"Something is not right" in Australian cricket, according to former South Africa captain Graeme Smith, who described his greatest rivals as being in "turmoil," following their recent spate of losses. Graeme Smith said he felt a waning culture was among the reasons for Australia's troubles, but also named the rotation policy, the pressure on Steven Smith and a strengthening South Africa as contributing factors.
"There is obviously a lack of confidence that has developed, maybe through these losses, and the way they collapsed and fell away in that Perth Test. To me, it showed that, maybe, there is a lack of confidence or self-belief in that set-up at the moment. It does show me that there is something that's not right there," Graeme Smith said on the day he and former Australia captain Bill Lawry were made honourees of the Bradman Foundation, at a gala dinner at the SCG.
After a 3-0 defeat in the Test series in Sri Lanka, Australia rallied to win the ODIs and T20Is, but then took a young side to play in South Africa, where they were whitewashed 5-0 in the ODI series. Graeme Smith believed that was where the cracks started to show, and that they have only widened after the defeat in the first Test.
"I was quite surprised at some of the selections that came to South Africa in the one-day series, and that hurt them badly. They lost 5-0," Graeme Smith said. "For me, [the Australian team] was obviously built on the skill factor, but it was always built on a hardness, a really strong respect and culture for that Australian environment. I wonder whether it's this whole rotation policy, whether some of that has been lost: that culture, that respect within the environment has been lost with so many different players coming through the system."
Given the increasingly busy international schedule, most teams - South Africa included - seek to rest players, but Australia's decision to leave their first-choice attack at home for the South Africa ODIs was surprising. They may have to do more of the same in the near future, having packed as much cricket as possible into the home summer. Towards the end of the 2016-17 season, Australia's T20 side will play against Sri Lanka 16 hours before the Test team plays against India in a fixture collision Graeme Smith thinks will only further contribute to culture dilution.
"I was surprised at this method of James Sutherland looking to play a Test and T20 at the same time. It's very un-Australian for me," Graeme Smith said. "Playing for Australia was something that was always preached to be how proud people were. It just seems like that is in turmoil a little bit at the moment."
In the middle of that mess is Steven Smith, a fairly new captain. Graeme Smith was once in a similar position, and understands what it's like to be trying to find your place as a leader. "I can resonate with being in that position as a new captain. You have a lot to figure out, and I think you only have to pick up a book or a newspaper to realise there was quite a polarised, abrasive culture within the Australian set-up before he took over," Graeme Smith said. "He is probably rebuilding, trying to create his own leadership style - how he wants the team to play, what are the type of players he wants to select - he's probably trying to work that out. Results have gone against him in Sri Lanka, he lost the ODI series in South Africa, and now the first Test at home. He was probably banking on being really strong at home this summer to resurrect things. He has got to ask a lot of questions."
One of them is whether David Warner, who led the side to limited-overs victories in Sri Lanka, is better suited to the job. "There will be natural debate on who is the right person to lead - should it be the old style, brash David Warner approach, or Steve Smith. He has to overcome a fair few things, but, hopefully, he'll be able to do that really quickly," Graeme Smith said.
Another is how Steven Smith's South African counterpart, Faf du Plessis, who has only captained in three Tests, only one away from home, and had only a three-man attack to work with, in the words of Graeme, "outdid him". Du Plessis, who is leading in AB de Villiers' injury-forced absence, continues to make a strong case for being given the role full-time, and it appears he has the backing of Graeme Smith too.
"Faf has developed hugely of late, he has grown into the role. There was a real void in South African cricket in terms of leadership over the last period. The intellectual capacity around the team in terms of coaching and the selection - they had a three-captain type system and he has stepped in through injuries from AB, and Hash stepping aside, and he has slowly gained the respect and grown himself," Graeme Smith said. "Tactically, he outdid Steve Smith on the weekend, the players respect him, he seems to get the best out of them and there is almost a bit of leadership traction and strength developing again in the South African team, which was Iacking through the three-captaincy system and the coaching set-up, and he is slowly bringing that back together."