Walking tall

2008-03-22 00:00

Two South Africans, national team captain Graeme Smith and SuperSport CEO Imtiaz Patel,

have risen to the fore in international cricket.

THIS last week has seen two South Africans climb to the top rungs of different ladders in world cricket. The captain of the national team, Graeme Smith, is now the number one ranked batsman in ODI cricket. This follows his excellent performances this summer, in that brand of cricket, albeit against the weaker teams in the game. One should remember, however, that this has not been an easy summer for Smith, who has had to cope with matters off-the-field that do not afflict any of his captaincy peers.

The one thing that all captains want is a settled team whose members are fully focused on the tasks before them. Throughout this summer, Smith has had anything but peace amongst his players. At the very start of it, the equilibrium of two of his most senior players was disturbed in the aftermath of the Kallis affair, when Mark Boucher was fined for his heartfelt comments when his friend was left out of the T20 World Cup squad.

No sooner had the furore from that matter died down than Smith had another disgruntled senior player on his hands, though, this time, one suspects he had more than a little to do with the demise of Shaun Pollock. Still, it cannot have been easy for him to have to tell one of the legends of the game that carrying the drinks was the closest he was likely to get to walking onto any Test match ground apart from a farewell on his home turf at Kingsmead.

During the summer he also had to confront the reality of Herschelle Gibbs’s decline. At the end of 2005, Gibbs was included in the ICC’s Test team of the year. Together with Smith he had formed an opening partnership of substance. Twice they compiled opening stands in excess of 300 before Gibbs began to be found out by most Test teams. When Gibbs began to fail it put more pressure on Smith’s shaky technique and he, too, began to struggle at the front of an innings. Now his former partner has gone, perhaps never to return.

Finally Smith had the André Nel saga thrust upon him. He is known to be a big supporter of Nel’s wholehearted attitude to cricket. He will be reluctant to travel to India without the big fast bowler, but if an attempt is made to exclude Nel from the England tour, I fear it may be a step too far for the captain. Now Charl Langeveldt has felt compelled to withdraw from the Indian tour for reasons all sane cricketers understand.

Smith also found himself in the middle of other attempts by Arendse to influence the selection of his team. Such continual meddling in the composition of the team has a disturbing effect, not only on the captain himself, but also on the rest of his team. It is no wonder that Smith had a poor start to his Test match summer. It says much for his strength of purpose that Smith was able to put most of this behind him to play with considerable authority once he had recovered his form in the final Test match against the Windies.

There is no doubt that Smith has become one of the most formidable figures in world cricket. Apart from Ponting, who had his own troubles this summer, Smith has now captained a national team more often than any of his current rivals. His physical size gives him a commanding presence both on the field and at the crease. He is not one to take a backward step in any situation. This attitude is bound to get him into trouble somewhere along the line but in the meantime he remains a figure that is not taken lightly by his opponents.

Smith is not a loved figure in South African cricket in the way that Hansie Cronje was, but he is well on his way to becoming its longest-serving captain and possibly its most successful. The next 12 months will be most important for him and his team. If he is to leave behind a truly memorable legacy, it will have to begin with this tour to India and be followed up in both England and Australia. Perhaps the time has come to cut Smith some slack and to recognise him for his ability to lead the team with courage in the face of considerable difficulties.

The other South African who has, unexpectedly, emerged at the top of world cricket is Imtiaz Patel, who has been offered the chance to succeed Malcolm Speed as the chief executive of the ICC. It is a huge tribute to Patel, who left cricket some years ago to pursue a commercial career within SuperSport.

When I was president of the UCB, Patel was employed as the development manager. He did well there, but his path was blocked by Ali Bacher. He became increasingly frustrated by his perceived lack of opportunity. One morning he came to see me and told me that he had received an offer to work for SuperSport. He loved cricket but was tempted by the offer. He wanted some advice. This placed me in a dilemma as he was a logical but not certain contender to succeed Bacher. As president of the UCB I had an obligation to try and keep him in cricket but in my heart I believed his best interests would be served by leaving the game.

I told him in a manner that left no doubt that I thought South African cricket was becoming too infected by the politics of self-interest and that even if he eventually succeeded Bacher he could inherit a poisoned chalice. I advised him to accept the growth opportunities and financial advantages that the SuperSport job offered him. Sometimes it is frightening when one’s advice is accepted, but in this case I have never thought that Patel made the wrong decision.

Were he to ask me for my advice in respect of the ICC appointment, I am not sure my answer would be much different. It is a post full of challenges, not all of which will be pleasant. No doubt the money will be attractive as might be the prospects of moving his family to Dubai. The ICC, however, is a mighty difficult animal to embrace. India’s dominance of it, still in its infancy, is certain to make for troubled times. There will be an added complication for Patel in that the man who had been widely tipped to succeed Speed, Inder Singh Bindra of India, has been appointed “principal adviser”, reporting directly to the new president, David Morgan. Just what this appointment means is hard to fathom, other than being another sop to India’s muscle, but its very existence should ring a warning bell for Patel.

Should he take the job Patel will find that he is all but drowning in the detailed administration that is now demanded of the ICC. No doubt he will have enough minions to do the work, but poring through acres of documents may not be his cup of tea. The ICC is also an organisation that is subject to an enormous amount of criticism, if not abuse. Very little recognition is given for the work that it does. This can be wearing on its employees.

The major challenge facing the ICC is the threat to its authority posed by commercial interests as well as the growing hegemony of India. It is naïve to expect that the T20 revolution will not change the face of the game. The top players will soon find themselves serving two masters, thus giving rise to situations that invite trouble. It is going to require considerable skill and diplomacy for the ICC to navigate its way forward. Maybe Imtiaz Patel feels he is up to it, but from my vantage point the career that awaits him within commercial television continues to offer many advantages and little downside.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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