The magnificent Mr. Smith

Graeme Smith, the South African Desperate Dan who has an annoying habit of ransacking the England cricket team and beheading their captains, like some marauding Visigoth of yesteryear, breaks a remarkable record today. When the second Test match between South Africa and Pakistan gets underway, Smith will have become the only man in the history of the game to have captained his country in a hundred Test matches. It is an astonishing achievement.

It is ten years since Gerald Majola, the then CEO of South African cricket, called Smith, who was driving along Constantia Nek in Cape Town at the time, to offer him the captaincy. Smith was 22 years old and had played just eight Tests. For a country renowned for its deeply conservative attitudes, in cricketing and all matters, it was a bold and, it turns out, inspired choice. Captain for almost all his international career (including a one-off Test for the Rest of the World against Australia), Smith has known little else.

Those who have held the reins of an international cricket team, who have bitten their nails to the quick during matches, spent restless nights contemplating thorny selection issues, troublesome selectors and meddling administrators, not to mention a scab of festering egos in the dressing room, will recognise the essence of the achievement. To endure under such strain speaks of unshakable resolve and inner strength.

England captains of the last two decades have all had a good run, but none has lasted more than four years, less than half the time that Smith has been in charge of South Africa, before they have bowed out, exhausted and eager to regain a life. Smith says it took him four years just to get to grips with the job; for the last six he reckons he has had a pretty firm grip on things. Whilst most of us get weaker, physically and mentally, the longer in the job we are, Smith has got stronger and more determined.

Captaining South Africa offers more potentially restless nights than anywhere else, too. Smith took over from Shaun Pollock, after a disappointing home World Cup, who had in turn taken over from Hansie Cronje, whose win/loss record might have stood comparison with the best, but whose moral compass stood comparison with the worst the game has to offer. Stability and steadfastness were required at a time when transformation issues meant that selection was never a straightforward process. He has seen administrators, selectors and coaches come and go and has navigated some choppy waters.

To gain some insight into the vortex that cricket captains can descend, it is best to recall an incident thirty-two years ago almost to the week, when Greg Chappell gave the clearest indication of how warped priorities can become under pressure. Needing six runs to tie a one-day international at Melbourne with one ball remaining, Chappell instructed his brother, Trevor, to underarm the final ball of the match to the waiting New Zealand batsman, Brian McKechnie, who threw down his bat in frustration before Chappell and his Australian team were booed from the field.

Twenty years afterwards, Chappell gave his take on the incident. He called it, ‘a cry for help.’ Recalling the pressure he was under, he said: ‘I wasn’t fit; I was mentally wrung out; I was physically wrung out and I was fed up with the whole system……I’m disappointed that I didn’t realise just how far down I was and how much the captaincy was affecting my mental health and I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be anyone else within the playing group or administration who realised where I was at.’ Chappell was 32 years of age and at the peak of his powers; he had captained Australia in less than half the number of matches that Smith has.

What Smith has, though, that Chappell and his generation did not have is a strong support network. It is no surprise that the longest serving Australian captain, Allan Border, who captained in 93 Tests, was the first to enjoy a greater level of support than Chappell, through the coaching services of Bobby Simpson. It would be hard to envisage even Smith lasting as long as he has without such backroom help. Nevertheless, as Michael Vaughan admitted when talking of the nausea he felt, but did not show, during the 2005 Ashes and as Mahela Jayawardena showed a fortnight ago in a spat down under, even the most unflappable and well-supported cannot escape the pressure of the job.

Smith will never be spoken of as a Mike Brearley; his captaincy is not so much academic as visceral. He stands massive, unyielding and unblinking at slip, moving fielders around as a predictably as a standard-class chess player would his pieces. He is not a free thinker, turning readily to attrition when Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have tired. He does not have, say, Michael Clarke’s capacity to surprise. Whether Clarke has Smith’s endurance and strength remains to be seen.

Smith’s qualities lie elsewhere: his leadership (Morne Morkel calls him the Voice, by all accounts, and one to be listened to); his strength of purpose and character; his ability to change, from a young captain who spoke first and thought later, to someone less instinctively confrontational, and, of course, his catching and batting which stand comparison with the best the game has to offer. Every time he has gone out to bat for his country he has done so with barely a moment’s thought to prepare himself. To average around 50 over that time, under that scrutiny, is incredible.

To my knowledge, there has been only one statistical study done to rank captains down the ages, not just according to the number of matches won, but by using a sliding scale of competitiveness against whom those matches were played, and that came from an unlikely source- Satyam Mukherjee of the chemical and biological department of the University of Illinois. Mukherjee, using models I cannot begin to comprehend, but taking into account every Test match ever played, had Steve Waugh top of his pile, with Smith close on his heels in second.

Mind you, the good scientist had M S Dhoni at number nine, this before his Indian team were trounced recently by Australia and England, twice. As Dhoni found out when the calls came for his head this winter, having initial success as a captain is one thing; sustaining it is quite another. Nobody in the history of the game has sustained it quite as well as the remarkable Mr. Smith.