Managing Graeme Smith

2011-10-22 00:00

THERE is an old English proverb that says everything has its time. This saying is an allusion the verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes which talks about the nature of things.

And there is no industry in the world where this saying is more pertinent then in sports, and with the recent commings and goings in South African sports, it seems that we are really taking this maxim to heart.

But amid all the hustle and bustle there is one person who seems to have weathered the storm and still finds a place of prominence in South African sporting lore.

For a number of years now, South African Test captain Graeme Smith has been under intense scrutiny, with many feeling that he has lost his form and is excess baggage in the Test squad rather than a certifiable asset.

Calls for his head gained momentum after former Protea top order batsman Herschelle Gibbs made some startling revelations about the inner workings of the Protea team under Smith. One of the major allegations levelled by Gibbs is that Smith held too much power within the national set-up.

Although the calls for a changing of the guard were significant, they were not enough, and Smith led the Proteas into their disastrous 2011 Cricket World Cup campaign. There he had a poor tournament with the bat, his highest score being 45 against the West Indies and Bangladesh.

These performances did nothing to quiet the critics of Smith, and the nail in the coffin for the former limited over’s captain was his apparent desertion of the South African team on their return back home.

While the rest of the team returned to face the local media, Smith jetted off to Ireland to formalise his engagement to Morgan Dean, now his wife.

Smith has now been stripped of the captaincy of the country’s limited-over sides, but is still the captain of the Test team, and one feels that it is only a matter of time before AB de Villiers gets given that role as well. Where then does this leave Smith?

The man’s average of 49,7 in Tests speaks volumes, but when last has he batted to this average?

He scored a century in the first innings of the Test against Pakistan in Dubai in November 2010; before that he scored 132 in the first innings of the Test against the West Indies at Warner Park, St Kitts, in June 2010.

In 2010 Smith scored four centuries, often at times under pressure in the last game of a series where there was everything to play for. Again, in 2008 he scored four centuries, one of which was against Australia at the Waca on a successful South African tour.

Is there still a place though for Smith in what is being seen as a new dawn for South African cricket under Gary Kirsten?

What will be interesting to see is how a person like Smith, who has a Type A personality and likes to be in control, will adjust to life not in charge of the limited-overs team.

Many captains have had this done to them before and have actually thrived when the pressure of the nation was removed from their shoulders.

And Smith’s experience will only benefit players like De Villiers and Hashim Amla who are adjusting to their new roles as national captain.

What is key to note is that he is still the Test captain, and while he is that his place is relatively safe. And as long as he is contributing meaning to the team in the form of runs, there is no reason to drop him. And this is currently the case.

As pointed out, he scored runs in 2008 and in 2010; in fact, the only lean years for Smith were between 2006 and 2007 where he never scored a century and 2009 where he never scored above 75.

But there are aspects of Smith’s game which frustrate many fans and have for many years stoked the fire in the anti-Smith camp.

One such aspect is the fact that although Smith has been the captain of the Test team since 2003 he still has not grasped the art of the perfect declaration.

In 2010 South Africa had an opportunity to get revenge against England when they toured South Africa. After a drawn Test at Centurion Park in Pretoria, and a loss to England at Kingsmead, South Africa had to win in Cape Town in order to level the series and force a play-off at the Wanderers in the last test. After a disappointing first innings batting effort, South Africa were in a good position at lunch on the third day of the Test.

Smith should have declared then and given England a total that they felt comfortable chasing. However, many felt that Smith was batting for personal glory rather than for the team and he declared the innings on 447, which effectively killed the game as a contest because the English batsmen were content to pad up and bat for the draw.

Smith’s perceived arrogance is also a sore point for his detractors. Long before Gibbs made his allegations about Smith in his autobiography To the Point, there was a feeling amongst the public that the true power within the Protea camp lay with Smith rather than with coaches and management. Some even went so far as to allege former Protea coach Mickey Arthur left his post because of a personality clash with Smith.

While Smith’s value to the team is still inherent, he needs to make hay while the sun shines, but he does have a dominant personality that needs special management.

If Kirsten cannot achieve this, then no one will. Kirsten has the best experience in the world in managing players with dominant personalities; under his watch as coach of India he had Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh in his team.

The question is, when will Smith go, and how will he go? Will he do the honourable thing and retire from the game while his average is up, or will the top brass at Cricket South Africa have to drop him and surrender him into forced retirement?

• jonathan.faurie@witness.co.za

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