'Have to ask questions of everybody' - Graeme Smith
Former South African captain Graeme Smith has shifted the spotlight off the field and onto the management in the aftermath of South Africa's second successive series defeat. Speaking on television channel SuperSport, Smith explained the responsibility for the recent performances should be shared by several senior personnel, including the coaches.
"The players have to take responsibility for their performances, there's no doubt about that, but the management do too. They haven't quite come into the equation of late. At the end the day the performances of the Test team for the last year haven't been good enough, so you have to ask questions of everybody," Smith said.
"How is management getting the best out of them, how are they preparing them, are they directed in the right way, do they need to be firmer, do they need to be softer? I don't know."
Smith spent a session before the New Year's Test in the nets with South Africa's batsmen and was said to be in talks to take on a consulting role for the remainder of the series. But he was also contracted as a commentator for Test Match Special and SuperSport and those prior commitments were in conflict with a coaching stint which has confined him to being behind the microphone and not in the dressing room which has left South Africa without a batting coach.
Since Russell Domingo took over the coaching job in June 2013, he has made use of three former internationals to assist in the batting department. Gary Kirsten, Domingo's predecessor, had a 50-days-a-year deal with South Africa through 2014 and Mike Hussey was on the support staff during the 2015 World Cup and briefly before the first Test on the tour to India in November. South Africa did not have any other batting experts with the squad for the rest of the India series, which they lost 3-0, or before the England matches.
In India, they managed a highest innings total of 214, were shot out for their lowest score since readmission when they were bowled out for 79 in Nagpur and did not boast a single century-stand. When Smith criticised them on air, he was called in to help.
His short time with the team did not have too much of an impact on their fortunes. Although South Africa showed more fight at Newlands, racking up 627 for 7 to put pressure back on England, they struggled at the Wanderers where they were dismissed for a paltry 83, their lowest at home. They have gone 12 months without a Test victory since beating West Indies in January 2014 and have conceded the No.1 ranking.
With several issues raging in the background - the push towards aggressive transformation, a mid-series change of captain and injuries to key members of the pace pack - the squad appears to be struggling to keep morale up and Smith has sensed that.
"Some of the decision-making around the space looks a bit worrisome for me. The team seems a bit flat. Some of the messages coming out in the press conferences don't seem positive and it's coming from senior players," he said. "You're in a big series and there is a lot of negativity among your senior players. It looks like someone needs to grab the bull by the horns and say, 'listen guys, let's wake up and let's pull our finger out and let's go and play some Test cricket'."
AB de Villiers has been of particular concern, especially for his pre-match comments ahead of the Wanderers Test, his first as captain. He did not deny reports suggesting he was considering early retirement and admitted he was "searching for answers," on how to manage his workload. After the Test, he offered some reassurance by committing himself to Test cricket but the mood was still sombre. "I almost feel like all hope is gone," de Villiers said.
That kind of talk is what Smith is urging South Africa to avoid while still encouraging them to pay attention to what is being said in the public domain about their performances. "These are all questions that need to come out of the environment. When you are not performing well, people are going to ask questions and you've got to live with it," he said.
Smith is not the only former player to express this opinion. Mark Boucher posted a message on Twitter saying South Africa should go "back to the drawing board," while Daryll Cullinan encouraged them to embrace, rather than ignore the chorus or criticism coming their way.
"There is nothing wrong with criticism as long as it is backed up by facts and has credibility behind it," Cullian wrote on Facebook. "One of the things that our cricket lacks is the maturity to embrace it, work with it and evaluate its value. This can only come from people who are secure enough in the own opinions and credibility. When they are not, they surround themselves with like-minded people, have a laager [siege] mentality, label the critics as negative who have nothing good to say and only out to breakdown our game."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent