A truly iconic captain’s knock

2008-08-08 00:00

IN a single innings, Graeme Smith managed to secure a series win for his team and sow such confusion in the opposing ranks that the home captain walked the plank.

As has been sagely observed, the result might easily have been otherwise. But luck was not the dominant force. There was a massive certainty in Smith’s innings — a sense of belief missing in the opposing camp. Throughout, he batted with conviction and his team responded.

Although wickets fell in potentially devastating bursts, South Africa did not buckle. Nor did they creep towards victory. Instead, they dared to play their shots and the target was reached before the second new ball. That was Smith’s great triumph. He has empowered his players.

Smith deserves immense credit for this performance. His team seemed down and out at Lord’s, but fought back to take the spoils. Previously hotheaded, he has mellowed without weakening his outlook. He has also put his batting back together. Nothing is harder for a captain than losing his own game, for he feels that he cannot look his charges in the eye.

Thus, teams try to unsettle the opposing leader. Once a captain loses confidence, he becomes hesitant and the team loses momentum. Mark Taylor could separate captaincy and his batting, so bad trots did not affect his leadership, but he was exceptional.

Promoted to the captaincy before he knew his own game back to front, Smith had become a self-caricature at the crease. Shuffling around like a dazed in-patient, he presented an angled bat to almost every delivery and produced as many squirts as a bottle of washing-up liquid.

That he scored any runs at all was testament to his determination and ability. But he was back to his best in the critical hour at Edgbaston. Rather than seeking opportunities to play his leg clip (a stroke once popular amongst schoolmasters), he relied upon straight drives and cuts and let the rest take care of itself. These are the best two shots in the book. Far from wandering like a lost tribe, he waited for the ball and then moved decisively.

Nor did Smith allow anything to distract him, not a vociferous crowd, nor clatters of wickets, sharply spinning deliveries or disappearing yorkers. Instead he went on an aggressive and single-minded pursuit of victory.

Along the way, he was helped by senior team-mates and a coach who apparently blasted the players at the end of a wayward stint in the field. It was a magnificent chasing innings, much like Brian Lara’s superb dissection of the Australians in Barbados 15 years ago.

Michael Vaughan must have reflected on his own years of glory, when an entire nation was transfixed as his team outfoxed and eventually outplayed a formidable opponent in the Ashes.

If his waning powers and faltering batting did not convince him to stand down, then the sight of a rampant counterpart must have done the trick. Once so penetrating, his mind had become bogged down and his game and captaincy suffered. Truth to tell, England have not been the same since 2005. Something was lost in that victory. Desire ought not to be so easily placated.

As one captain rose and another fell, so a third emerged. Kevin Pietersen was the right choice to lead England for the next five years. Of course it is a gamble, but the alternatives were also risky and at least he is worth his place.

Everyone remembers Ian Botham’s disastrous spell as England captain, but he was young and reckless, and was appointed more in hope than expectation. For all his blather and blunders, Pietersen is an extremely calculating cricketer. It is the fate of great batsmen to be chastised for their occasional lapses, whilst trenchant contributions from lesser players are lavishly praised.

Hitherto, Pietersen has not made many wrong moves in his career. His relentless promotion of his own interests had not endeared him to everyone, but he is hardly alone in taking good care of himself.

Along the way he has emerged as an audacious and willful character eager to explore his own possibilities, among the most hazardous operations known to man. He could have been ordinary and instead went in unafraid pursuit of greatness. All the more reason to give him his head.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent based in the KZN midlands.

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