Graeme Smith really does not need statistics to advocate his captaincy skills.
If you are not the kind who insists on numbers, you can skip the rest of this paragraph. But if you are the sort who believes cricket is a game of numbers and no conversation can be held without statistics punctuating it, allow me to cite just two – he is the only man to have led his team in more than 100 Tests; and nobody has led his team to victory in more than 50 Tests.
Smith was but 22 years old when he was assigned the tough task of leading South Africa. All-rounder Shaun Pollock was unable to help the team find direction over two years after the betting and bribery scandal claimed the then skipper Hansie Cronje’s scalp in April 2000.
Come to think of it, he was not quite the chosen one. He did not lead South Africa in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 1999-2000 when he topped the batting averages. But, backed by the selectors and the administrators, he cut his teeth well despite some unfair criticism of that decision.
Smith’s longevity at the helm of affairs gains significance in the light of Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) Transformation Policy that builds in a reservation system to ensure that a certain number of coloured players get to be picked in the squad. He had his runs-in with CSA President Norman Arendse.
He had to convince some coloured players in his squad that they deserved to be there in the first place; and he had to convince the white players that unity was the key to the survival of cricket in the rainbow nation. Few other captains in contemporary cricket face such off-field challenges as Smith has.
By all accounts, Smith did as fine a job of handling these as Sir Frank Worrell did in bringing the West Indies together in the 1950s and 60s and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi did in making the Indian players realise that they were representing the nation rather then the states and regions they hailed from.
Starting off as more aggressive than necessary, Smith evolved into a mature leader of men, earning the respect of his opponents and his team-mates alike. Let us rewind to that epic tour of Australia in 2008-09 when Smith’s South Africa became the first team in 17 years to beat the home team in a Test series Down Under to understand his bowlers’ respect for him.
While Smith led the batting charts, few would have complained had Dale Steyn been recognised as man of the series for his 18-wicket haul in the series. But let us recall what Steyn said: “Every one of the other 10 players in the team backs him 100 per cent and it’s absolutely right that he was man of the series.”
The fast bowler did not stop at that. “He led us unbelievably well throughout the series, he batted incredibly and he was an inspiration, from setting up the record run chase in Perth to getting the job done in Melbourne, he was always at the front,” Steyn said.
“The way he rotated the bowlers, always trying to look after us—and then the field placings, I wouldn’t have got half my wickets if it wasn’t for the way he read the game and set the field,” Steyn said, clear not only in his praise for Smith’s captaincy but also in speaking for his team-mates.
Of course, Smith may not have enjoyed the delight of holding the ICC Cricket World Cup at the end of a tournament, despite his team starting among favourites both in the West Indies in 2007 and in the sub-continent in 2011, but that does not make him any less a leader.
He did not need statistics. And, for good measure, Smith doesn’t need the World Cup either to be recognised as one of the best leaders the game has known.