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New South Africa begin on solid footing

South Africa's performance in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe was not the tip-toeing or trepidation of a team in the throes of a transformation. It was the swagger of a side that had already settled

Hashim Amla registered his first Test ton against Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, Colombo, 3rd day, July 26, 2014

Hashim Amla asserted himself admirably without being overbearing  •  AFP

If you visited Sri Lanka and all the tea was drunk, or came to Zimbabwe and the Victoria Falls had dried up, you may consider both countries creeping towards crisis. That was the status of the South African cricket team when they set off to visit those lands a month ago.
It would be the first time in eight years that they would be without both the man who provided them stability, Jacques Kallis, and the one who gave them stature, Graeme Smith. With a coach only a sparsely-filled year into the job, they were considered an outfit knee-deep in a rebuilding phase and needing to make the foundations of a new beginning brick by brick.
Not a chance. Smith's batting successor, Dean Elgar, played an innings chiseled out of the same rock as his former captain on the first day of the new era. Then Smith's heir to the leadership, Hashim Amla, declared with four sessions to go in Galle and tempted Sri Lanka with a target of 370. That was not the tip-toeing or trepidation of a team in the throes of a transformation; it was the swagger of a side that had already settled.
With their intent signaled, South Africa sunk into the Smith-and-Kallis-like contentment of waiting for the opposition to come to them in Colombo and in Harare. Both times they got the results they wanted to be able to call the last four weeks a success. What they have seen across the three matches they grouped as a series - two in Sri Lanka and one in Zimbabwe - is that their tea is not drunk and their waterfall is far from drained.
"It was obviously very important that we filled the gaps that Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis left in our Test side. It's still going to be tough to do that, but we've made some good progress in finding some options in our batting line-up that we think can work with," coach Russell Domingo said after South Africa's win over Zimbabwe.
"It was the first time Faf has batted at No.3 for us in a Test match (in Galle) and I thought he came through pretty well. Quinton de Kock slotting in behind the stumps and showing some good signs with the bat so there are some good, positive steps made considering the loss of two icon players."
Despite the presence of a handsome crop of hair, du Plessis is much more like Kallis than he may appear. He has a similarly emphatic forward defensive and manages to maintain the same level of emotional distance between himself and the bowlers. Du Plessis bats in the same bubble Kallis occupied, which will give South Africa the security they have never done without in the top order.
When Kallis' retired, South Africa also lost a fourth seamer and a slip fielder who provided the same certainty as the sun, in that it would rise every morning. They have not found another fast bowler but have also not sacrificed an option in their attack because JP Duminy's all-round game has developed and AB de Villiers fills in in the cordon, so they have done well to plug that opening.
Similarly, Smith was worth more than one player because of the dual job he did as an opener and captain. Elgar's promise bodes well for the future in the former area, although South Africa have the other opening berth to consider which may yet present a puzzle. What they need not question is that they have managed to move on under a new leader, which for Domingo is the best thing to come out of the twin tours.
"The number one thing we learnt was how good a leader Hashim is going to be going forward for the Test side," Domingo said. "To come into a position after an iconic leader like Graeme Smith has been in charge can be daunting and intimidating. He has taken it really well. The players have responded really well to him. He's always going to have that calm demeanour but the hunger and desire he has to get South Africa to the top of world cricket has been evident over these past few weeks."
For a once reluctant authority figure, Amla asserted himself admirably without being overbearing. He used bowlers well, he set attacking fields as often as he could and although South Africa's batting approach was not always attractive, Amla's patient prints were all over it.
Still, Domingo recognised the showings were not perfect and there are "always areas for improvement," but South Africa have time to make those. They will wait until after the domestic season kicks off in October before they consider their options ahead of the West Indies series. "There's obviously a lot of franchise cricket that will take place so we can have a look at some of the fringe players' performances leading into the West Indies series," Domingo said. "A lot can happen between now and then."
For now, they remain pleased with what Domingo called a "very professional" display in both series, particularly in Zimbabwe, where South Africa did not get carried away by their obvious advantage. "We spoke a lot about the expectation of just dominating a side like Zimbabwe and how we need to be careful in going about that," Domingo said. "Any Test win is a good Test win. I thought we played the game as well as we needed to."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent