Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, SSC, 4th day July 27, 2014

SA sweat on underperforming Petersen, Tahir

The SSC Test has emphasised why South Africa may have to spring clean and find opening batsmen with more mettle and spinners with more control

Spring cleaning usually includes two stages. First, throw out all the things you absolutely cannot hang on to, like clothes that no longer fit and food that has grown mould. For a South African Test team which had just lost Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis those discardables were abstract concepts like insecurity and doubt. They got rid of them as they showed with their victory in Galle.

Then look at everything else and decide what is nearing the end of its run and is better replaced sooner than later. For this South Africa Test team Alviro Petersen and Imran Tahir fit that category. The SSC Test has showed them why they need opening batsmen with more mettle and spinners with more control. Day four emphasised it.

Petersen's is probably the more pressing concern because South Africa put on hold considering his position as they dealt with the aftermath of Smith's retirement. The reality is that there was always more than one vacancy in the top two. Before this tour, Petersen had gone 17 innings without a Test hundred. That run has extended to 21.

In that time, he has scored more than fifty on three occasions, all at home. He has also not managed more than 30 runs in 15 innings. His struggles gave come against what are considered unconventional for a South African player: subcontinental conditions, Pakistan's left-arm arsenal or Sri Lanka's strangling spin. He also struggled against himself and the certainty that comes with being assured enough to convert starts into something more substantial.

In Galle, Petersen was both caught on the back foot against spin and drawn forward by it. Both times he was beaten by deliveries that did not turn. Both times he asked for a review and both times he was unsuccessful. In Colombo, the pressure had increased. He was out to a nothing shot in the first innings when he handed Rangana Herath a return catch which meant he had to view the second innings as the one that would save his career.

Petersen is a patient man by nature. He waited seasons to get his chance opening the batting for South Africa and when he was dropped after not doing much wrong in favour of Jacques Rudolph, he went back, scored runs and waited again to get recalled. For four overs of this second innings he showed his willingness for that kind of wait when he needed it most.

But it was the wait that undid him. Petersen and Dean Elgar took just four runs off the first eight overs and made it clear they were each going to attach themselves to one end and stay there. Petersen would face Herath, Elgar would face the offspinner Dilruwan Perera, who had dismissed Petersen both times in Galle. Herath had lured him forward in the first innings and was threatening to do it again.

Herath tossed it up and turned it away and Petersen was lured further and further forward. After 25 balls, he leaned too far and pushed the ball into silly point's hands.

Petersen walked back to the changeroom. Quinton de Kock walked out. There will still have to be a debate about whether de Kock can keep wicket and bat higher up, even though he is a top-order batsman in the domestic game, but there is no question over Petersen. Even if de Kock is not the man to take his place, South Africa have other options. Stiaan van Zyl, a No.3, was the leading run-scorer in last season's first-class competition and could be promoted to open. He is part of the touring squad so Petersen would have known he was on notice. And there have also been other signs Petersen may be ready to hand over the reins.

He is 33 and seems to have realised if there is a lengthening to his career it needs to be done on the county circuit. Petersen has spent the last two seasons at Somerset and there is talk of him signing a Kolpak deal once his international career is over.

He indicated that may not be far away on his blog on when he wrote about the difficulties of his family not traveling with him. "Family is the most important thing to me and if I am honest cricket is second, so in the future we will have to look at what is best for all of us."

Contrastingly Tahir is not ready to give up. Although he is 35, Tahir has only had tastes of international cricket but he has failed to take them through a lack of control. He was used ineffectively on the fourth day and allowed to continue bowling even when he was leaking runs and South Africa should have been creating pressure. In trying to show confidence in Tahir, Hashim Amla held back on using JP Duminy, who may have been the better tactical option.

There is a young offspinner who can replace Tahir. Dane Piedt led the wicket-taking charts in last summer's first-class competition and maintained an economy rate under three an over. The Cobras spinner is known for both variation and control.

If Tahir battles on subcontinental pitches in the latter stages of matches, there will be questions about whether he is going to be a threat anywhere else except in limited-overs where he has proved his worth. There is every chance if they play against Zimbabwe next month and West Indies at home later this year, with no disrespect to either team, both Tahir and Petersen will be able to regain form but it is also possible that it would allow the successor a gentler introduction to Test cricket than they might have had against a team like Australia. Next year, South Africa have Test series in Bangladesh and India and they need to use the matches they have left this season to spring clean.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent