9 January 2011
Much has been written about the captaincy of Graeme Smith in the Newlands Test. Questions have been raised about the defensive tactics and if he’d missed a trick by not inserting India at the fag end of the 4th day’s play. Smith is still the same impressive man that took over from Pollock following a disastrous world cup at home in 2003. A South African team still in the doldrums post Cronje-gate turned to him. He impressed with his freshness in approach. He impressed with his performance and leadership. He had never met Hansie Cronje and therefore lay to rest any lingering doubts of his influence on him and his leadership. He said he had hoped to be a captain of his country someday and was expecting it. No politically correct answers, but plain straight talking. That showed in his leadership and his batting. South Africa had found the right man to represent it.
Two double-hundreds followed in his first series as captain. His field placings and reading of the game and tactics reflected a shrewd mind. He showcased an ability to inspire a team of elderly statesmen of the caliber of Gary Kirsten, Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher, Makhaya Ntini and Lance Klusener. Just like that, at 22, Smith became the leader.
Some controversy followed when he didn’t shy away from calling Klusener overweight and later when he told the media what the Aussies had called him on his first tour there. Inevitably it wasn’t received well, and was seen as soft and a tell-tale by the Australians especially. Soft, he had never been. His courage was never in doubt. His start to the innings in the chase of 434 in Johannesburg showed the Australians that he was not merely a man of talk and that he backed it with deed. He was a fighter and he finally won over Australia when he walked out to bat with a broken hand in Sydney. He needn’t have and the world would have understood for the series was already won. But he strode out to the middle to support a team that showed admirable courage battling a rapid Mitchell Johnson to save the Test. He didn’t want to let down his mates who’d fought so admiringly to save the Test. A nation that saw him as a bully saw him as a fighter and gave him a standing ovation when he walked out to bat.
Along the way he has managed not to fall in the trap of stereotypes and it has showed why his team has been more competitive in India than either Australia or England. He has been shrewd to play two spinners and tie-up Australians in their backyard in one-day games and bombard Asian teams with quick and impact players when playing in Asia. Not that he has never shown ill judgment or never crossed the line. Sportsmen are allowed to lose their cool once in a while – it is inevitable when the tussle is taut and a bad decision here or a bad stroke there can bring efforts carefully structured over sessions to a nought. He has largely been controversy free and has spent less time with the match-referee than most of the captains.
Though South Africa have travelled impressively and often been successful, a major title has eluded it. Agreed that it has briefly claimed the top Test spot and has won an ICC event (inaugural Champions Trophy in Dhaka back in 1998), but is still seen as a unit that can crumble under the weight of expectation. On the back of a historic series win in Australia two summers ago, it was expected to win the return leg at home, but lost tamely to a young but resurgent Australian side. That Australia would go on to lose in England almost straight after would have disappointed Smith and his boys immensely. They were largely seen as the team to take over from Australia post that series, but it wasn’t to be.
The last two home seasons have been disappointing in that regard. They were unable to bowl out a determined English lower order twice last summer. Nor was his team able to match words with deed against the visiting Indians over the last three weeks. His tussle with Sreesanth and Zaheer affected him and showed on his captaincy in Newlands when he was defensive and perhaps missed the chance of declaring early and push for a victory.
Also South Africa have been shown to be in slight in the world cups (both T20 and ODI) over the last 4 years. Sometimes, failures can prey more on the minds. Personnel changes have be sought and tried with little success in major tournaments.
Smith has been smart enough to sense this and has called time on his one-day captaincy post this year’s one-day world cup. It is a smart move considering that he has been at the helm for eight years and captaincy and ideas last only that long. He might want to give-up captaincy to a younger man and concentrate on his batting alone. He will be 30 shortly and perhaps the next three years will be his best as a batsman.
Smith and team will try its best to win the world cup no doubt. His team stands as good a chance as any of the other leading teams and will enter it as one of the favourites. They might go on to win it. That he has already relinquished captaincy post the tournament shows that he may have recognized that he is coming to the end of the road as a captain. Smith has never been the one to shy away from reality. He will go when he knows that he no longer is the right man for the job.