Having reached the summit of the Test cricket rankings by thoroughly outplaying England in three matches that flew largely under the radar due to events in east London, South Africa continue their tour as summer winds down with some one-day cricket. They are pretty handy at this form of the sport, too, and can be expected to end England’s unbeaten run, which stands at ten games, over the course of the five-match series.
Both teams will change personnel for the series but perhaps the most significant difference in the South African dressing room will be that Graeme Smith won’t be the captain. Smith stepped aside after the World Cup last year but remains in the 50-over side as a ‘senior player’, something he admits he found ‘incredibly difficult’.
Because Graeme Smith, as he will tell you himself, is always the captain. When he briefly joined Somerset in 2005 and was asked to take charge of the side he paused for a second and said: ‘Well, OK, I’m usually captain of any team I play in.’ He took over as captain of the South Africa Test team in 2003 when he was only 22 and has been in charge ever since, leading his team with lantern-jawed authority in a record 94 Tests, with more to come. I know this because on the 2003 tour here he did a revealing interview with Mike Brearley, who knows a thing or two about leadership.
Over dinner and fresh from back-to-back double hundreds, Smith said he saw himself ‘ideally, retiring after 14 years as captain, with a bit of education behind me, and going into a good job. I can also imagine one day sitting at home in my slippers watching TV, with my family all around me and maybe a little bit of a stomach.’ That is the comment of a man entirely at ease with himself and his ability to lead. You don’t doubt that he’ll last the 14 years. And when he says he wants to go into a ‘good job’, he means ‘top job’. You get the feeling that if Smith had appeared as a contestant on The Apprentice, Lord Sugar would have felt the need to clear his desk. I’ve worked in a few offices myself and edited a couple of papers but I’m pretty certain that if Smith had come in to do some work experience, he’d have been running the show by the end of the day.
As a batsman, Smith is one of those whom coaches describe as making the most of their talent. But his ability as a leader is natural. If you want to find him in team photos from his school days, he is always in the middle of the front row. He unites dressing rooms, is hard but fair and, by all accounts, an admired opponent. He doesn’t talk of ‘targeting’ or ‘mental disintegration’ like Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh — he just gets the job done.
While Smith sets sail for four more years, a man who might well have been a team-mate might just have scuttled his international career. Kevin Pietersen’s ego lost him the England captaincy and it has now got him dropped from the team. A career as a hired gun in Twenty20 and as an outsider in a county dressing room beckons for one of England’s great cricketers. If KP had played under Smith one doubts whether the situation would have been allowed to develop as it did. Smith would have had an eye on things, a feel for the bigger picture, for the benefit of the individual and the team.
Back in 2003, Smith told Brearley, ‘The South African Board think that because someone is developed enough to play at Test level, he’s developed enough. I say let’s develop him more, let’s help the person grow as well as the cricketer. Take Makhaya [Ntini]. He’s huge in South Africa, but also it would improve his money-earning capacity if he were to develop the one thing he lacks, thinking for himself and believing in himself. Let him take a management course, or whatever. If I get Makhaya to read a book on this trip, I’ll have done well.’
Maybe KP would have been better off as a South African after all.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.