Steve Smith was hurt and embarrassed after another humiliating loss as Australia’s test cricket captain, and he didn’t want to disguise the depths of the problems.
“It’s a bit of a low point for myself and for Australian cricket,” Smith told a radio interviewer Tuesday after Australia lost its fifth consecutive test under his watch.
Smith was unbeaten in his first 11 tests as captain, helping lift the team to the No. 1 ranking in February. Now Australia is on the brink of an unprecedented whitewash in a test series on home soil.
While the South Africans celebrated clinching the three-test series with a match to spare following an innings victory in Hobart, Smith was left trying to explain how his team had surrendered back-to-back series in Sri Lanka and at home.
“I am hurting. It’s another disappointing performance,” Smith said. “Another big collapse, it’s not good enough. I’m quite sick of saying it — it has happened five tests in a row now.
“For an Australian cricket team, that’s humiliating. I’m embarrassed to be sitting here in this position.”
Australia was swept 3-0 in a test series in Sri Lanka in July and August and then beaten 5-0 in a limited-overs international series in South Africa before returning for the start of the southern summer. Those defeats were downgraded slightly by fans and analysts because they were away and the squads weren’t at full strength.
Form seemed to be turning when this series started in Perth, where Australia dismissed South Africa for 242 and then raced to 158 without loss in reply. But it has been all downhill from there.
The Australians lost 10-86 in that first innings in Perth and South Africa rebounded to win by 177 runs.
In Hobart, South Africa won the toss in moist, overcast conditions last Saturday and the carnage started immediately when openers David Warner and Joe Burns were both out for one. Chaos compounded as No. 3 Usman Khawaja and No. 5 Adam Voges were dismissed and Australia was four wickets down for eight runs. Callum Ferguson, making his debut at age 31, was inexplicably run out for 3.
Smith was steadfast, holding the lower-order together for long enough to reach 48 not out when he ran out of batting partners with the total at 85, Australia’s lowest in a home test since 1984. South African seamer Vernon Philander took 5-21 and appeared to be almost unplayable.
Yet the South Africans reached 171-5 by stumps on day one and, after rain prevented any play on the second day, Quinton de Kock’s composed 104 helped the tourists to 326 — a lead of 241 runs. Josh Hazlewood limited the damage with six wickets for Australia.
With almost half the test still to play, the onus was on Australia’s batsmen to play for time and try to save the match.
The innings started badly with Burns out meekly edging down legside before a run was scored. The second-wicket pair added 79 before Warner (45) somehow got a ball to ricochet off his hip and elbow and back onto the stumps.
Khawaja and Smith moved Australia to 121-2 overnight, and the hosts should have been capable of erasing the deficit and making South Africa bat again.
But Khawaja (64) swiped at a good ball from Kyle Abbott outside off stump and was caught behind to make the total 129-3, and Australia lost its last eight wickets for a paltry 32.
In some ways, it was lucky for Smith that the match finished on a Tuesday before lunch, when the audience was far from peaking.
“We don’t have an answer at the moment,” Smith said. “We’re not resilient enough. We’re not digging in enough. We’re not having the pride in our wicket.”
Improvement will need to happen quickly, and coach Darren Lehmann forecast changes are expected for the third test starting Nov. 24 in Adelaide — a day-night match. He said only Smith, Warner, Hazlewood and Mitch Starc were safe — everyone else has been sent back to domestic cricket for match practice.
Smith has asked the Australian public to stick with his team, but critics have been hostile about the batting and fielding deficiencies, its lack of proper match practice for the series, its leadership and its lack of depth.
The positions of Lehmann, the selectors and high-performance manager Pat Howard are all under pressure.
But former test skipper Ricky Ponting, who retired after losing the previous home series against South Africa in 2012-13, said the blame was squarely on the players.
“That’s a very, very poor batting performance again,” Ponting said. “The Aussie batters, they just didn’t know where to go, what to do.
“When you’re out there in the heat of the battle … you’ve got to find a way to play the game.”