Peter Robinson

Smith escapes the chop

2005-02-08 08:12

Make no mistake: the knives were being sharpened for Graeme Smith last week. Defeat in the first one-day international at the Wanderers and then a tie in Bloemfontein stretched South Africa's record to just one win, and that against Bangladesh, in 14 games.

Smith's form for most of this summer has been ordinary by his own standards and if the occasional signs during the Test series that South Africa weren't as bad as they often looked last year, it was also true that England had played the big points better.

It seems to be the South African way to effect changes to the national team in cycles of three. After losing to Australia in 2002, coach Graham Ford and selection convener Rushdi Magiet lost their jobs to be followed, a few months later, by the captain, Shaun Pollock.

Last year coach Eric Simons and selection convener Omar Henry were deposed. Do you see a pattern starting to emerge here?

Then, in Port Elizabeth on Friday, a few days after his 24th birthday, Smith's luck began to change. Two fumbles in the field allowed him to reach the first one-day century scored by a South African captain.

His team chased down a handsome England total without help from Jacques Kallis and South Africa finally managed a win against respectable opponents.

It got better at Newlands on Sunday when the South Africans swept aside England. The middle order fired, the bowlers took early wickets, the fielding was sharp. It was an impressive performance.

The temptation, of course, is to believe that South Africa have finally turned the corner. It might not be as simple as that.

England might well have run out of steam with a week of their South African tour remaining. Certainly, the tourists looked tired and woebegone in Cape Town.

It may not be coincidence that the two most effective Englishmen at Newlands were on their first and probably last tours respectively with something to prove and with fresh legs.

Neither Kevin Pietersen nor Darren Gough have had to slog their way through the Test series.

A settled team

Even so, the manner of Sunday's victory was something to savour for South Africans. It's been a while since a South African team has so ruthlessly demolished its opposition, underlining the obvious point that a settled team is far more likely to play better cricket.

At the start of the Test series Smith appealed, almost plaintively, for some kind of stability. He's only been around international cricket for less than three years, but already he's had three coaches and three selection conveners.

You may have noticed, though, that during the same period he's only played under one chief executive and two presidents, Percy Sonn, Ray Mali's predecessor as United Cricket Board president, going on to grander things at the International Cricket Council.

Smith is 24. He's had to learn about captaincy at the highest level and under a sharp microscope. His team have struggled during the past year, but he has always conducted himself with confidence and dignity.

He's made mistakes, but so have those around him and above him. Before anyone starts calling for his head, it might be wiser to have a closer look at those really responsible for the state of South African cricket.

Not that it's likely to make much difference. The first law of administration is to make sure someone else gets the blame.

Do you agree? Tell Peter what you think.

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