JJ Smuts became the first player to score an Africa T20 Cup century this past weekend. Here’s our Q&A with him, featured in the latest edition of SA Cricket magazine.
You’ve been involved in the Warriors setup for the better part of a decade. How has the team progressed during this time?
When I started off here it was quite an experienced side with the likes of HD Ackerman, Zander de Bruyn, Arno Jacobs, Johan Botha and Ashwell Prince playing regularly. So to play in that environment as a youngster was very enjoyable – I learned a lot. But understandably there was a bit of a transition phase where we virtually had a whole new squad and needed to rebuild a bit. We’re still at that stage to a degree, but a lot of our youngsters have begun to get more game time, and I think we’re now starting to get to the stage where we can have a say at the business end of competitions.
As a senior member of the squad now, how do you feel your game has grown?
I’ve started to learn what works for me and what doesn’t, and it’s just about making sure that when I make a start, I push on to make big scores. Perhaps in the past I’ve left too many runs out there, I’ve got a lot of 30s, 40s and 50s without getting the big hundreds, and those are the scores that win you games.
You managed to secure a contract to play for St Kitts and Nevis Patriots in this past season’s Caribbean Premier League. How did that come about?
My agent and I were looking at various options, but we originally actually decided not to go into any drafts this year purely because we thought that as a local, domestic player there was such a small chance of getting into these big tournaments. But basically a week and a half before the CPL, we decided to give it a go and see what happens, knowing that we had nothing to lose. The day I was notified that I’d been selected for the SA A side [to play in a T20 against England] my agent gave me a call to say I’d been drafted into the CPL, so it really came out of the blue.
How difficult is it for a non-international player to catch the eye and earn the opportunity to play overseas in competitions such as the CPL?
It is a challenge. I think we had a lot of South Africans involved in the CPL this season because we had a bit of a window where there wasn’t any international action on. But next year there is a big Proteas tour to England, so that could rule out a number of players. But then there might be a big Australian contingent, so it changes year in and year out. And when it comes to tournaments like that and the IPL, as a domestic player in South Africa you really have to do something special to catch the eye because you aren’t performing at a televised international level. You’re obviously not as much in the public eye.
How beneficial was it to have that exposure in the CPL, playing alongside and against some big-name international stars?
It was awesome to play and notice that as South African domestic cricketers we’re not that far off [such a level]. Even a guy like Wayne Parnell … although he’s in the national set up he’s played a lot of domestic cricket, and he did very well in the CPL. It just shows the strength of our domestic cricket.
Were you satisfied with your performances, and do you think it was enough to earn the right to play in the CPL again next season?
It’s difficult to know. I arrived there without anyone really knowing exactly what my role would be. I knew I wouldn’t start straight away because we already had four internationals in the squad, and in a way I was there just to fill in here and there when required and look to contribute in whatever way was required. I think it went alright, and I had a couple of nice little knocks, but I didn’t bowl all that well. I’ll learn from that, though, and hopefully I’ll be able to put in a few more notable performances if I get a chance again.
During the match against the Barbados Tridents you were involved in a horrible collision with Kieran Powell in the outfield. How did that accident happen?
I’ve never had anything like that happen before, but thankfully we didn’t clash heads. We just never saw each other. It’s so loud there you can’t hear anything, and we both just ran around the boundary and didn’t even see each other until we’d collided. I hurt my knee, and have had a bit of a sore shoulder, but thankfully it wasn’t anything too serious.
What are your goals for the upcoming domestic season?
I’d love to put in performances that could put me in line to make the national side. But for the short term, it’s just really about trying to help the Warriors get a trophy. We’ve come quite close in the shorter formats and have played some good cricket, but I think we do have some way to go in four-day cricket. We are a young side, though, and have a bit of growth to do. Personally, I just want to be more consistent, score more runs and take more wickets.
You earned inclusion in the SA A side to play a T20 against England in February this year. How did you enjoy that experience?
I’d heard a lot about how the English had played, and their philosophy with their batting was just to go hard from ball one and all the way to the end of the innings. It was good to see how they went about that and just carried on going. I felt like I could compete at that level and batted quite nicely in that game and got 35, so it was great to score a few runs against them.
Do you think you could keep knocking on the door of the Proteas’ T20 squad if you manage to perform consistently?
Hopefully. I mean the next World T20 is only two years away. Some top players may be rested for that one format and doors may open up. But who knows, I’d have to be honest and say I’m probably have quite a long way to go in the longer formats. But when it comes to white-ball cricket, I think my game is there and that I’ve been a good performer over the last couple of years and I’m feeling quite confident.
How have you adapted and adjusted your style of play in the different formats of the game?
I guess I’m quite well suited to T20 and one-day cricket because I am a naturally aggressive batsmen. I’ve enjoyed opening in the limited-over formats. When it comes to four-day cricket, I suppose my biggest downfall over the last few seasons has just been that I haven’t really had a fixed batting position. I’ve moved around the order quite a bit, and so I just want to get back to basics, and ensure I’m accurate when it comes to leaving, playing straight and sticking to my game plans.
Are you looking to add any different elements to your all-round game?
I’ve worked really hard on my bowling for the last five years, and I’d say I could still improve in that regard if I want to play international cricket. I’m not a big turner of the ball, and obviously the wickets will be even better at international level, so I’d probably need to add a few more strings to my bow when it comes to my bowling. I’d love to become a genuine all-rounder, but I’ll probably always be more of a batting all-rounder. So I just need to ensure I keep working hard on that side of my game.
Your brother Kelly has been looking to break through on the domestic scene for some time. How considerable is that challenge to make the step up to the next level?
He lost his contract about two or three years ago, but then has done really well for the EP side. And so it’s just about putting in consistent performances. It is quite a tough system, with a lot of good cricketers out there and only six teams. There aren’t loads of opportunities, so you just to have to keep on working hard and improving your game, and then make the most of your opportunity when it comes.
Written by Craig Lewis, a senior sports writer at Highbury Safika Media.