Smith, Australia seek World T20 directions
It is less than a month since Steven Smith took over as Australia's T20 captain and less than a week since he was leading the Test side back to the top of the ICC rankings in New Zealand. Now Smith is in South Africa, where Australia will play three T20s as part of their preparation for the World T20, which will see them head to India in less than a fortnight's time.
If all that is a bit much to process, it is just the start for Smith, who will have to learn rapidly on the job after replacing Aaron Finch. Smith has captained Australia just once previously in T20 - although he has led Sydney Sixers and Rajasthan Royals in the Big Bash and IPL respectively - and must quickly sort through pressing questions of selection and strategy as he looks to make the team challengers at a tournament they have never previously won.
The decision by Australia's selectors to make Smith captain in all three formats came after they had been whitewashed 3-0 at home to India, and followed an observation by Shane Watson - who stood in for the injured Finch, with Smith already in New Zealand, for the third T20 against India - that a lack of continuity had been hurting their chances.
Smith, who has made a smooth ascent in Test and ODI cricket as Michael Clarke's successor, is the man charged with getting Australia pulling in the right direction in time for the World T20 - a job complicated by having to try and settle on an ideal XI in South Africa, where conditions will differ markedly from those likely to be encountered in India. It may not be the ideal scenario but Smith was focused on getting as much out of the trip as possible after arriving in Durban.
"For us it's about playing some T20 cricket together, we haven't played a great deal of T20 over the last couple of years so it's a great opportunity for us to try and gel together as a unit before the World Cup," Smith said. "Hopefully the South African curators can try and make the pitches a little bit slow and turning, I think that would benefit both sides, so we'll wait and see what they come up with."
Smith only played in the first match against India and said the series defeat was "in the past". Australia have included three players uncapped in T20 - wicketkeeper Peter Nevill and spinners Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa - in their 15-man squad and must try to settle on an ideal batting order, with Finch, Watson, Usman Khawaja and David Warner all competing to open.
"It's about moving forward and trying to get everything going in the right direction before the World Cup," Smith said. "We've got a few options for guys that can open the batting, there's about four guys vying for a spot there. The bowlers are working hard to get into the eleven but I think it will take a whole squad to win a World Cup."
Despite regular commissions in the IPL, Australia's players have struggled to make an impact at T20's global showpiece, with just one final appearance in five attempts, and Smith conceded that the game had moved on apace since he helped take the Sixers to the 2011-12 Big Bash title in his first taste of captaincy.
"I think it's changed a lot, guys have got so many different deliveries nowadays - slower-ball bouncers, wide yorkers, different kinds of slower balls, things like that. Guys are able to hit the ball 360 degrees, which is hard to stop. I just think the game has changed so much, it's moving forward and that's great."
One of those "hard to stop" guys is AB de Villiers, whose outlandish talents were to the fore in South Africa's most recent T20, a nine-wicket win over England. De Villiers, now opening the batting in T20, crashed 71 off 29 balls and Smith suggested Australia would be trying to come up with a containment strategy for him.
"It's very difficult to do, he's one of the most destructive - if not the most destructive - batsman in the world and he does hit the ball 360 degrees, so when he is going he's very tough to stop," Smith said. "We're going to have a few plans in place for him that will hopefully work, but he's a terrific player and very hard to stop."
South Africa have been on an upward surge in limited-overs cricket, winning five matches in a row against England. In contrast to Australia, they have recently tasted success over India - winning the T20 and ODI legs on last year's tour - and they will be further boosted by the return of Dale Steyn from a shoulder problem. Australia, meanwhile, expect Finch, Watson, James Faulkner and Nathan Coulter-Nile to be available for the first match on Friday after recent injuries.
"They're a very good T20 team, they've got some class players that can take the game away from you very quickly," Smith said. "So, for us, we want to win every series we play and I guess in the back of our minds we know there's a World Cup not long away. But it's about focusing on this series and trying to do what we can to win."