South Africa in Sri Lanka 2014 July 14, 2014

Promising South Africa begin post-Smith era

The ODIs have shown that this South Africa side is less afraid to make mistakes. But Graeme Smith's absence is one of the many challenges they face against Sri Lanka as they seek to reclaim their No. 1 Test ranking

For more than a decade the first thing that emerged from South Africa's dressing room was a square jaw and broad shoulders. They belonged to Graeme Smith. Their appearance would signal the start of a Test match.

South Africans have had three months to get used to the idea that those landmarks have been replaced by something different but equally distinctive: a beard. It belongs to Hashim Amla. But that unmissable mane will not always mean a match is about to get underway.

Smith was both captain and opening batsman which made him the first man on the field every time South Africa kicked off irrespective of what they were doing first. Amla is only the former which means someone else will have to lead the team out in the other sense, with the bat.

Don't be alarmed if you cannot immediately think of who that may be, because among top twos in South Africa, there aren't many obvious choices. Smith's constant presence meant there simply did not have to be many but even when the odd candidate emerged, their efforts went unrewarded. Stephen Cook and Rilee Rossouw are two examples of that.

That's why Dean Elgar's likely elevation to the opening berth is such a breakthrough for South African cricket; it rewards seasons of domestic performance and shows other players that the path into the Test XI remains open even when it appears shut. Elgar has merited this spot since the 2009-10 season when he was one of three batsmen to go past 1000 runs in the domestic first-class competition. Rossouw, who scored more runs than Elgar, and Cook were the other two.

That was the season Elgar fulfilled the potential he had shown as an Under-19 player. He went on to feature among the top run-scorers for South Africa A, alongside Faf du Plessis who was picked ahead of him. Elgar was eventually selected in 2012, but as a one-day player. Only an injury to JP Duminy opened the door for him to make a Test debut in Perth where he bagged a pair. Not the best start.

Notable performances in his nine-match Test career are a century at Port Elizabeth - against a New Zealand side so bogged down by the Ross Taylor captaincy saga in early 2013 they could have sent paper dolls, which would have provided sterner competition - and the wicket of Misbah-ul-Haq, which opened Pakistan up in Dubai last October with one of Elgar's signature, self-confessed "pies."

But that is not how Elgar deserves to be known. He has bided his time long enough, done the legwork in the lower-middle order and deserves the chance to show what he is capable of as a Test opener.

Unfairly, he will be burdened by the simple fact that the combination of Elgar and Alviro Petersen does not inspire the same confidence as Smith and Alviro Petersen. Or Smith and Neil McKenzie. Or Smith and Herschelle Gibbs. Or Smith and Gary Kirsten. Or Smith and Ronald McDonald. You get where this is going.

Smith gave gravitas to the opening stand. Only time can replace that. And that is the one South Africa do not have right now. They need to beat Sri Lanka to reclaim their No. 1 ranking and a solid top two will be one of the essential requirements to doing that.

That will increase the pressure on Petersen to bat like the senior partner he now is and improve on a modest record in Asia. Despite a century on debut at Eden Gardens, he had a horror run against Pakistan last year, amid a run of 10 innings without going past 30, and was thoroughly worked over by Mohammad Irfan.

It will also mean Amla, AB de Villiers, du Plessis and Duminy will have to be more prepared to compensate for Smith's absence if need be. Du Plessis, in particular, will have the microscope on him as he will likely bat at No. 4, previously occupied by Jacques Kallis.

The shuffling of the order leaves South Africa with a gap at No. 6 which will be filled by someone new. Since Mark Boucher's forced retirement two years ago, the position was used to play an extra specialist batsman but management maintained it could be used in another capacity depending on conditions and circumstances.

The subcontinent may merit the use of an extra spinner, even though South Africa are already planning on fielding two. Imran Tahir will be be tasked with the bulk of the role and Duminy will operate as his back-up. Coach Russell Domingo considers Duminy a frontline bowler and although he has developed in the discipline, that may be similar to considering the weather in Durban as similar to a Sri Lankan day mid-monsoon. It's close but not quite.

Dane Piedt would be a surprising but deserved debutant. Not only is the offspinner able to pull more rabbits out of the hat than a magician - the carom ball, the doosra and the topspinner are all part of his arsenal - but he can bat too. Piedt would not be out of place at No. 8 and Duminy and Vernon Philander could easily move a place up.

A braver South Africa, perhaps one which did not have a No. 1 ranking to regain, may have been willing to take the chance but a South Africa careful not to rock the boat too much is unlikely to. Instead, they will probably continue to use a specialist batsman in the position to give themselves depth.

Like Elgar, the two candidates are both top-order players who may not be at home marshaling the tail but that is what the selectors have given Domingo to work with. He will have to choose whether the remarkable limited-overs run Quinton de Kock has had - four centuries in six games - and the form he showed for Lions in first-class cricket a season ago trumps Stiaan van Zyl's consistent run for Cape Cobras.

Van Zyl was the highest run-scorer previous season and the second-highest two seasons ago. His technique is regarded as impeccable and more correct than de Kock's but the latter is considered more exciting, a match-winner who can inject life into an innings. It's as good as a choice between certainty and creativity and it would be easy to think we know which way South Africa will go based on how they have always gone in the past.

We have been told this is a new South African side and it is finally starting to look like one. Over the course of the one-day series we saw that. South Africa appeared more interested in their mission than they have in a long time in the fifty-over format, more determined to make a success of it and more pleased when they did.

The Domingo days have begun and they are different to the Kirsten, or Mickey Arthur eras. South Africa appear less afraid to make mistakes, more comfortable with admitting them when they do and more serious about fixing them. They were all but written off ahead of the one-dayers but they did not let that lead to insecurity about their own ability. They complained about the heat and humidity, at times excessively so, but they did not seem to suffer fatigue, dehydration or frustration because of it. They squandered an advantage with an abject batting performance in the second match but then picked themselves up to post their best total against Sri Lanka and make history.

Minutes after the victory, Dale Steyn posted a picture of some of the squad with the trophy. Steyn, despite being been outbowled by Ryan McLaren and Morne Morkel, described the win as one of the most special of his career. "Great feeling to make a little history today!!! Never won in this country before until today!!!," he posted on Instagram. Signs like that could mean the first thing that emerges from the change room in this Test series will be a sense of community and that's not such a bad thing as South Africa rebuild.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ESPN on July 15, 2014, 18:24 GMT

    I'd get De Kock straight in there as a opener as if he has just smacked a century against SL then pick him for the test as the bowling is not really going to change is it? Has more time in a test to knock it around or he can play like he did in the ODI and attack as look at what Warner does at the top of the order. The saying goes if he is good enough then pick him.

  • Adnan on July 15, 2014, 17:45 GMT

    I am very excited to see how the team does under Amla. He is quite different than the other captains that captained South Africa. Going to miss Smith and Kallis for South Africa.

  • David on July 15, 2014, 13:34 GMT

    @ Posted by SurlyCynic wrote "I'm not sure about this line …"

    I'm just not sure about Domingo!

  • Mayan on July 15, 2014, 12:16 GMT

    " Faf hasn't proved anything to anybody."?? Who are you, David Simon Lewisohn?? Where were you when Faf saved the 2nd test for the Proteas in Adelaide when the Ausie media already began to celebrate a Australian victory late on day four of that particular test? Were you asleep? Where were you when Faf saved the first test against India at the Wanderers, for the Proteas once again?? I have been reading these comments for a long time, and your statement, above, must surely rate as THE most ridiculous, ever. So sorry, but it is ridiculous. The truth is that F. du Plessis has proven just how extremely valuable he is to this Protea test team. To drop him from the side, would be suicide, nothing less.

  • des on July 15, 2014, 12:10 GMT

    I'm not sure about this line: "South Africa appear less afraid to make mistakes, more comfortable with admitting them when they do".

    Domingo seems to be a hardworking and thoughtful coach but after the T20 WC exit he struggled to deal with even minor criticism. He implied that any critics had an "agenda" and hid behind "the stats" whenever tactics were questioned. There is more to cricket than previous stats and sometimes coaches and selectors have to make judgement calls. Hopefully as time goes on he becomes more secure in his position and better able to handle reasonable questions on selection and tactics.

  • Lalindra on July 15, 2014, 10:55 GMT

    Sri Lanka went into the ODI's as favorites to clinch the Cup and ended up losing the series 2-1.With the 2 Match Test Series starting tomorrow this time around with the South Africans looking forward to regain their Number One Spot in Test Cricket.And with Sri Lankan Cricketing stalwarts announcing their retirements this next test definetly will be intriguing to watch and would reveal a lot more about where this team stands and how they would move forward.If Philander can bowl a sublime line and length with Steyn and co producing accelerating pace, swing and wicket taking deliveries and with Imran Thair South Africans emerge certainly more than a fighting Test Unit and on their day to make Teams like Sri Lanka mere spectators in a match.For Mathews boys consistency is of paramount importance and that middle & lower middle order has to click and produce the intended results with some solid performances and the bowling should keep up the good work and be more penetrative.

  • Dummy4 on July 15, 2014, 9:38 GMT

    @Greatest_Game he means Smith did not make any runs against Australia. In all 3 Tests Johnson got him out quickly. it was like Smith was already out the team.

  • Ranil on July 15, 2014, 8:26 GMT

    Having overcome all the adversities thrown at him here in the UK,I do not see any obstacle is big enough for Mathews to win this series handsomely & take Sri Lanka up on the ladder.

  • David on July 15, 2014, 6:42 GMT

    @ Test_nut commented "But two new opening batsmen? In a Proteas test side? Heavens no! Alviro lives another day."

    Nearly fell off my chair laughing at that! Funny thing is that is EXACTLY what they did with Smith! Bold move, out of the blue, with a youngster.

    Interestingly, I've always thought Alviro would do better batting down the order!

  • David on July 15, 2014, 6:35 GMT

    @ David Simon Lewisohn recommends "Take out Alviro and Faf. Faf hasn't proved anything to anybody."

    I'd agree with you about Alviro. If you said a batsman was "doing an Alviro," no one would have an idea what you meant, except perhaps being dismissed cheaply. However, if you say a batsman is "doing a Faf," or "faffing," pretty much the whole cricket world knows what that means. When a player's name becomes synonymous with a type of innings - in Faf's case occupying the crease for 7.75 hours, or basically 4 sessions while scoring a century on debut and securing a draw from a seemingly impossible position, it becomes entirely obvious that he proved something to the entire world. Then he did it again, vs India.

    That may not justify his selection in the team. but he has proved a lot, to everyone - that cannot be denied. Give credit where credit is due. Honesty is actually rather easy.

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