All the more wiser, the captain of cricket returns

2008-07-04 00:00

GRAEME Smith embarks upon his second captaincy tour of England as a more rounded character blessed with a more established game. Not that he did so badly last time. To the contrary, his previous visit was a resounding success. Smith led energetically, scored a stack of runs and helped his side to square the series. Rushed into responsibility after a calamitous World Cup campaign, he attacked the English with the relish Alexander the Great reserved for protesting Prussians. Everything seemed set for a conquering career. Of course it is seldom quite as simple as that. Apart from anything else, Alexander did not have to deal with the LBW law, or Percy Sonn.

Still, that first victory put down a marker. Captaining a cricket side is not a cinch. It involves nursemaiding a party of 15 and subduing a fierce opponent while trying to impress that upstanding and sober group of bystanders, the cricket-writing fraternity. At once the captain is psychologist, soothsayer, selector, diplomat, ringmaster, technical advisor, public relations officer and politician. And woe betide the captain who neglects his own performances.

Nor was Smith given much leeway. Middle-aged ANC youth leaders might be able to get away with provocative remarks, but better is expected from cricket captains. Besides leading the side through a turbulent period, he was also supposed to catch sardines at slip, attend umpteen 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. Youthful ways are inclined to linger. It takes time for the head to cool down, whereupon it can start functioning properly (or so they say).

Having raised expectations, Smith has subsequently been marked a little hard. Partly it has been his own fault. He seemed an unsympathetic character with fixed ideas and a domineering outlook. Determined to hold his ground, he sometimes instead marched towards the guns, drawing

unnecessary fire, thereby making life harder for all concerned. Perhaps he had cast himself as the sort of unyielding leader favoured hereabouts. Perhaps he was seeking to placate colleagues. But the attempt to impose himself was overdone, and his work suffered.

As much could be told from his attitude towards the Australians. He began by bleating about their rudeness. That was a mistake because it turned him into a target before he was ready. On his first trip down-under as captain, he repeated the error, looking for trouble, seeking confrontation, trying to show that he was not afraid. But he could not match his words with deeds. As a consequence he was taken apart. Darryl Cullinan fell into the same trap. In an attempt to defy the Aussies, he let them get under his skin and never recovered. Better to humour them and, for that matter, the local media, and to remain focused on the cricket.

Smith has grown older and wiser. Playing county cricket and, more recently, IPL under Shane Warne in India has filled some of the gaps in his cricketing education. Also he has mellowed, and nowadays appears less anxious to assert himself. Doubtless he is more confident about his position and therefore no longer feels obliged to bite the heads off snakes and so forth (the strategy used by Mr Alice Cooper to prove that he meant business). As a result the South Africans look more relaxed under his leadership. He must have learnt something from the calm way his rugby counterpart responds to the challenges that crop up in the life of sporting leaders in this country. Perhaps he has realised that the way forwards lies not in fighting the system but in making it work.

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 back past the bowler he will score runs. Once he starts fiddling around or seeking chances to clip the ball to leg he will come a cropper. The caricature never works.

Unlike a soufflé, Smith can rise a second time.

At his disposal he has sturdy and settled seniors, a potent pace attack and hungry but hardly naïve youngsters. Spin is the weakness, but that has long been the case.

His team will not easily be beaten.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent based in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

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