Smith: ‘South Africa’s middle-order is probably one of the most destructive ones we’ve ever had’

Comfortably placed in the second spot, the team is cruising towards booking a semifinal berth, and Smith believes that the players should focus on their game and cut out the noise.

Published : Oct 30, 2023 22:11 IST - 7 MINS READ

Graeme Smith hopes he gets to see an India vs South Africa final at Ahmedabad. | Photo Credit: AFP

Graeme Smith has donned many hats in his long and illustrious career. From being one of the top opening batters of his time to leading South Africa and now as the league commissioner of SA20, Smith has seen cricket come a long way in the country.

So far, a World Cup title has eluded the Proteas, despite making it to the semifinals a couple of times in the past. However, this time around, under Temba Bavuma’s leadership, South Africa looks determined to break the ‘chokers’ jinx.

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Comfortably placed in the second spot, the team is cruising towards booking a semifinal berth, and Smith believes that the players should focus on their game and cut out the noise.

Watch excerpts of the chat here:

The former South Africa captain, who is in Mumbai as the SA20 league commissioner, spoke to  Sportstar on Monday about the World Cup and his dream of seeing an India vs South Africa final.

Your thoughts on South Africa’s dominant middle-order…

South Africa’s middle-order is probably one of the most destructive middle-orders, that we have ever had. People getting hundreds batting at No.4, 5, and 6 is game-changing. It’s difficult for other teams to match. 

I think the rest of the squad that has had the opportunities has performed well, in and around. (Keshav) Maharaj has been excellent, and whenever Ngidi (Lungie) or (Tabraiz) Shamsie have got opportunities, they have been good. The standout for me so far in the tournament is the young Marco Jansen. His all-round capabilities have been excellent so far.

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There’s still a long way to go, and we are in crunch time of the tournament, but South Africa has pretty much qualified for a semifinal, which is exciting. 

Getting into these phases of the tournament, there are a lot of top teams. India has been so dominant so far. 

Australia is finding its best [form]. New Zealand knows how to win. So, yeah, lots of good teams are still around, but South Africa is definitely doing well, which is great.

What has worked for South Africa in the tournament?

They are playing a very aggressive style of cricket, which is great to see. There’s freedom even when they’re under pressure. They’re still looking to attack. 

Let’s look at the game against Pakistan the other night. They were chasing, it got tougher, the surface was slightly slower and even when they got under pressure, they were still looking to take the game on. (Aiden) Markram’s playing well there. They seem to have a clear mind at the moment, which is good.

South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi (L) and Keshav Maharaj celebrate after their win at the end of the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup one-day international (ODI) match against Pakistan at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on October 27, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

The key for them, as the tournament goes on, is just to keep that focus on the cricket, leaving it all out on the field. The big players are performing well, they are in form, which is always good getting to these times of the tournament that your big players are playing well. 

There’s a lot of cricket still to be played, but so far, it’s been really positive and exciting to watch this team.

Heinrich Klaasen has been the flavour of the tournament. Your thoughts on how he has stamped his class after being in and out of the squad early on in his career?

I would say over the last two years, he’s probably been the best white-ball middle-order batter in the game. You have seen him in the SA20, in the MLC, in the IPL and of course, for South Africa. He’s got hundreds, dynamic hundreds. The thing about Klaasen is, when he does get runs, it’s almost match-winning with the way that he plays and at the pace that he gets there. It’s very difficult for the opposition to have someone that can match that. 

So, it’s where South Africa’s got those types of players - de Kock at No. 1 and then they’ve got No. 4, 5 and 6 in particular that can play that way. 

South Africa’s Quinton de Kock and Heinrich Klaasen in action during ICC Cricket World Cup Match between South Africa and Bangladesh at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: The Hindu/EMMANUAL YOGINI

When guys get runs, you’re pretty much going to win more games than you’re going to lose. So, that’s a great asset to have.

It’s terrific to see Klaasen. He’s a guy that’s had potential. I think he’s taken time to figure out his way of playing, and he can find his confidence. It’s just terrific to see him coming to his own. The advantage is that a lot of those players have got good experience in India now. They’ve played a lot of IPL. I think they play spin well, which is a big asset. When you’re getting towards the back end of the tournament, spin will probably become a bit more of a factor.

South Africa has chased just twice in the tournament. It lost to The Netherlands and clinched a last-wicket thriller against Pakistan the other day. As the tournament inches towards the semifinals, is there any particular area that needs attention?

These days in the tournaments, if you look, you can always find every team - probably outside India - had some form of issue that you can highlight. 

South Africa came in with no expectations, but they’ve been so dominant. They played well. Everyone’s talking about them now. They’ve pretty much qualified for a semifinal, which no one really predicted going into the tournament. So, I think there are way more positives in the South African camp. There’s always one or two things that you want to iron out. But sometimes, it’s just about getting the job done and that Pakistan game was a good test.

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They did have a long tail in the game, but they still managed to find a way to win. That sometimes, is the key. Those types of victories can really be the catalyst to improve performance. They have been smashing teams, batting first.

But sometimes, a victory like that (against Pakistan) just does catapult the confidence and relax certain elements. So, hopefully, it’s something that they can build on. I think that whether chasing or setting, they’ve got the batters to be able to handle both. I wouldn’t be making a big issue of that.

But over the years, the ‘chokers’ tag has always followed South Africa. Do you see this team breaking the jinx?

South Africa still has three big round-robin games left - against Afghanistan, New Zealand and the big one against India. So, we will still learn a lot during the 10 days and then the semifinal.

From a South African perspective, you have to learn to live with it until you actually win a tournament. It’s everywhere you go. Someone’s going to ask you the question like you’ve asked me, and I think the team needs to focus on the cricket conversation inside and focus on how they [can] improve, and get better. 

Marco Jansen plays a shot of South Africa during the match between Pakistan vs South Africa at MAC Stadium in Chennai on Friday. | Photo Credit: Ragu R / The Hindu

What’s important is that they need to deliver from a cricket perspective. I think if they can keep the focus on that, they certainly have enough ability to beat any team on their day. But you have to acknowledge that there are high-quality teams that are finding form in this tournament. 

India hasn’t been tested at all yet in the tournament, they’ve been so dominant. Australia is coming into its own, we know New Zealand knows how to win, so there are teams that are quality and, you have to try and be at your best every day. But I think a lot of teams would fear South Africa now, which is something maybe they didn’t do coming into the tournament because there’s a group of players there that can hurt you. I think that’s great from a South African perspective.

Any wishlist for the final?

(laughs) What I hope is that it’s a South Africa vs India final. What an experience it will be in Ahmedabad! I will be fighting for a plane ticket to come and watch the final. It’s a long way to go, but it’s a wish. South Africa winning the World Cup is my dream wish (smiles).