Time for Smith to mature in Oz

2008-11-21 00:00

In Aussie parlance, Graeme Smith must lighten up and pull his head in down under, and then he might even win, writes PETER ROEBUCK.

GRAEME Smith must be following events down under with interest. Doubtless, he is deriving hope from Australian cricket’s determination to imitate the stock market.

Ordinarily the entire cricket community seems to hunt as a pack. Loyalty is expected. Australia remains an insecure new country and cricket is the national game. Not so long ago the claim that the Test captaincy was the second most important position in the country seemed fanciful. The way the sporting public has rallied around Ricky Ponting indicates otherwise. No politician is given as much licence. But Allan Border and Ian Chappell have broken ranks with condemnations of his conduct in India. Now Ponting is refusing to talk to them. The cracks are widening.

However, it would be unwise to look too far ahead. South Africa cannot win unless they raise their game on and off the field, and Smith himself has a big part to play in that. Previously he arrived down under as some sort of chest-thumping provocateur intent with every word on making his own life harder and the prospects of his team grimmer. It was a mistake born of immaturity and bad advice. If Smith has learnt his lesson then his team have a chance. Otherwise the cause is lost.

It’s a pity the South African captain could not attend Daniel Vettori’s press conference before the ongoing Brisbane Test match. Vettori commands respect down under because he performs tenaciously on the field and does not regard Australian reporters as man-eating nationalists.

Vettori spoke quietly and journalists from both countries listened intently. He talked thoughtfully about his team and his opponents, described his players as inexperienced but talented, and responded to probes about sledging by saying that he wanted his team to show the same aggression and spirit when their back was to the wall. It was a convincing performance. Actually it was not a performance at all. It was just calm and intelligent.

Contrastingly, Smith and his predecessors have rattled cages. Raised to regard the Australians as arrogant and local newspapers as hostile, various captains have declared sporting warfare before a ball has been bowled. Provided the team is strong enough to back the talk with deeds, this approach can work. Even then is it unattractive. Otherwise it merely adds to the pressure on players and compounds the team’s sense of isolation.

Take the first trip down under after the Hansie Cronje scandal. Realising that the first press conference in Perth was bound to be dominated by questions about Cronje, and determined to avoid answering them, the South African think-tank put up Jacques Rudolph for their first encounter with the local media. An innocent boy, he knew nothing about the episode.

That is why he was chosen. Naturally the reporters were having none of that and refused to ask him about anything except Cronje. Thereafter the tourists treated every question and every press conference with the nervousness of a teenager opening his exam results. Meanwhile, the touring party became ever more introverted. It cannot have been much fun.

Eventually the visitors were obliged to put up Boeta Dippennaar. I can still remember the comments of the Australian reporters returning from interviewing him. They were amazed. Dipps had been superb. Old stagers counted it among the most impressive conferences they had attended and wondered what on earth had persuaded the tourists to keep him under wraps.

These teams responded to the challenge presented by touring Australia in exactly the wrong way, by stoking the fires and running for cover. Smith must abandon this doomed strategy. Instead, let him not attempt to handle the Australians at all. He must avoid loud talk and other irritations. Let him and his players strive to enjoy themselves. Let them speak respectfully about their hosts but add that they meant to beat them. Let them laugh about sledging and everything else that crops up. After all these are not little children to be upset with a loose word.

Let them say they are looking forward to trying the local beer and just hope it tastes as good as Castle, and that these barbeque things are as much fun as braais. Let them take pride in their diversity and congratulate Australia on its tentative first steps towards its own broadness. No man alive knows how to handle a woman but Australians are not that difficult.

Smith must seek popularity down under. It can be done. Apart from Harbhajan, the Indians are highly regarded in this neck of the woods because they play a resolute, skilful and sporting game. Last time Sachin Tendulkar batted in Sydney he was clapped all the way to the crease. Smith needs to locate that Australia and then he will enjoy the trip and might even win. In local parlance, he must lighten up and pull his head in.

•International cricket writer Peter Roebuck is based in the KZN midlands.

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