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.