Stephen Gelb August 11, 2008

O Captain! My Captain!

Great captaincy also means creating a dominant position and pressing home your advantage

It’s been all about captains this week, at least in England.

Graeme Smith’s innings was without question a great one, if not a huge surprise to South Africans who have seen that absolutely resolute batsman more than once. You knew he would be there till the game was decided either way, but it was a rollercoaster as the familiar resignation of top-order disintegration was followed by heart-in-the-mouth during the AB de Villiers and Mark Boucher partnerships, and finally relief with 25 or 30 to get. I listened to the hugely entertaining Henry Blofeld for the last hour on the car radio parked outside my daughter’s school – I snuck out of the function inside with Russel and Clive, two other dads. It felt a bit like 1965, South Africa’s last series win in England – plus ça change and all that.

Smith’s was not only a captain’s innings, it was his captain’s innings. His leadership style combines big heart and strong mind, both essential to his Edgbaston effort and to Day 4 at Lord’s, when he led the fight for the draw. But do these qualities make him a great captain?

In leadership, as elsewhere, context is everything. Churchill became a great leader in 1940 when his country’s back was to the wall. Mandela moved from icon to great leader during our democratic transition, when compromise and reconciliation were of the essence. If great cricket captaincy were only about rearguard fightbacks, Smith would deserve the label. But it isn’t and he doesn’t.

Great captaincy also means creating a dominant position and pressing home your advantage. Smith has not really managed that in this series, even against a team in some disarray.

In fact, the opposite of greatness was evident in an important moment - against stronger opposition maybe a series-defining moment – very early in the first Test. Dale Steyn had started with three mediocre overs, making the batsman play only 6 of 18 deliveries. Smith immediately took him off!

Steyn was maybe overawed by Lord’s, maybe a little rusty. But he was 'The Man', the top-ranked test bowler and leader of an attack which – according to SA’s hype – was going to over-run England. Taking him off was utterly defensive, more so in the first half-hour of the series, and after winning the toss. Surely Steyn should have had a chance to get into a rhythm, find a line, work up pace. Some words of encouragement or advice rather than consignment to the outfield. What relief for England, what discouragement for the South Africa attack.

Smith has serious limitations when he has to make the running - the overcautious and rigid mindset of post-re-admission South Africa has long outlived Hansie Cronje. Smith didn’t bother to hide his dissatisfaction with his bowlers in public: journalists described his body language as an ‘air of resignation … he had nowhere to turn, no variety to offer’. But: ‘even so, it was odd that Smith was not more proactive’.

Of course being too proactive was (one of) Michael Vaughan’s problems. Apparently he made 253 field changes in one day during the series. If Smith swings from one extreme - the bloody-minded World War One infantry officer bursting from the trench to lead the charge – to the other – circling the wagons into a laager – Vaughan’s trial-and-error approach was reminiscent of a white-coated lab scientist groping for a solution, but not really sure where to look, or maybe even what he was looking for. During the New Zealand series Vaughan couldn’t close out wins from a controlling position. But that was apparent already in 2005 (remember Edgbaston then?).

Now for some ‘reductive quasi-social-science theorising’, which will please Samir. A report this week on an international management survey showed that, compared to ‘bosses’ in other countries, South Africans are an unusual breed: really ‘gung-ho’ about succeeding when up against the odds in risky foreign ventures, but paradoxically lacking any trust in their own employees. Not a great recipe for success, but Smith (and indeed other SA national leaders) does seem very much a product of his milieu. And if milieu is so determinant, maybe those hoping for a new English dawn this week should also restrain their optimism.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on August 18, 2008, 21:08 GMT

    I wonder how good spome of the other world teams would be if their selections were based on quotas. south africa must choose FOUR WHOLE PLAYERS OF COLOUR whether good enough or not. luckily we have had Gibbs went a real cricketing school and Ntini who also had the advantage of a cricketing school. But some choices in the past have dealt our team a real low blow. Ontong in for Rudolph (he's top of the averages in Uk)Did you really expect SA to perform that test. Then we had Zondeki (nephew of a cabinet minister)Whats his bowling average?? Claude Henderson never got in because we needed to fill the quota. He does pretty well in UK.We once dropped Boucher for a hockey player Tsolikehle and lost the test to England. How many games did he play.Why is Boucher back. I agree the government needed to show some changes so Graeme Smith has done very well with his team( Mckenzie was stood down for 3 years) NEXT When are we going to get sitescreens sorted. we all know they cause grief but ????

