'Going to Aus as favourites is exciting'
Neil Manthorp sat down with Proteas captain Graeme Smith to get his thoughts on the upcoming tour of Australia.
Neil Manthorp: Some people are talking about the Australia series as if it’s the Aussie pace attack against the Proteas' top six…
Graeme Smith: I’ve been reading the press and that’s the way it’s been portrayed, that’s it going to be a bit ‘fiery’ with pace and bounce and a couple of the grounds we’ll be playing at are known for being fast-bowler friendly – and being early season, November, that’ll help too. It’ll be a challenge, no doubt about it, but one of our strengths in recent times has been adapting to conditions in various countries and making the changes that are necessary.
We’ve got enough bases covered in all departments and we don’t like to compartmentalise our team. We have ability in every department, it would be silly to say we are stronger in one area than another. I’m looking forward to arriving in Australia and testing the various compartments of our team – and our squad.
NM:For the first time in a century a South African captain will go to Australia with expectations of his country, rather than merely the hopes. You’re the only South African captain to have won there.
GS: It’s exciting, really exciting. I go to Australia as a leader on one level but as a team member on another. We are all incredibly excited. We back each other and believe in one another. There’s a large number of the squad who know what it’s like to play in Australia and succeed, whereas before we went in the knowledge that no South African team had won there in 100 years. There’s certainly not going to be that element of ‘what if’ doubt that may have hampered us before.
There was a doubt before, naturally, but this time there are no doubts about whether we can go there and do well. We proved that to ourselves four years ago. We can match Australia and, if we perform to the levels we are capable of, then we can be victorious. But it’s not something that’s going to come easy and it’s going to be a very big challenge for us.
It’s the next big step for us after the series victory in England. That gave us the No 1 world ranking, we took it off England. We were there briefly before, and lost it. The same could happen again. We know that reaching the summit is not the ‘great’ achievement, because we fell off pretty quickly last time. Staying there is the achievement.
NM:There’ll no doubt be a lot of emotion and sentiment used to promote the series – especially your ‘broken hand’ innings in Sydney…
GS: England was a bit the same with me playing my 100th test match and becoming the most capped captain. That was quite hard to digest, to be honest. The challenge now for us as a team is to regroup after the T20 World Cup and the Champions League – a lot has happened between the last test series and we have a lot of realigning to do, and refocusing. Fortunately that is something Gary is very good at doing and we are confident that we can do that, starting with the warm-up game in Sydney.
There was a huge amount of speculation that we were ‘under-cooked’ before the England series because we only had two warm-up games and they were both pretty much washed out. Gary’s belief, and it is shared by all the senior players, is that preparation is 90% mental in international cricket. There aren’t many members of our squad who need physical preparation.
There is a lot of emotion still floating around in Australia after the last tour, and I know a lot of people respected the way we managed to win the series and, hopefully, the way we conducted ourselves. Mickey deserves a lot of respect for that. And now he is up against us! One thing we can be sure about, with Mickey and Gary as opposing coaches, there will be no lack of respect amongst the players. The cricket will be very hard, but there will be no disrespect.
I was told on many occasions, by Australians, how good it was to see their team challenged and knocked off its pedestal. I fully expect to see all those people now cheering for the team to be reinstated there. It feels such a privilege to have been a part of the team that created history but the challenge now is to repeat it.
But for all the supposed ‘decline’ of Australian cricket, and their failure to dominate as they once did, they are still an imposing force. Their series win against India was imposing, to say the least, and their array of young fast bowlers was eye-catching, to say the least, so I am under no illusions about the challenge which lies ahead.
To go to Australia for the first time with an expectation from home to do well, rather than just a hope, is something I am very proud of. It is something the whole team can be proud of.
NM: So what about this young Aussie bowling attack? Impressive?
GS: It looks like they’ll start with Siddle and Hilfenhaus who aren’t that young, they’ve been around for a while now so we know what to expect. Then they have Pattinson, Starc and Cummins to supplement, so it will be interesting to see which way they go. A lot will depend on the way conditions look – you can’t always get what you want, and if you can, will that also favour Steyn, Morkel and Philander? And if it turns, then I’m certainly happy to have Imran Tahir in my team.
NM: Only one warm-up match, in Sydney?
GS: Sydney is a lovely place to be, we all have happy memories of being there. But it’s not ideal in terms of preparation, we’d prefer to be in Brisbane, but we’ll maximise our chances and take it in our stride and prepare mentally. That’s very important to us. Mental preparation.
NM: Michael Clarke’s captaincy style? Impressive?
GS: He’s brought in a style of play that’s important to him and it has paid off, certainly in the West Indies when he changed a few thought patterns with his declarations and thought patterns. But most importantly, he’s batted well with the captaincy which is at least half the challenge under the pressure of captaincy.
Our job will be to maximise that pressure while he’s captain. I’ve played all my international cricket against Michael and we have a good relationship, but if we can place him under as much pressure as possible then it will obviously benefit the team.
He is a well-prepared man and he will have a lot of ideas and strategies for us, along with Mickey. I’m expecting a boisterous approach from Michael and it’ll be interesting. .. it’s not often I’ve been to Australia and been the more experienced of the two captains! Hopefully I can use some of that experience to our benefit on the tour.
NM: You probably thought you’d seen the last of Ricky Ponting after the last series!?
GS: I’ve got the greatest respect for Ricky and what he has done during his career. He’s churned out enough amazing performances against us over the years, so I don’t need reminding of what a brilliant player he is! He’s not a man we will be taking lightly although, probably for the first time in his career he’s a bit of an unknown factor. But I know the man and there’s no doubt he’s been training the house down and will be desperate to make an impact at this stage of his career. I just have to believe that we have the bowlers capable of exploiting a few things in his technique and turn things in our favour.
NM: Are you favourites?
GS: Naturally I back our players on a man-for-man basis. It’s normal that you go somewhere as No 1 in the world and are regarded as favourites, I have no problem with that. As we have said so many times, we have toured Australia with nobody giving us a chance. Now we go with a team which has proven itself to be successful in different conditions, including Australia.
We will arrive in Australia with a real expectation of success, and that’s not something we shy away from. We are proud of that expectation and, as a team, we should be. It doesn’t mean to say that we will win – this Australian team is exceptionally talented. But we are confident.