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Older, Wiser, Leader

9th July 2008.

Graeme Smith embarks upon his second series in England as a more rounded character blessed with a more established game. Not that he did so badly last time. To the contrary his visit five years ago surpassed all expectations.

Smith managed to turn a suspicious and fraught team containing a variety of sceptical elders and footloose youngsters into a single-minded outfit capable of concentrating on present matters as opposed to distant disturbance. Michael Vaughan may think he has plenty on his plate in his dealings with the English press corps, but he does not have to worry about fierce attacks from the sports committee in Parliament. South African captains seldom waste much time worrying about their enemies; it’s the friends who cause the problems.

Graeme Smith cricketer

Graeme Smith in the field for South Africa during a tour match against Somerset in 2012.
Photos © Harrias [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Besides helping his team to focus on cricket and setting an enthusiastic example (without ever quite losing his Flashman face), Smith also scored a stack of runs on that opening sally in the old country. Indeed, he was so productive that before long the bewildered home bowlers pronounced themselves flummoxed by his method. By and large it is considered unwise to deflect straight balls towards square leg. Always it prompts cries of exasperation from properly raised bowlers. Mozart might as well be played on an electric guitar. Before reading their first Wisden, budding batsmen are told that it is not the sort of shot played by respectable folk, or those seeking a lengthy stint at the popping crease. Now and then a genius emerges who has not heard about the rules and regulations and therefore does not so much break them as ignore them. Viv Richards was one such. His inclination to clip demanding deliveries through midwicket so alarmed craftsmen of his generation that for quite some time they more or less refused to count his runs. A man is not supposed to be able to play with fire. But Richards did not miss, or not often anyhow, and the bowlers took some terrible beatings.

Not even Smith’s staunchest supporters, though, mistake him for a genius. Accordingly, it seemed inconceivable that he could keep hitting precisely pitched deliveries past the resting umpire. Sooner or later it had to fall apart. No man had that good an eye, or that much luck. Depending on temperament, the bowlers shrugged or raved until raggedness set in. By the end some were echoing words once spoken about Ranji, who, it was observed, “never played a Christian shot in his life”. Smith did not worry about such reactions. Instead, he kept attacking the English bowlers with the relish Alexander the Great reserved for the Persians.

Beyond argument that first series as captain was significant as well as successful. Smith introduced himself as a singular man with an unorthodox game and a strong will. He was going to be his own batsman and his own man. In most respects it was a necessary statement of intent and independence. Considering the tempests raging all around, the team needed a rock-like figure at the helm. It was not as if his inheritance was all that secure, his predecessor having been hastily removed after a lacklustre and ultimately calamitous World Cup campaign in 2003. Nor had Smith been prepared for leadership with all its trials and tribulations. To his chagrin, he had not even been included in the original squad for that World Cup. In short, he was an outsider pushed into power by an administration desperate to find fresh leadership and prepared to gamble on youth.

Smith was appointed because he looked captaincy material, lofty and fearless, and had a certain presence about him, besides which he was vigorous and ambitious, had not been worn down by politics, and seemed to be worth his place in a reconstructed side. Most particularly, he displayed none of the cynicism that so easily envelops South African sportsmen forced to confront issues not of their making. No one else fit the bill half as well. If not exactly a man of his times, Smith was not stuck in the past either, forever feeling the walls closing in.

After that first dazzling campaign, everything seemed set fair for a conquering career. Of course, it is seldom quite as simple as that. Comparatively, Alexander had an easy task. He did not have to deal with the lbw law or Percy Sonn. Moreover Smith had jumped ahead of himself, exceeded his own capabilities. In a trice he had become the hope of a nation and one of a handful of captains whose voice was heard. While still finding his feet he had been hailed as a fine leader and a great batsman, yet he had not had time to think things through or to become familiar with his technique, the better to correct faults as they arose. His country, his job and his game took a lot of understanding, not to mention the players at his disposal. It had all been a rush. Besides leading the side through a turbulent period, he was supposed to catch sardines at slip, reassure his players, attend hundreds of press conferences, open the batting and score more runs than anyone else except Jacques Kallis. All before he had honed his own game.

Unsurprisingly his efforts in England were followed by a period of consolidation wherein limitations were exposed. Not that Smith ran out of runs – or not against anyone except the Australians. But he did lose conviction at the crease and authority in the rooms, and his captaincy lost momentum. It is hard enough to grow up at all, let alone in the public eye. Perhaps he tried too hard to fulfill expectations, not least his own. Perhaps he believed a little too much in his own infallibility. Truth to tell, he was running a little too hot, not so much strong-headed as headstrong. It was almost inevitable. Perhaps, though, it is better to have a captain who yearns too much than too little, a fellow prepared to raise his voice, slightly rash, ready to risk the blows of the world in pursuit of his beliefs, a man who looks forward and not sideways, let alone over his shoulder.

Such men make mistakes but they learn quickly. They are not always easy company but by and large they reach their destination.