  • testli5504537 on August 13, 2008, 16:48 GMT

    Regarding Smith's 3rd test innings; we must not overlook the fact that he was 'out' twice and not given. Vaughan was proberbly not out, but given!

    There was not much between the 2 teams, although I think SA's catching was superb and probably the real difference.

  • testli5504537 on August 13, 2008, 12:05 GMT

    A great team comprises not only a captain but rank and file players as well - how well would the Proteas be doing currently if we didn't have the likes of bouch,Jakes (Kallis ) and A.B.- with all their combined years of experience in addition to "Biff's" undoubted talent as a cricketer - one sometimes gets the impression with Smith's captaincy that when we're on top he's great however if the team is under pressure he tends ,I feel,to crack and that's when Bouch & co. come into their own. a captain like Eddie Barlow ALWAYS led from the front - for his province (WP & Transvaal & I think EP ) & his country in all departments - batting ,bowling fielding -and always the perfect gentleman. However as the media have been saying the past few days "Bring on the green baggy caps " - then we can compare KP and Biff !after our respective series.

  • testli5504537 on August 12, 2008, 3:50 GMT

    I dont agree with some of the points made.Smith deserves credit for his captaincy.Steyn needed to be taken off to catch his breath and normalize himself.Therefore Smith took him out of the attack.

  • testli5504537 on August 12, 2008, 0:44 GMT

    It may be too early to consider Smith a great leader, but he certainly has all the credentials and is moving in the right direction. I wonder how all the other captians around the world (past and present)would fare if they were faced with the same set of challenges Smith has had to deal with, Hansie-gate & Quotas in particular? For one so young when he took charge he has done a remarkable job and has exhibited a fortitude and strength of character that at the very least mark him as an outstanding leader. A leader of any sporting team in todays world has to be judged on more than just the results achieved on the field of play. Their "off-field" performaces are just as important and in this regard Graeme Smith has excelled. It is my bet that by the time he retires form the game Graeme Smith will be regarded as one of the great sporting of our time.

  • testli5504537 on August 11, 2008, 23:55 GMT

    I think overanalysis is overrated. Good captains lead their teams to victory, while good teams lead their captains to greatness. In the end, the results are all that matter in competitive sports. It's easy to micro-dissect every decision in hindsight, but not so easy to win when the chips are down. For the moment, Smith is a victorious captain and the leader of a winning side. Let us let things go at that.

  • testli5504537 on August 11, 2008, 22:18 GMT

    Smith has always been a 'do as I do, not as I say' sort of captain. He relies on a great team rather than his own intellectual prowess to make a good team a great one.

  • testli5504537 on August 11, 2008, 19:19 GMT

    A captain can only be as great as his team is strong, that much is obvious. And with the bowling attach he has had available in this series, he has done immensely well in winning the test series. His spinner is workman like (likeable or not), his one spearhead is well past his frightening stage, although useable - the other fastie had broken bits. The two backup bowlers were very workman-like. Two Dale Steyns and a Murali, hell, even just a playing Dale Steyn and a Murali would have made all the difference. The batting was really good, and that made the difference. Smithy did a brilliant job, good on him and the team.

  • testli5504537 on August 11, 2008, 18:44 GMT

    If hard-headedness is anything to go on, then Graeme Smith has certainly shown himself to be just that. However, he's certainly no tactician and strategist, and will generally tend to be overwhelmed by anyone who can out-think him. Hansie was brilliant in that department. I have also noticed that the only time Smith scores big runs is in England. The well-known gap between bat and pad, and the tendency to whack outside the off, are well known, and have been seen all to often. It seems to me that the greatest issue with the South African team is that they focus on who they are playing against, and not on how they are going to play. Witness 4 wickets going down like nine-pins in the world cup against a mediocre team, simply because it was a mediocre team. Picking up individual characteristics in a batsman style is well and good, but is not the be-all and end-all of the game. The Aussies focus more on the game than they do on the opponents, hence their success.

  • testli5504537 on August 11, 2008, 18:28 GMT

    Good job Graeme, well done.. India beat the English in their own backyard last year as well so I'm not too overawed by his achievement... though his innings was just magnificent, even though riddled with many dubious decisions..

    I want the proteas to beat the Aussies, only then.. .and ONLY then can we count him among the greats... If Steyn is match fit, I think he will bury the Aussies... TRUST ME

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