'Kohli is the best player in the world'

Former South Africa captain Graeme Smith talks about India's captain, and tries to put his finger on where it went wrong for the home side in the one-day series

Few voices in South African cricket carry as much weight as that of Graeme Smith. Thrust into the captaincy at the age of 22, he went on to become one his country's most successful leaders in both Test and ODI cricket. Now retired, Smith reflected on South Africa's 1-5 ODI series defeat to India and his impressions of Indian captain Virat Kohli in this exclusive interview.
After the one-day series, would you say it a bit of a setback for "Vision 2019" for South Africa?
Well, in the short term definitely. It has been a very disappointing one-day series for the South African team. A lot of questions to be answered tactically. There's a lot of areas the South African team need to get right. Yes, there were injuries to key players, but all in all, I think the batting line-up needs to be looked at in terms of the structure, where they place who. And just generally, they were poor, in terms of playing spin, in terms of tactics and execution.
South Africa came into the series as the top-ranked team in the world. They were on a 17-match winning streak at home. Was this repeated failure with the bat completely unexpected for you?
I think a couple of injuries to key players who have the experience of playing spin made a difference. India do have a bowling line-up now that can pick up wickets throughout the game, up front with the new ball, the two spinners in the middle who were devastating in the series, and very good death bowlers. They never allowed any of the South African batsmen to settle, and it almost looked like there was a lack of confidence, a lack of ideas. No one really got a partnership that was something to talk about.
The younger players who came in as replacements - does that give you a glimpse of problems that may exist at first-class level, especially in the quality of batsmen coming through?
Yes, the talent is there, but we have been talking about the domestic game and the gap with international level widening. I think coaching is a key factor at domestic level - that needs to be of a really high quality. These players are being exposed now to the international game, the standards, the intensity, the crowds, the pressure. They need to go away and work on their game. And I think there's no better man to watch than Virat Kohli. I just think in modern-day cricket, batters have forgotten how to construct innings. Getting a 40 off 20 balls is exciting but it doesn't win you games. Someone like Kohli does that, at good rates. He knows how to construct an innings, and a lot of those youngsters need to look at that and realise how the game needs to be played.
"It's great to see some spin come back into the game. South Africa really had no thought, no plan B or C. It was really just dot ball, dot ball, okay, let's have a swing"
No one better than you to talk about Aiden Markram's appointment as captain to replace Faf du Plessis. Do you think that was the right decision to make at the time that they did, considering he had only played two one-day games?
I don't think it was the right decision. Everyone has been talking about his leadership. Probably coming from me that doesn't make sense, because I got given the job at a very young age. I think it was an interim thing, not a full-time thing. I would rather have had him find his place, find his feet within the one-day set-up, try and get runs behind him. South Africa need players to step up and perform. I think in the short-term, with AB [de Villiers] coming in after three games, he could have stepped in and they could have looked at [JP] Duminy or [Hashim] Amla in the first couple and allowed someone like Markram just to settle.
One, he was batting out of position at four at the start of the series, something he had to come to terms with, and then you've piled him under pressure, not only on his own game but also as a captain. He would have gained a lot experience-wise but let's just hope his confidence hasn't taken a dent.
When you see him on the field and off the field, again, given your experience in this role, do you think he can get into this job going forward? Is he the right man?
There's no doubt. His performances since the start of his career say that he can bat at this level. He's obviously got the leadership credentials from Under-19. He's spoken of highly as a personality, and he's as a person mature for his age. But I just think allowing him to grow and develop and become a strong player within the line-up - we are talking about the next tier of cricketers. There's a drop-off between maybe four-five senior players and the next tier. So, allow those guys to develop. What was disappointing for me was that I don't think the other senior players stepped up around him - the Amlas, Duminys, Millers. Those guys just never got it going from a performance perspective, an intensity perspective. They needed to get behind and lead the way almost.
Were you surprised how none of the senior players got into the runs in the series?
That's why the series result is what it is. If South Africa had their senior group of players performing, it would have been easy for the younger group of players to fit in and play around them. So them performing badly exposed the youngsters to pressure situations at times in the game where they needed an experienced player to perform. I guess that was one of the disappointing aspects. People can have good or bad runs of form, but it's just the way the guys go about it. I would like to see a bit more intensity in our play, with the senior players leading the way in terms of body language. India really attacked verbally - the intensity within the game, the way they played the game, and it was almost like South Africa just backed off and were found wanting.
Were you surprised at how South Africa played the wristspinners? At how they picked up wickets throughout the series?
Yeah, you've got to wonder what the chat was about in the change room and how they went about it. Obviously two world-class spinners, [Yuzvendra] Chahal and Kuldeep [Yadav], excellent finds for India. It's just great to see some spin come back into the game. The mystery spinners had left the game for a period of time - the Ajmals, Warnes, Muralitharans, there's been a little bit of a gap. So it's great to see two guys like that come into the game. It makes the game really interesting to watch.
South Africa really had no thought, no plan B or C. It was really just dot ball, dot ball, okay, let's have a swing. There's was no real plan. As the partnerships build, it gets slightly easier, and South Africa never found a way to do that.
The other aspect of the series was South Africa's fielding, which has always been a strength. We saw dropped catches, lots of missed run-outs and misfields. What do you attribute that to, considering it is a young, fit team?
Confidence is a key thing and it can spiral into all parts of the game, and South Africa, you know, losing and losing badly, lost a lot of confidence, and that can spiral into your fielding, bowling, the way you think. You can get under pressure, you can end up trying too hard to do something and almost force something. It is almost like some quicksand - the harder you fight, the quicker you sink. I think they just got themselves into a horrible mess in this one-day series, and they will be looking to get out of it in the T20s because they don't want to be taking this into the Australia Tests that are to come.
There's still a lot of one-day cricket for South Africa to play before the World Cup, so do you think the wake-up call has come at the right time?
If the leadership strategically gets their thinking right, get the tactics right, and involve the right kinds of players, I think this can be a good thing for South Africa. They've exposed a few more players to the international game, they have a few more players to look at and think, okay, how can I position that guy there, okay, he looks like he might have something, and those players have had some exposure.
In the long run, there's still enough time for the World Cup to think this potentially could be a good thing. But that is only if Faf and Ottis [Gibson] and the selection panel get their head in the right place and strategically pick. Once the likes of de Villiers, Faf himself and [Quinton] de Kock are back fit, how do they put a line-up together that's going to win a World Cup?
Virat Kohli is often spoken of as a mirror image of you. After this series, has he risen even more in your eyes as a cricketer?
I was a little worried in the Test series, in game one and two, I thought his emotions were getting the better of him, and maybe that was starting to impact the players around him. But I think he's got himself under control. His own game has been incredible. He's led from the front, he's given India the mindset that they can play away from home, that they want to be here and in tough conditions. That is key and he's led the way. As long as India stay on top, he's going to be hugely successful. I think the challenge for him as India's best player is if India get under pressure for a long period of time, how would that affect his batting? But at the moment he is looking sublime.
Best player in the world?
Best player in the world.

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75