TELFORD VICE, Hobart
GRAEME Smith retired as a test player almost three years ago, but he was back in the trenches at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Wednesday.
Smith and former Australian captain Bill Lawry were honoured by the Bradman Foundation at a gala dinner, and the South African took the opportunity to voice some strong views about the state of the game Down Under.
“I was quite surprised at some of the selections (in the squad) that came to South Africa for the one-day series (last month), and that hurt them badly – they lost 5-0,” Smith said.
That series followed Australia’s tour to Sri Lanka, where they lost the test series 3-0 before bouncing back to win the one-day and T20 rubbers.
Australia were back in the dwang at the WACA on Monday, when South Africa beat them by 177 runs in the first test.
“The way they collapsed and fell away in that Perth test to me showed that maybe there is a lack of confidence or self-belief or fighting in that set-up at the moment,” Smith said.
“It does show me that there is something that’s not right there.
“For me (in the Australian team), there was obviously the skill factor, but it was always built on a hardness, a really strong respect and culture for that Australian environment.”
Smith asked whether part of the problem was rooted in the large number of players who represent Australia across the formats, not least because of the strict policing of workloads, particularly those of fast bowlers.
“I wonder whether it’s this whole rotation policy, whether some of that culture, that respect within the environment, has been lost with so many different players coming through the system,” Smith said.
He was also surprised by Cricket Australia’s agreement to play the first test against India in Pune in February just 16 hours after the third T20 against Sri Lanka in Adelaide.
“It’s very un-Australian for me,” Smith said. “Playing for Australia was something that was always preached to show how proud (their) people were.
“It just seems like that is in turmoil a little bit at the moment.”
For Smith, no such problems loomed on the South African side of the divide currently.
And the Australians had only themselves to thank for that.
“After the 2007 World Cup when we lost to Australia in the semi-final, a lot of things shifted in terms of personnel,” Smith said.
“For myself as a leader, it was my biggest growth period and we made some key decisions in terms of playing style.
“Within the set-up we developed a value system, a lot of traditions and cultures that have become embedded and become a strength within that environment. We also developed a purpose.
“I think that shines through in the way the team operates, and I think that culture – especially in the world that we live in today with free agency and the money in all the T20 leagues – and the team really needs to have that leanness, that value system, that culture of what they stand for and why they’re doing it.
“It needs to be more important than anything else.”
Smith left the game with 53 victories as a test captain, more than any other skipper in the game’s history.
So he was well-placed to comment on Faf du Plessis’ performance as a stand-in for the injured AB de Villiers.
“Faf has developed hugely of late, he has grown into the role,” Smith said. “There was a real void in South African cricket in terms of leadership over the last period, in the intellectual capacity around the team in terms of coaching and selection.
“He’s stepped in through injuries to AB and ‘Hash’ (Hashim amla) stepping aside and he has slowly gained the respect and grown himself.
“Tactically he outdid (Australian captain) Steve Smith (in the first test), the players respect him, he seems to get the best out of them and there is almost a bit of leadership traction and strength developing again in the South African team.”
Not since Smith retired have South Africa played as well as they have under Du Plessis.