Proteas prepared for Aussie assault

Graeme Smith is adamant a more experienced Proteas side won’t make the same mistakes as the 2005-06 team that toured Australia.

The Proteas have recorded great results in India and England, but would you consider beating Australia in their own backyard to be the toughest mission in cricket?
Touring anywhere is tough. India is a very hard place to go to – even coming to South Africa is a tough proposition. But no one has won in Australia in a very long time and that’s the opportunity that is there for us and one that we are very excited about. We know we’ve got to play unbelievable cricket. Both mentally and physically you’re tested from the moment you arrive so we have to be on top of our game. Our preparation will be key and there is no doubt we have the team to be successful.

What is it that makes Australia such a stern proposition?
Everything plays its part in Australia, from the crowds to the media. There’s lots of pressure from the media – we all know they are fairly biased. I have no problem with that at all, but at the end of the day the quality of their players will always be the biggest test for us because it all boils down to going onto the field and playing cricket and that’s what we will be judged on. Finding a way to deal with the issues off the field is going to be key, but the biggest challenge will be beating them on the pitch.

What have you made of Australia since the loss of key figures such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist?
Replacing players of their calibre will always be difficult, but they are always going to have a really good team and they have quality players all around. When you lose a quality player, someone else has to stand up and take that responsibility. It will be interesting to see how they cope. They will be tested a lot more than what they have been in the past and will face a few different situations, but that doesn’t mean in any way that they will be pushovers. They are still a quality side.

Do you think it’s true that in the past South Africa have been intimidated by the Aussies?
People and the players themselves have made too big a deal about playing against Australia and have put too much importance on beating them. It’s about focusing on playing better cricket, executing our game plan and forgetting about the bigger picture. We need to focus on each session of each day and focus on getting the processes right on the day. For us it probably comes down to keeping it simple and not being intimidated and getting carried away with the expectations.

Sledging has become part of modern-day cricket and Australia tend to use it to their advantage. Have the guys dealt with the issue in your preparations?
Every guy has his own way of dealing with it – it’s part of growing up and gaining experience. To play Australia in Australia you need men. You have to be a man to deal with the things that come your way over there. Everyone is working towards cricket being played in a better spirit, but this is hard cricket. Hopefully, we’ve created a team that is mature and tough enough to deal with it all.

The last time the Proteas toured Australia, you were criticised for divulging some of what was said on the field. Looking back, is that something you regret?
That was my first-ever series in Australia and I was still a youngster. I think it was more naivety on my part than anything else. I wish it never happened, but I think the excitement of the series and the journalists using my enthusiasm for the whole experience played a big role. I would love to take it all back but those are lessons you learn as a young cricketer.

What do South Africa have now that they lacked the last time they went to Australia?
Now we are a far more settled team. Our attack is young but it has the potential to really be devastating. We have a very settled batting line-up that has confidence and we have matured a great deal as a team. But again it all comes down to producing on the field and I think we have the players that are capable of doing that.

The Australian wickets are not as hard and fast as they used to be. How important do you think the role of the spinners will be?
It will be interesting to see how the wickets are prepared now that they don’t have Warne anymore. Generally, I think wickets across the world have got a bit slower. I’m confident in what Paul [Harris] provides. There was a lot of unnecessary criticism of his performance from the English commentators. Paul provides us with exactly what we need. We have a very aggressive bowling attack and he gives us the control that I require as a captain.

Any chance of you chipping in with a few deliveries?
Now that I have had the chance to get fit, it’s an opportunity for me to start working
on my bowling again and with the next World Cup on the subcontinent, the more guys you have who can contribute with the ball the better.

In the past the Proteas have always had two quality all-rounders and now that Shaun Pollock has gone, who will fill his role in terms of batting lower down the order?
We made a decision to go for a side with six specialist batsmen and pick the best five bowlers. If one was an all-rounder, we were going to pick him, but if he was a bowler, we were going to pick him anyway because getting wickets is just as important as getting runs. Morné Morkel has huge potential and we are trying to develop his batting, but it’s important that all the tail-enders work on their game to add value at the bottom.

You personally had a tough time with the bat the last time you were in Australia.
What have you done to change that?

Touring Australia as a captain is one of the hardest challenges, pressure wise, that you can face. For me, it will be about finding a way to deal with that, so that it doesn’t affect my batting. I will have to find myself an environment where I am comfortable and able to perform. Personally, it will be a huge challenge, but hopefully I have enough experience and I have a team that I believe in. It’s an opportunity for me to put that all right and hopefully I can.

Have you picked Warne’s brain about some of the ways to beat Australia?
I have ragged him a bit. I told him that I’m going to bring him into our team meetings. I will be spending some time with him so I’m sure I’ll be testing his mind a bit. My relationship with him is good. I don’t expect him to give away any secrets, but I’m sure one night I can slip one too many vodkas down his throat and he’ll open up!

Who are the Aussies’ danger men?
Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting are pivotal to their batting line-up. Hayden for me up front is an intimidating individual, not only performance wise but just the message he sends out from the start. Ponting, as everyone knows, is an incredible cricketer and those two at the top will be key for us to deal with. From a bowling point of view, Brett Lee has become their go-to guy. He’s got pace, he’s got control now and he has experience.

By Andrew Worling