Johannesburg - Strength of character and the ability to lead from the front have been the outstanding features of Graeme Smith’s decade-long tenure as South Africa’s captain.
Former South African captains, polled for their thoughts on Smith ahead of his 100th Test as captain at the Wanderers against Pakistan, starting on Friday, all agree Smith’s bullish nature played an important part in his success, especially in the early days of his captaincy.
Smith was a surprise choice as South African captain in March 2003. Aged just 22, many thought him too young. “It was an extraordinary appointment, when it is remembered that he was 22, and had played just eight Tests,” said Ali Bacher, South Africa’s last international captain before the country was banned from international sport. “You must take your hat off to (then selection convener) Omar Henry and his selectors for having the vision and the courage to make him captain.”
Smith’s longevity, stems from having taken the job at such a young age, but then also being successful, most importantly as a batsman.
“You have to able to get the best out of your players, but you also have to perform, the days are long gone where you can have a guy captain the side who is not really pulling his weight in the team,” said Kepler Wessels, who captained South Africa immediately after the sporting isolation ended.
Besides needing to be successful, South African sports teams also have broad social targets to fulfil which often come with their own political agendas.
“You’ve got your issues that are unique to South Africa, but what’s important are the support mechanisms around you that enable you to deal with those challenges,” said Smith’s predecessor, Shaun Pollock.
Wessels explained that the support mechanisms around Smith these days are infinitely better than what he had when he led the side in 1992, and that they have eased the burden on Smith. “The challenges have changed a lot from readmission to now,” remarked Wessels.
“Captaining South Africa because of our diverse nature, you’ll never satisfy everyone. You’re always going to have, those issues. It’s not just striving for excellence when you captain South Africa, it’s never only about that, we’d like to think it is, but it’s not.
“Clearly if you’re winning and successful then it makes the other stuff go away to a degree, and helps you (as captain) to a point, but it will never just be about that, because of the diverse nature of the country and the political pressure, that’s the way our country works. You have to be philosophical when you deal with those things and you have to be very patient.
“It adds to the pressure and anxiety. Through the appointment of people around him like Dr (Mohammed) Moosajee (team manager), they’ve created a good support system. At the beginning (after readmission) and up to the middle of Hansie’s tenure there was no support system,” Wessels added.
Wessels and Bacher believe that Smith may have up to three more years in the job if he stays fit. “The key question is how much passion and commitment he has,” said Bacher. “You’ve got to get up and want to do the training, when that becomes hard that is when it is time to think about stepping away.
“Realistically, if he tones down the one-day cricket, he’s probably looking staying in the job until he’s 35,” Wessels remarked. “It will solely depends on how hungry he is.”
* Smith sat down with SuperSport on the eve of his 100th Test as captain, talking about his challenges and his time as South Africa’s most successful leader. “Graeme Smith 100* Skipper” is a 45-minute interview that pays due homage to his status as one of cricket’s most enduring and iconic figures.
Wednesday: SS2 and HD4, 8pm.
Thursday: SS2, 9am and 10pm.
Friday: SS2 and HD1, 9am.