Australia and South Africa have always shared a close but also strained relationship. Both countries have a large number of similarities including a history of migration dogged by ethnic conflict, and strong economies based around mining and agriculture. Australia's colonisation in 1788 occurred just prior to England's move into the Cape in 1795. Politically, Australia's stance on apartheid always seemed somewhat hypocritical in light of the 'White Australia' policy that existed until the mid 1970s. On the sporting field, the two teams have traditionally been strong competitors in both cricket and rugby, with the on-field mutual respect often not matched with off-field friendship. It has been suggested that perhaps the similarly tough approach to how the game is played has prevented the players from really enjoying each other's company.
Since their return to the international cricket family, South African sides have not been popular with the Australian public. Seen as negative and defensive, touring parties have not managed to capture the attention and love of the crowds. In the 2005/06 season, Graeme Smith managed to alienate almost the entire Australian population, at the same time as losing five of the six test matches. Smith was very young at the time, and came across as such. He tried to talk tough and combat Australia with fire, but this approach dramatically backfired. It would not be unfair to describe Smith as one of the most unpopular cricketers in Australia since Richard Hadlee hung up his boots.
However, the 2008/09 season has seen a dramatic turn-around in both public perceptions of Graeme Smith and the South Africa team. Smith has remained calm, and has managed the media particularly well. He has come across as a considered and mature captain, and has never appeared flustered. Smith deserves considerable praise for this change.It is perhaps worthy of note that the entire three Test series did not contain one single incident that even hinted at dissent or abuse.
Just as impressively, South Africa played the three Test matches in an aggressive frame of mind. Previous touring teams have been too defensive and failed to take any opportunities when they presented. Smith captained the side aggressively and with purpose. His spinner bowled an attacking line from around the wicket. His pace bowlers were constantly trying to get wickets. His batsmen were always looking for opportunities to score. And most importantly, the entire team's attitude was universally positive. Even when they looked down and out, they found a way to win.
When he walked out to bat in the second innings of the Third Test in Sydney, Smith received a standing ovation from the entire crowd. It was reminiscent of the footage of Larwood's standing ovation at the same ground during the Bodyline series. It is a popular misconception that the Australian public dislikes players who are successful. Richard Hadlee's lack of popularity in Australia was not to do with his great skill, but rather the public's perception (rightly or wrongly) of his character. Graeme Smith has managed to transmogrify from an almost universally disliked character only a few years ago, to a person who is widely commended across the country. Whilst the public would have applauded Smith's bravery in 2006 if he had come out to bat in similar circumstances, he would not have won their hearts as he so clearly did this year.
Much as it pains me to say this as an Australian, South Africa are clearly the best cricket team in the world at the moment. And Graeme Smith deserves a lot of the credit, both for the team's success and his own maturation in a great leader.