Smith feels that the current South African team has no emotional baggage weighing heavily on their shoulders and equally have nothing to fear when they line up against Pat Cummins’s team on Thursday at the Eden Gardens coliseum.
IF SOUTH AFRICA scale their Everest on Thursday and defeat Australia to progress to their first men’s ICC World Cup final, there is nobody likely to have a broader smile than former Proteas captain Graeme Smith.
Fellow former national team skipper Faf du Plessis may be the pantomime villain Down Under, but there are few that embody the intense rivalry the Proteas share with the Aussies more than the man known as “Biff”.
From his embryonic steps in international cricket when the Baggy Greens welcomed him with a sledging barrage that the naive ears of a 22-year-old would not have encountered before, Smith was always at the forefront of fronting up to the challenge of lowering the mighty Aussies from their perch.
He succeeded in the Test arena by leading the Proteas to a maiden Test series victory Down Under in 2008 that set in motion three successive away series wins – a record South Africa shares only with the legendary West Indies teams of yesteryear.
But even a colossal figure like Smith failed in his quest to guide South Africa to the promised land of a World Cup final, with the Aussie juggernaut blocking the path in the 2007 semi-final in the Caribbean that maintained the stranglehold over the Proteas.
Smith, though, feels that the current South African team has none of that emotional baggage weighing heavily on their shoulders and equally have nothing to fear when they line up against Pat Cummins’s team on Thursday at the Eden Gardens coliseum.
“You have to respect that they have produced some of the best players in the world,” he said. “And I caught a period of that great Australian team. When we played them in 2007, they were almost unbeatable during that period and obliterating everyone in their path. We had to score 438 to win a series against them the year before!
“It was a very different time.
“They play the game hard. They are always competitive. They don’t give you an inch. You have to be prepared to take it to the yard because you ain’t getting anything for free.
“But the nice part for the Proteas now is that while a semi-final is a big barrier for us to overcome, we have consistently beaten them (Australia) on big stages now.
“Breaking down those barriers was vitally important for South African cricket. Those Test series wins in Australia, and if you think of the current ODI record, it’s been a period of sustained success, which has helped overcome those barriers against Australia,” Smith said.
There are a multitude of factors for South Africa ending up on the losing side in World Cup semi-finals in Sydney (1992), Birmingham (1999), St Lucia (2007) and Auckland (2015), but much of it has also been of their own doing. Selection has certainly played a critical role, most notably eight years ago at Eden Park when an in-form Kyle Abbott was overlooked for Vernon Philander, and Smith is just hoping that coach Rob Walter gets his playing XI absolutely spot on this week.
“It has been a great campaign for the guys. All the top players are in form. I think they also know that they have beaten Australia consistently as well. We have the players to do that.
“Therefore, I think selection will be the focus going into this week. Every cricket aspect needs to be focused on. Just keep on doing what you’ve been doing. “You have to take conditions into consideration. We’ve seen during the tournament that Eden Gardens has taken more spin than the other venues. Getting your selection right therefore comes into question.
“Obviously, there is a concern about (captain) Temba (Bavuma). But against Australia, in these conditions, we can definitely play two spinners. On a surface like this, (Tabraiz) Shamsi comes back into the equation.
“I would also talk to him about strategy. I would want him to look for wickets to open up the game. Lungi (Ngidi) looks a bit short at this moment – it seems like the length of the tournament has caught up with him.
“Marco (Jansen) comes back for me, (Kagiso) Rabada, Gerald (Coetzee) and the two spinners. That would be my bowling attack, which would also give us a bit of batting depth and is our most attacking bowling line-up,” Smith added.
Unfortunately, Smith won’t be in Kolkata for the much-anticipated semi-final, but he will certainly be the team’s biggest cheerleader back home with the rest of the country living every moment with the Proteas.