Graeme Smith should lead both Test and ODI sides, or neither

2010-08-28 00:00

GRAEME Smith’s resignation as captain of the Prorteas’ T20 outfit was the right move. Admittedly he will need to save that bit harder to buy university texts for his offspring (long-suffering parents can testify that academics release new editions annually) and to send a wreath to Shabhir Shaik’s funeral, but that’s a small price to pay for some peace and quiet.

Smith’s problem has been obvious. Twenty-over cricket comes third on his list of priorities, and rightly so. It is the most entertaining and least consequential brand of the game. Test cricket retains its eminence. Smith and chums know they will be judged by performances in that arena. Everything else is lightweight by comparison.

Accordingly accomplished players focus on five-day cricket and to that end train their bodies, prepare their minds and perfect their skills. As captain and opening batsman, Smith carries a bulky load. Years ago a pal remarked that two events had changed his life — becoming a father and taking on the captaincy of a cricket team. Cricket captains are expected to combine laundrette, nurse, doctor, dietician, psychologist, coach, guide, strategist, philosopher, magician and player. That sagacious comrade now serves as president of the MCC

As Derek Underwood once pondered: “Why does everyone want to be captain?” But then the great spinner did not imagine that he had been touched by the gods.

By and large Smith has carried out his duties with aplomb. Still wet behind the ears when the call came, he has matured into an accomplished leader. Indeed he has taken his team to the top of the rankings and has won a series in Australia. Moreover, captaining South Africa has its own particular challenges, and rewards, and he has been as much a manager as a skipper. Our flannelled fools and muddied oafs have been lucky with their leaders. Building a strong black base has proved a stiffer task.

Smith has not been quite as effective in 50-over contests. In the last two years the Proteas have not performed as well under his leadership. In that time they have played 21 matches, winning 13 and losing eight. Not bad, but not the stuff of champions. Contrastingly under Johan Botha they have won seven out of eight contests and under Jacques Kallis they have lost five out of six.

Of course figures do not tell the whole story. All sorts of factors affect the outcome, including identity of the opponents, location of matches, form of players, fitness concerns and downright luck. Still, these results suggest that South Africa’s ODI outfit have lost momentum under Smith. Bear in mind, too, that his absence also denies the side one of their most formidable players.

A case can be made for Smith standing down as captain of the 50-over side as well. Despite these results, it would be a premature move. Towards the end of their stints, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh were dropped from their country’s ODI side, and both complained bitterly, pointing out that international teams play a lot of 50-over contests and that they’d lose control of the rooms. In fact, splitting the captaincy worked well and prolonged their Test careers.

But Smith is another case. He has plenty of good years left in him. Taylor and Waugh had become liabilities, thereby undermining their wider authority. Smith has suffered no such terminal decline. All the more reason to let him continue till his goose really is cooked. Otherwise they will soon be asking who runs the show, the bloke in charge of the Test team or the chap running the 50 and 20 over sides? South Africa cannot undermine its captain. That is the work of the opposition. For some time to come, Smith should lead both Test and ODI sides, or neither.

T20 is another matter. It is a new and vibrant from of the game. It’s not so much that fresh skills are required as fresh attitudes. It’s easy to imagine the old guard turning up and playing hard but without inspiration. Some of them have represented their country 500 times. Of course they are proud and professional, but they might also be flat.

Better to give the T20 outfit an identity of its own, so that it is a first priority for its captain and most of his players. Smith has not exactly failed as a 20-over leader. Under him the Proteas have won 18 matches out of 27, roughly the same proportion as under Botha. Just that he needs a breather now and then, and the players need to hear fresh ideas and voices. Both parties, the youngsters rightly coming into the side and the long-standing leader, might benefit from the break. Certainly Ricky Ponting has looked sharper since he withdrew from T20.

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