For quite some time after this imposing opening burst, Smith seemed a somewhat isolated and unsympathetic character with fixed ideas and a domineering outlook. Determined to hold his ground, he sometimes marched towards the guns instead, drawing unnecessary fire, thereby making life harder for all concerned. Evidently he had cast himself as the sort of unyielding leader favoured in Africa. Perhaps he was seeking to placate colleagues. But the effect was overdone, and his work suffered.

Much could be gleaned from his attitude towards the Australians. In his very first match he broke ranks by complaining about their rudeness. In some respects it brought to mind the sight of Steve Waugh sending down three consecutive bumpers in his first Test match against Viv Richards. Both actions were statements of intent, expressions of fearlessness. Yet there was a difference. Waugh kept his mouth shut and let his actions speak for him. Smith preferred to talk. Accordingly his strategy backfired, turning him into a target before he was ready. And Australians have long memories. He compounded the error on his first trip down under as captain, looking for trouble, seeking confrontation, trying to show that he was not afraid. Again he could not match his words with deeds. As a consequence he was taken apart. Better to humour them and, for that matter, the local media, and to remain focused on the cricket.

Happily, Smith has mellowed as the years have passed, has looked more comfortable in office, less inclined to play the part and more willing to give others room to breathe. Playing county cricket at Somerset was part of the process, for he needed and deserved a spell away from the spotlight. He helped them win the domestic Twenty20 tournament and his hosts were impressed with his eye and his vast hands at slip. No less importantly, he revealed an ability to adapt, even to merge into the background. Further edification came two months ago with the opportunity to play alongside and under Shane Warne, once his tormentor in chief.

Smith’s dislike of the Australians had been naked and narrow. He complained about racist remarks shouted by spectators in Perth, a city containing almost as many South African rednecks as Bloemfontein. Never mind that the insults clearly came from expatriates. It was a chance to give the Australians some of their own medicine and he took it. Playing with Warne in Rajasthan will have given Smith a vital insight into the Australian way of thinking and this winter he will know how to handle himself among antipodeans. Hereafter he will not rise to every provocation or scowl at every rudeness. Instead, he will remain open and helpful whilst retaining his deep desire to beat the so and so’s into submission. It will be another advance in an incumbency that is starting to fulfill its early promise.

But the Australians are months away and first he must subdue an England side reliant on a batsman who might so easily be playing under Smith’s command. In the past he has allowed Kevin Pietersen to get under his skin almost as much as he has the Australians. The Maritzburg College boy likes to needle his fellow countrymen as a prelude to belting them around the park. Hitherto Smith has allowed it to get personal, and his players can sense his mood, whereupon they lose their patterns of thought. But Smith seems to have grasped the need to move past all that and to maintain discipline. Once a captain loses his temper or the bowlers forget about line and length, the game is up. Of course it is frustrating that such a formidable batsman is playing for the wrong side, and talking such overstated nonsense along the way, but the best response is to rise above it. Let Pietersen have his England.

Smith must have learnt a lot about the particular qualities needed to captain his country from the way his rugby counterpart has met his challenge.

John Smit is a mightily impressive leader who does not complain about referees, newspapers, politicians and so forth. He has lifted a World Cup and then the state President, a moment almost as inspiring as the sight of Mr Mandela putting on a rugby shirt to give the World Cup to Francois Pienaar all those years ago. If rugby can do it, why not cricket? The way forward lies not in fighting the system but in making it work.

With Smith’s maturity has come a more settled and mixed side. No longer do his older players want to rush home from strange places every time they hear a loud bang. No longer is the team as much at the mercy of the politicians. On Smith’s watch, a coloured player has withdrawn from a touring party because he knew he was not worth his place; South Africa has decided to complete their tour of Pakistan despite the bombings; and two redoubtable players from previously disadvantaged communities, Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla, have proved their worth as Test batsmen. For that matter, a neglected and aging outsider, Neil McKenzie, has returned to the fold. Oh yes, and the board’s selection veto has been withdrawn. As far as can reasonably be expected, cricket has been put in the hands of cricketers. Smith deserves some of the credit. Swagger has been replaced by substance, confrontation by consensus.

As far as batting is concerned, Smith cannot expect, this time, to peel off hundreds whenever he goes to the crease. Apart from anything else, his technique is better known and his opponents have improved. He is a mighty batsman, though, and better organised than he appears. Like all unorthodox players, his game must be working properly or it will not work at all. Straight-driving is the key to it. As long as he is belting the ball past the bowler he will score runs. Once he starts fiddling around or seeking chances to clip the ball to leg he will falter, because the caricature never works. Smith has been batting well and runs can be expected from him.

It will be an interesting tour as these mostly unsung South Africans strive to make their mark in a country where so many cricketing expatriates are making their fortunes. Thanks not least to their captain and his handpicked and mild-natured coach, the deed can be done by a team less weighted down by baggage than most of its recent predecessors.

This article was originally written for ESPN cricinfo.


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