‘Biff’s’ decision in nick of time

2010-08-19 00:00

LIKE one of his late cuts to the vacant third-man area, Graeme Smith’s reshuffling of his responsibilities came just in the nick of time.

Smith, fine Test captain that he has been — and will surely continue to be — has fallen rather short of the same heights in the pyjama-clad versions of the game. His decision to vacate the Twenty20 post immediately makes sense, but it is interesting that “Biff” has postponed his one-day international obligations to the rapidly approaching World Cup.

The talismanic left-hander spoke of a need for continuity in a World Cup year, but with a few good months — and plenty of cricket — between now and next year’s showpiece in India, he could have just as easily given up his powers in 50-overs cricket too.

But, one senses, Smith has afforded himself one last dance with destiny — a final fling at the elusive pot of gold that has eluded the Proteas for a ridiculously long time now.

In a career emblazoned by epic, jaw-clenching knocks at the crease, the solitary black mark on Smith’s captain’s report is the inability to get over the line in the high stakes of knockout cricket.

Sure, the Proteas have been regarded as the best side in the world at various times, but never quite in the years that really matter.

The Proteas had almost become the All Blacks of cricket, dominating the valleys, but failing to scale the peaks.

And that can be put down to Smith’s style, in certain respects.

While his attritional, at times confrontational, style in Test cricket has won him countless contests and much respect, the subtleties of whirlwind cricket have not come quite as easily to Smith.

Many will recall — with a wince — how the T20 World Cup in England came to a shuddering halt when Smith’s men ran into Pakistan.

Last year’s much-hyped Champions Trophy also saw Smith’s men come unstuck rather suddenly.

Of course, Smith cannot shoulder the blame for that alone. Indeed, his colossal century in a losing cause against England almost got the Proteas home.

But when all avenues have been explored, change is inevitable in any industry that thirsts for success.

Smith is thus imploring his charges to go all the way with him on his last mission, but the world of cricket is littered with dreams shattered by the unpredictable wands of Afridis, Dilshans and the odd Pietersen.

The subject of Smith’s ODI successor is certainly interesting. In the last 18 months, Hashim Amla has emerged as a calming influence, even on senior players.

Politics aside, the bearded run-machine from just down the N3 has always been marked as a future leader.

That future may yet become the present, especially if Amla’s recent form is anything to go by.

Certainly in ODI cricket, Amla would be a sensible choice. Though he comes across as shy and unassuming, the number three houses a fierce passion and has experience of leading from an early age.

Johan Botha’s outstanding stand-in job for Smith on the last tour Down Under also makes him a candidate. He made some big calls under pressure, and they paid off.

Botha’s form with the ball has dipped of late, and spin bowlers who captain can sometimes let their own form affect their demeanour.

But he is made of stern stuff, which he proved by twice bouncing back from his action being reported.

In the 100-mile-an-hour world of Twenty20, however, it gets rather muddled. You may as well pick a name yourself, and hope to goodness he is in the team.

The practice of having three different captains for each format is no longer foreign. Smith has paved the way for the Proteas to go down that road. But he has also left himself a small window of opportunity to leave in a blaze of glory.

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