Captain formidable

2008-08-08 00:00

GRAEME Smith has not only won his first Test series as captain against one of the two oldest cricket nations, but has also added to the notch that, five years ago, he carved on the back of his bat following the resignation of the England captain, Nasser Hussain.

You will remember that it was Hussain who insulted Smith, prior to his captaincy debut, when he introduced the South African to the match referee as “Greg Smith”. In the match that followed, Smith made 277 and Hussain resigned.

It was Michael Vaughan who succeeded Hussain then and now he, too, has gone after another innings of enormous substance by Smith. In Vaughan’s case, his troubles were caused by a series defeat compounded by a catastrophic loss of form, against a background of media hostility following some bizarre selections for which Vaughan had to share the blame.

The result is that the best English captain for decades has been replaced by the man whose foolish shot last Friday contributed so much to England’s loss.

Vaughan’s lachrymose resignation has illustrated yet again how much a modern Test captain’s authority depends on the power of his personal performance.

At the peak of his batting powers, Vaughan was comfortably the most accomplished Test captain in the world. In 2005, he out-captained Ricky Ponting at every turn and led his team to a rare Ashes victory. A knighthood beckoned, but recently his runs have dried up to such an extent that his off-form presence has affected the balance of the England team.

The weight of his past achievements would surely have carried him to next year’s Ashes but, burdened by his recent failures, Vaughan has opted to try and recover his form away from the pressures of Test cricket.

The Australians have long understood that undermining the opposing captain weakens his team, but not even the most successful of their skippers has seen off two of his opposing captains in the middle of a series. Five years ago, Smith was the rawest of novices amongst his fellow Test captains but now not only is he the longest-serving, but arguably the most formidable.

This is what the national selectors must have anticipated when they appointed Smith just after his 22nd birthday. It says much for Smith’s strength of character that he has confirmed their faith in him. At first, it looked all too easy as runs flowed from his bat in a torrent unknown since the days of Bradman. A couple of Test victories came with surprising ease, but by the end of his first series his naïveté as captain had been exposed and the mutterings soon began.

Smith has certainly had some bad times, not least when opposition bowlers began to exploit the weaknesses in his batting technique. The runs, however, have never entirely dried up for him.

Five years in the job have produced 5 000 runs from his bat, which is testament to a spirit that has never allowed his failures to diminish his determination and optimism. The Vaughan route to salvation has never appealed to his strong sense of self-worth. He has preferred to work things out in the midst of rough seas rather than in some tame backwaters.

Whatever the state of his own game, Smith has steadily advanced his authority within the side.

The only serious rival to his leadership came from Neil McKenzie and he was quickly exiled to the provinces. In time, Smith’s man-management improved and with that came his ability to surround himself with the people that he wanted, which was no mean achievement in South Africa.

He saw in Mickey Arthur the coach that he needed to complement his own skills and one who would be more compliant than the combative Ray Jennings. As a bonus, he got — in Arthur — a man who was surprisingly resistant to the transformation demands of CSA.

The two have formed a successful partnership that has taken the team closer to the number one Test ranking than it has ever been. Their team is not the finished article and is way off the quality of the great Australian teams of the last 15 years, but it is moving in the right direction as the Aussies’ slide from the top gains momentum.

If the summit is to be reached later this year, it is important for Smith and Arthur to recognise that the series-winning victory at Edgbaston was gained despite some ordinary cricket when the match was there for the taking. From a position of strength on Friday afternoon, the South Africans allowed Pietersen and Collingwood to take the game away from them. The bowling would have embarrassed a schoolboy XI.

Fortunately, Pietersen got so excited with the feast on offer that he allowed his ego to believe that he could consume anything. The result was a stroke of stunning stupidity that allowed the South Africans back into a match that was sprinting away from them.

Test matches are won by getting on top and grinding opponents into the dirt, not by moments of instinctive self-absorption.

Late on Saturday afternoon, after a dramatic day that had everything, Smith finally got on top of England and he pushed them into the dust. When he was done, he had played an innings without parallel in South African cricket but, more importantly, he had brought his team home.

•Ray White is a former UCB administrator.

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