-1 in Sri Lanka.
Returning to the scene of that shame will give Domingo a chance to see how far his fifty-over side has progressed. "Although we lost the series badly, there were crucial stages in some games where we were very much in the contest and then just didn't execute our skills well enough. We learnt a lot from that tour and we'll probably do a few things a little bit differently this time."
Steyn was rested for that limited-overs visit to Sri Lanka, Kallis, who had opted out of the Champions Trophy for personal reasons was not considered, and Amla was injured for the opening exchanges. South Africa flirted with four different opening combinations as a result of Amla's unavailability and struggled with an out-of-form Faf du Plessis and Farhaan Behardien in the middle order. Their bowlers sent down 55 wides in the five matches and they were lacking in the spin department.
The results veered from the embarrassing - losing the first ODI by 180 runs and the last by 128 runs - to slightly promising like when they took the second match close to lose by 17 runs and then won the third by 56 runs.
It was also the tour on which South Africa established a set batting line-up, to replace the floating one which had been in operation before. It is still in operation at the moment and is one of the things that should work better than it did last year.
The other is the actual make-up of the squad. Steyn and Kallis are back, Amla and de Kock have formed a solid opening pair, du Plessis, who was dropped and has been recalled, has found form and Imran Tahir is also part of the side. While left-armer Lonwabo Tsotsobe has been ruled out as he recovers from ankle surgery, Beuran Hendricks should be a more than adequate replacement and Vernon Philander will bring discipline to the attack.
The three ODIs will point South Africa in the direction they need to go to ensure they are as properly prepared as they can be when they go in search of ICC silverware again. "Sri Lanka are a tough side to beat so it will be a good opportunity to see where we are," Domingo said. And to finally start looking to the future."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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