Captaining a cricket team is not for the faint-hearted

2007-11-28 00:00

The art of captaincy has always been a fascinating subject for me. As a youngster I was in awe of famous captains like Allan Border, Kepler Wessels, Clive Lloyd, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. Playing under captains such as Kepler Wessels, in South Africa, and Zimbabweans Alistair Campbell and Andy Flower, I was under no illusion that this was an easy job.

It is difficult to believe that Graeme Smith, at the tender age of 26, captained South Africa for the 100th time in an ODI against New Zealand at Kingsmead on Sunday.

There is no doubt that during his relatively short tenure the game, and the role of captain, has changed considerably.

In theory, in Test matches anyway, the stronger team will usually emerge as winners after five days. One-day cricket is often different with events happening so quickly on the field and the role of the captain is not only always under the spotlight, but is also often decisive.

The difference between Graeme Smith’s and New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori’s captaincy is highlighted by the one-day game.

Smith seems to adopt a somewhat old-fashioned approach, attacking up front and then going on the defensive to restrict opposition batsmen. Vettori, on the other hand, maintains an aggressive approach with the aim of taking wickets to slow the run-rate.

Vettori persists with slip fielders and does not move out fielders immediately after fielding restrictions are lifted, making batsmen try hit through the field or over the top. He is prepared to concede a few boundaries in the hope that the batsman may play a false shot.

West Indian Malcolm Marshall was one of the more aggressive captains I played under and he resented batsmen scoring easy runs. He would retain fielders in the ring to curb easy singles and batsmen would have to take risks by hitting over the top. Natal’s Pat Symcox and Derek Crookes would often beg him to spread the field, but more often than not his tactics would result in the spinners gaining the upper hand.

Alistair Campbell had a real job on his hands as captain of the Zimbabwean team when I was in Harare. Losing match after match was demoralising and it was a huge challenge for him with the limited resources at his disposal.

In an ODI against England, Andrew Flintoff was facing the leg-spin of Paul Strang. Alistair kept the fielders in, which was a dangerous ploy against a talented and hard-hitting batsman like Flintoff. He had just started his innings, and was on five when Strang came on. After the first two deliveries sailed over the top for six Strang pleaded with Campbell to change the field. I could imagine Flintoff thinking that the field would go back to defend the boundaries. But Campbell stuck to his guns and the very next ball Flintoff, aiming at another big shot, was caught at mid-off. It was a memorable piece of captaincy.

It will be interesting to see where the captains of the future will come from. Looking at the South African team it is hard to imagine who could successfully replace Smith, particularly if Neil McKenzie is not part of the equation.

On the domestic front, KZN Dolphins captain Ahmed Amla faces a challenging season, leading an inexperienced but talented side. He is a captain who leads by example and his dedication will have a positive impact on the young Dolphins side.

•Neil Johnson is a former Natal, Western Province and Zimbabwean all-rounder who has settled back in Pietermaritzburg.

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