DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — Just like the last time the teams played here, South Africa limped away from a traumatic cricket experience against Sri Lanka in Durban shaking its head and seriously pondering the future.
As the Proteas ended 2011 with a groundbreaking test defeat, there was a growing feeling that 2012 might bring major changes.
Will it be the last year for allrounder Jacques Kallis and wicketkeeper Mark Boucher? Will captain Graeme Smith step down? Has the time come for new coach Gary Kirsten to mold a new group?
They were questions that were whispered at the start of Smith's ninth South African season in charge of the test team — and Kirsten's first — before a chaotic victory over Australia in Cape Town in November drowned them out.
They were heard again — a little louder — after a 208-run loss to Sri Lanka at Kingsmead this week; a first ever test defeat at home to the Sri Lankans that ended a complete dominance over them in this country and sent South Africa back to Cape Town and its last home test of the season still fighting for a first home series win since 2008.
In 2003, a disastrous World Cup exit in Durban at the hands of the Sri Lankans forced out Shaun Pollock as captain and began a new era under the then 22-year-old Smith. Eight years later, it may be the beginning of a logical end for Smith and a core of South African veterans.
As Sri Lanka has finally found life after top test wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan and Australia's team has started to take shape after its reconstruction, South Africa must soon face up to a future without Smith, Kallis and Boucher — even if it doesn't want to.
"2011 has been a tough year for the Proteas," Smith said, fronting up after a humbling loss to a Sri Lanka team that had not won in 15 tests.
For Smith, it's been tougher than most.
The captain was heavily and unfairly criticized in South Africa following another failed World Cup campaign, after which he gave up the limited overs captaincy. Now just skipper in the long format, ongoing struggles at home leave Smith's team with another series in the balance at 1-1.
"I know for sure that all of us are hurting and we are going to take our shotgun pellets in the next few days," he said. "We've got to regroup and bounce back as a team.
"Hopefully 2012 and the contests that lie ahead will be a good one. But through our own bad play and Sri Lanka's good play, we start with a very big test match."
South Africa's media has never completely embraced Smith, despite his successes and key role in lifting the team from one of its lowest points in that 2003 match, when a run rate miscalculation and a tie led to a farcical exit at a home World Cup.
On Thursday at Kingsmead a wild rumor spread that he was about to step down as the Proteas slid toward defeat.
The beefy left-hander opened this season with a century in beating Australia and yet he is still criticized for his batting technique.
He's been South Africa's most successful captain of the modern era and yet caused outrage at home when he delayed his return from the World Cup to spend time overseas with his girlfriend, now his wife.
"There's been disappointing stories out there but I think that one was a bit too much," Smith said of the resignation rumor. "As long as (coach) Gary (Kirsten) and the team want me in the job, I'll do the job. It's as simple as it is. As long as I'm wanted to captain this team, I'll get on and do the job to the best of my ability."
Alongside Smith throughout his career, the 36-year-old Kallis and Boucher, 35, are not under threat yet, will tour New Zealand early in the new year and almost certainly be in the team when South Africa goes to No. 1-ranked test nation England for a high-profile three-match series in mid-2012.
But after that the time might be right for them to go.
With over 12,000 test runs and 271 wickets, Kallis's place as one of the sport's great batsmen and probably greatest allrounder is certain. But lately his bowling has lacked pace and penetration — and wickets. Against Sri Lanka he collected his first pair of ducks in 149 tests.
He's still one of the world's best players, but South Africa has to ready itself for the uncomfortable possibility that the dethroning may come quicker than expected for its cricketing king.
Kallis started 2011 with two centuries in a test and ended it with two ducks. In between, he had scores of 0, 2 not out, 54, 2 and 31 in the five-day game.
Right now, in the days before the series decider against Sri Lanka at Newlands, middle order batsman Ashwell Prince's career is in serious doubt, while opener Jacques Rudolph's place in the team is also likely to come under scrutiny.
Like in 2003, the need to plan for the future was suddenly thrust upon South Africa after a dismal defeat in Durban.
"I guess that's the selectors' call and where they see the team going with Gary and the different roles and how they can see people playing a role going forward, not only in one test match time," Smith said.
"Obviously now it's the emotion of the situation and what we've been through. I think reflection and good solid decisions is what we need and not emotional decisions. Knowing Gary and the selection panel that's how they will look at things.
"I guess those are the thoughts that they need to ponder over and hopefully make the right decision."
Follow Gerald Imray at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP