By Nick Said
CAPE TOWN, May 13 (Reuters) - Less than a year after climbing to the top of the test rankings, South African cricket is suddenly faced with an uncertain future with respected coach Gary Kirsten set to depart and two top players at a crossroads in their careers.
Kirsten's decision not to extend his contract when it expires in August comes as captain Graeme Smith battles recurring ankle problems and all-rounder Jacques Kallis admits his desire to play international cricket is on the wane.
For a team hoping to nail down a dominant spell in international cricket, the loss of their World Cup winning coach is a major setback. To lose all three components at the same time would be a hammer blow.
The last two years have seen the Proteas become the most consistent performers in world cricket at test level, opening up a 14-point lead at the top of the International Cricket Conference ratings.
But while consecutive test series wins in Australia and England make the current side arguably the greatest the country has ever produced, Smith has spoken of creating a dynasty to emulate the achievements of the West Indians of the 1980s and Australian sides of the last decade.
The cornerstone of this ambition has been Kirsten as the quiet strategist, Smith, the natural born leader who manages to find runs in difficult situations even when out of form, and Kallis, statistically the greatest all-rounder ever.
Over the last week, South Africa's dynastic ambitions have threatened to fall apart.
Kallis has opted out of the upcoming Champions Trophy, citing 'personal reasons' and admitted he is planning for life after cricket.
"At my age, and stage of career, there are many things to consider outside the game and off the field, and I need to plan and be organised in order to play my best cricket," Kallis told reporters.
"I simply cannot go through the motions or take up a place in a squad unless it has my full attention."
Skipper Smith has had surgery for a second time on an ankle injury and will also miss the Champions Trophy as a result. He now faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines and question marks over future fitness.
The resignation of Kirsten to spend more time with his young family robs the side of arguably the best coach in world cricket.
A World Cup winner with India in 2011, he was seen as the perfect man to take South Africa to their maiden victory in the competition in 2015.
The appointment of Russell Domingo as Kirsten's replacement was all about continuity, but he comes with no experience as a head coach in international cricket.
Kirsten told Reuters earlier this month that planning for the loss of Smith and Kallis in the test arena was already underway through selections in the one day international set-up.
The Proteas do not want to get caught out like Australia, who lost a host of top names all at once and are still on the long road back to top form. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)