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South Africans have had three months to get used to the idea that those landmarks have been replaced by something different but equally distinctive: a beard.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