The opening section of South Africa's first-class Supersport Series concluded this week with three of the country's biggest unions, as well as the defending champions, all failing to qualify for the Super Six section of the competition, which takes place in March next year.

The glory years of the old Transvaal "Mean Machine" are so far gone that they feel like a part of ancient history. Under Clive Rice's captaincy in the early 1980s many believed that Transvaal were as strong as most Test teams, but the team now called Gauteng has not won a first-class match for three years, and the famous old Wanderers stadium will once again be empty when Gauteng compete in the inglorious consolation Shield Series in March.

Northerns Titans may also struggle to attract the attention of their usually loyal fans, and Supersport Park's grass banks will be emptier than normal. St George's Park in Port Elizabeth will count the cost of Eastern Province's failure to progress despite a bowling attack that includes two international fast bowlers in the shape of Mornantau Hayward and Mfuneko Ngam.

Easterns aggresively threw off their poor-relations reputation last year by overturning Western Province in the five-day final to become champions, but, through a combination of bad luck and rain, they will not be able to defend their title this time. So Willowmoore Park in Benoni will return to being a sleepy cricketing backwater.

As surprising as the qualification of Free State and Griqualand West was, it was nothing compared to the progress of North West - the smallest and, with due respect, the least significant of the 11 provincial teams. One star they have produced just slightly brighter than several others is their opening batsman Davey Jacobs, who made 181 on the final day of the last group match against Northerns to earn a draw - and qualification by a mere 1.46 points. It was heroic stuff, and confirmed Jacobs, who has just turned 23, as being destined for greater things.

A decade ago it was left-arm spinner Jacob Malao who was being tipped for stardom at a time when the South African game screaming out for a black role model. But he was swamped by the pressure, and appeared to have disappeared from the cricket map. But this season Malao, who's now 31, reappeared with Easterns and claimed a brace of five-wicket hauls to reignite his career and, inevitably, start another round of clamouring for his international recognition.

Easterns batsman Zander de Bruyn is another well-seasoned professional who has had an extraordinary season, scoring nearly 600 runs in five matches including a top score of 266. But at 28 he will probably need another year of the same for the selectors to take serious note.

The Amla brothers, Hashim and Amla, have both made significant contributions to KwaZulu-Natal's all-conquering start to the season, as has their spinning allrounder Imraan Khan. Jean-Paul Duminy has shone like few other 19-year-olds for WP, and there are a number of other players around the country who have made a name for themselves. But it's two veterans who are occupying the thoughts of fans, administrators and fellow players alike.

They are Daryll Cullinan and Lance Klusener, who have been in outstanding form. Cullinan made two centuries and a 95 while captaining Easterns, and, at the age of 36, he still has as many friends as enemies. Many have not forgiven him for walking out of the national team 24 hours before a Test against Australia in 2001, and the waters have been further muddied by reports that he had retired from international cricket last year. Cullinan himself has yet to comment, despite a UCB offical saying recently that "If he hasn't retired from international cricket then the selectors need to know that".

Klusener averaged 45 with the bat and took 25 wickets in five matches, bowling faster and with more commitment than he has managed for five years. He is also currently suing the Board for not renewing his national contract and insists, despite the current national captain Graeme Smith's observation that he can be "bad for morale", that he is "not changing now. I am who I am".

Tough debates will follow in the weeks to come, and some tough decisions - but unless Klusener calls off his legal dogs and, together with Cullinan, starts flashing a few warm smiles in the direction of the people who matter, they are likely to stay cold-shouldered. Both men have said they don't care what the world thinks about them, but in the new world of South African cricket the "who you are" is just as important as the "what you are". Runs and wickets, by themselves, aren't good enough any more.