Smith targets stability and success
Graeme Smith's arrival at Surrey was always likely to generate sizeable interest, as one of the few genuine big-ticket overseas names in the county game this summer, but his unveiling at The Oval was marked not just by the frisson of nylon-clad journalists shifting in their seats, as every member of the Surrey squad present also filed in to the back of the room to watch. The new leader certainly seems to have inspired a following.
Ten years ago this summer, Nasser Hussain referred to South Africa's new, 22-year-old captain as "Whatshisname". For a man called Smith, he needs remarkably little introduction now. The most successful captain in Test history, the only man to lead in 100 Test matches, currently in charge of the No. 1 team in the world and one of the leading openers in the game. Last summer, in his 100th Test, he scored a century at The Oval, the ground he will call home for the next three years.
There can be no doubting the reasons behind Surrey's decision to appoint him as captain, either. In 2012, a squad full of youthful promise experienced blunt-force trauma in the death of Tom Maynard, a tragedy that led to subsequent allegations about a dissolute culture within the dressing room. Smith, along with fellow new signings such as Ricky Ponting, Vikram Solanki and Gary Keedy, is charged with helping to build something formidable from the rubble. But first, there are introductions to make after all.
"Initially, I've got to do as much learning as everybody else," said Smith, who joined his new team-mates in London just a few days ago. "I need to get a feel for the team, the players - I'm still trying to learn the names, who does what. The first few weeks are going to be a lot of learning. The club has taken steps in the right direction and shown the intent with the decisions they've made. They brought in not only me but a lot of experienced guys, which adds value to the team culture. We want to create a culture that the guys are proud of, that they take responsibility for, that they respect."
His reputation may precede him but, as can be seen in the band-of-brothers bond he has forged with South Africa, Smith will not lean on it as a leader. "It's about relationships. You need to build that trust in relations with your players in order to get the best out of them, that is the key. Early doors it's going to be about building relationships, then over time hopefully imparting my style and what I'm about into the squad."
Growing up and learning his trade whilst also captaining his country gives Smith a privileged insight as to the pressures young sportsmen face. He says that the "unique challenge" offered him at Surrey was the major draw but, with a young family (his wife is expecting their second child in July), the stability of a three-year contract was also a factor. One his new challenges will be to bring cricketing stability to Surrey.
"One thing I can say is that over ten years I've been through a lot," Smith said. "I took over at 22 and it hasn't always been rosy. There was a lot of growth, maturing, times you have to look yourself in the mirror - and a lot of success. I feel that I'm a pretty well-rounded leader, in terms of what I've been through, to come in here and hopefully be able to grow the team. In South African cricket I've been dealt a lot of tough blows, on and off the field, having to deal with a lot of things, different situations. So I feel like I can add value to the squad."
Value in runs is almost certain but his influence may well be invaluable. In keeping with his emphasis on relationships, Smith advocates giving players the freedom to learn for themselves. With his mountain range of shoulders, barrel chest and gimlet eye - albeit perpetually on the verge of a twinkle - the man South Africans know as "Biff" wouldn't look out of place as one of the Untouchables but he is not about to impose a new era of prohibition at Surrey.
"It's a six-month season, we can't handcuff guys and put them on leashes, people need down time and that's an important part of success," he said. "But hopefully we can create an environment in which people make the right decisions."
Chris Adams, Surrey's director of cricket, has emphasised the need for the club to remember Maynard but also move on. Smith may arrive as the Great Redeemer - "Obviously you can't hide from it being a factor, everywhere I go it seems to be discussed" - but his recruitment is also about generating success. Last season was Surrey's first back in Divison One after three seasons in the second tier and their last Championship pennant was claimed back in 2002. Winning is something Smith definitely knows about. Forget the fact he captains the best Test team in the world - in 2005 he managed to lead Somerset, the perennial runners-up of county cricket, to the T20 title.
If he is to succeed again in England, he has not chosen to do it the easy way, even though Surrey's resources surpass those of most other counties. Throwing his lot in with first-class cricket in England in April is not a glamorous career choice, either. Smith could have been hitting sixes on the subcontinent but, rather than join most of the world's other marquee players at the IPL, he will likely be turning up his collar and battling it out on greentops. Ugly runs, a hands-dirty situation - it seems appropriate for the man.
"One of the big things was the leadership challenge that Surrey offered was something I was looking for, I was looking for a place to make an impact. I would love to maybe play another year of IPL at some stage down the line bit if that doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. My commitment is to Surrey cricket now for three years and maybe even longer, if we can make a success of it." That may not be a big 'if'.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo