August 6, 2008

Preparing to learn from the master

Their antipathy is undisguised, but Pietersen has more to learn from Smith than any other leader

Graeme Smith: a role model for his enemy © Getty Images
Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain will forever be remembered as two of England's finest captains, but when Graeme Smith sat down on the podium at The Oval this afternoon, you could almost imagine their heads perched on pikes behind him. South Africa's vastly impressive captain has grown another inch in stature in the course of this series, but whatever he goes on to achieve, the manner in which he has imposed his will on successive tours of England will take some beating.

In 2003 Smith was a willful 22-year-old, brash beyond his years but with a talent to match, and his youthful aggression was more than a jaded Hussain could deal with. Five years on, and he's striding into the prime of his career with a team that does his bidding, and a faith in his personal form that enables him not only to make big runs, but make them when it really matters. His second-innings hundred at Lord's turned the tide of the series, while his epic at Edgbaston sent the waves crashing over Vaughan's career.

And yet, after two days of celebration, culminating in a reception at the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square, Smith's gameface was firmly back in place at The Oval this afternoon. As he talked in measured, honest, but ominous terms about the challenges that come with leadership, the magnitude of the task that lies ahead for his new opposite number, Kevin Pietersen, yawned into view.

"It's going to be an interesting reign to see," said Smith. "He's got a one-off Test against us, so he'll be hugely motivated. He'll be excited, nervous, and have a lot of energy, but whatever you do in this game as captain, it's about sustaining it afterwards. He won't experience too many of the pressures of captaincy right now, but he'll really start to understand it in a few months' time. Running a team and getting a team to play for you, it's going to be interesting."

You could sense from Smith's demeanour that the appointment of Pietersen has really sharpened his focus for this game. "I think there's a mutual respect in terms of performance. That's probably as far as it goes," he said, neither seeking to ramp up the animosity between the two men, nor deny that it exists. The days of name-calling have long since past. All Smith needs to do to increase the pressure is to indulge in a bit of statesmanlike superiority.

Because, for the first time in their long history of antipathy, there is clear blue water visible between the serene Smith and the tangibly anxious Pietersen. It's not just the difference in terms of captaincy experience (Smith has led in 184 internationals as well as countless first-class and List A games; Pietersen's only opportunity came in defeat against New Zealand at Lord's last month), the devil is in the detail as well.

The universal respect of his nation, the rapport with his coach, and the command of his team-mates - these are all the aspects of the role that Smith enjoys by dint of his efforts over the course of five years. Pietersen has all that lying ahead of him in the coming weeks and months.

He has certainly made a promising start in his new role, by naming a side that differs decisively from the tentative line-ups picked by Vaughan, and which could, given a following wind, come to mirror his attacking mindset. But there are questions about his relationship with Peter Moores that refuse to go away, and his current eagerness to be all things to all men might, in the short term at least, restrict his ability to be his own man in the middle.

"It's going to be interesting now he's been thrown a lot of curveballs around him," said Smith. "As captain you have to have an open mind, you have to arrive at a stadium where so many different things challenge you from day to day, and it's not only about your performance." Recalling the reckless drive that brought about Pietersen's downfall for 94 at Edgbaston, Smith stated, baldly: "One thing I will say, is that captaincy will make him think about that now."

If the Oval pitch plays with anything resembling the pace and carry that has been promised by the groundsman, Bill Gordon, a result should be reached, and the likelihood is that a settled South Africa will once again prove too strong for an England side seeking inspiration rather than playing with it. Nevertheless, the timing of Vaughan's departure may, in hindsight, prove to be as perfectly hasty as that of his own predecessor, Hussain. One Test will prove nothing about Pietersen's credentials as a captain, but this week could provide him with the single most relevant lesson in leadership he could ever wish to receive.

Though Smith and Pietersen would doubtless hate to admit it, the two men have similarities that extend beyond their nation of birth. Both are driven to a degree that most mortals would struggle to recognise. In Pietersen's case, it drove him to throw in his lot with South Africa as a teenager, and back himself to make it big in a foreign land on the opposite side of the world. Smith may have stayed put in the physical sense, but mentally he has been striving for the same degree of greatness ever since the day he came home with a school assignment at the age of 12, and stuck the goal: "To captain South Africa" on his fridge door.

Though Smith and Pietersen would doubtless hate to admit it, the two men have similarities that extend beyond their nation of birth. Both are driven to a degree that most mortals would struggle to recognise

It's as if the Cape wasn't big enough for the two of them. The batsmanship that each possesses has been abundantly apparent throughout their careers, but so too the brashness. In Smith's case, the maturity he sought to project in his day-to-day dealings was undermined by a manner that, in his early days, would rub up his team-mates to the same degree that it riled his opponents. High-profile errors of judgment - complaining about Australia's sledging on his maiden tour in 2001-02, or testifying against Vaughan in front of the match referee during a fractious Johannesburg Test three years later - were mistakes not easily rectified, except through sheer weight of personality, and a crash course in diplomacy.

Personality is something that Pietersen has by the bucketload, but his diplomacy is an ever-developing aspect of his game. "I think you bump your head a lot as captain," said Smith. "I certainly bumped my head a few times as a young guy. But it's how you face up to that. Do you look at it with an open mind, learn for yourself, and take the lessons on board? Those will be the important things for him. He might have a good run of it, but when you bump your head for the first time, how do you reassess and where do you go from there?"

At 28, Pietersen is the right age for the responsibility, but until that first bump occurs (and if Smith has anything to do with it, it will take place right here in SE11 within the coming five days), he will have use his single-mindedness as his default setting in times of unease. As Smith admitted right at the start of the tour, such an approach was exactly how he survived the turbulence of his first five years in charge of South Africa.

"But that wasn't sustainable for me," he warned. "There was a period of time when I took a balls-to-the-wall sort of approach, when I was going to put everything into my batting, and expect the same from the team. But then you have to find something that can be more sustainable. It's only when things aren't working out that you have to look at yourself and say: 'How can I improve, and how can I get the team to improve?'

"It's also about where his team is and where he wants to take them," said Smith. "As a captain, when you ask a lot of your players, you've got to walk the walk also, and it's not always possible to achieve those performances. He has some massive challenges ahead of him coming up, and he doesn't have too many easy options ahead either."

That may be so, but having been thrust into the role with a haste that has taken even the man himself by surprise, the lessons of the coming weeks must be lapped up with alacrity by Pietersen. From Vaughan with England and Shane Warne at Hampshire, he has learnt something of the art of victory from two of the best tacticians you could ever wish to have on your side. But, at this present moment in the game, there is no leader with more experience, presence and tactical acumen than Smith. And nor is there a player whose example Pietersen could do better to follow.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Bunty on August 8, 2008, 14:10 GMT

    Chazzaca , I agree with you that Alan Border was one of the best players of any era. A crab like character who may not be pretty to watch but mightily effective. Something like Miandad ,Dhoni or Ranatunga. I have seen him play lone hands in India when all the other Aussie players were resting in the hut. He goaded the team to a World Cup in '87 and a Tied test in India in '86. Given the resources at hand he managed to extract more than maximum from them. I think he epitomized the indomitable Aussie cricketing spirit especially during the tough times of '83-'89.Who can forget the circumstances in which he got the captaincy . A captain going out in tears. In my opinion there can be no argument Border was a true cricketing diamond.

  • Mike on August 8, 2008, 11:55 GMT

    Smith is the best captain ever. Brilliant article mate. KP should learn from the best!

  • Charlie on August 7, 2008, 16:00 GMT


    Greg Chappell was by far more skilled than AB but he also had the benefit of having great sides with him for most of his career. AB had to pick up the pieces when Chappell, Marsh & Lillie all retired at the end of 83/84 and carry them until they smashed the Poms in '89. He had an amazing 56.51 average away from home including 5 hundreds in Pakistan/India at a time of no neutral umpires!! I agree there have been some more gifted batsman but for me AB will always be #2 behind the Don for of his raw courage as well as skill. Not many know that he's still the only player in Test history to score 150 in each innings - in Pakistan in 1980 against Imran Khan & Safraz at their peak as well as their dodgy umpires!! The Windies bowlers weren't the only top bowlers he faced - Iram Khan, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, list goes on. AB took an average side and made them great which is what KP will try to do as opposed to taking over an already great side as Ponting did.

  • Patrick on August 7, 2008, 13:27 GMT

    Chazzaca you've got no argument with me regarding AB. A brilliant captain. But the best batsman since Bradman? Come off it mate. I think Greg Chappell might have something to say about that, among many others. He was a great bat considering the strong bowling he faced, but to be fair the majority of that was only from the Windies. I strongly disagree with any sentiment that lends towards attributing the last 15 years of Aussie dominance purely to the cattle. We have produced good players yes, but they have been captained brilliantly by Waugh and Ponting - who both benefited from the AB approach of uncompromising unfallibility. It's this mentality that KP will benefit from - and as he is far more like Ponting that AB in his character - I still suggest that is where he turns his attention for any inspiration.

  • Francis on August 7, 2008, 13:21 GMT

    Best man to lead England today is Strauss. The English press will finish KP off. Pity. He is (was!) entertaining. Smith, by the way, is a better captain today for playing under Warne in the IPL. Warne, by the way, is the best captain that International Cricket never had.

  • Matthew on August 7, 2008, 13:18 GMT

    Just one corrective comment. Pietersen is from Natal Province not the former Cape Province. But England can keep him.

  • Ryan on August 7, 2008, 13:14 GMT

    PatrickON, please get your fact straight. Since 2004 Smith has captained South Africa in 6 tests against Aus, 9 against England, they have been on tour twice to India (5 tests) and have played India in 3 tests at home. SA have played 10 against the Windies, 8 Against NZ.

    You said that SA play BAngladesh, Sri Lanka and Zim more often than anybody else. Yet they have played more games against Aus alone than against the 3 teams you metioned combined. Here are the facts of how many Smith has played against them: 2 against Bangladesh, 2 against ZIM and 2 against Sri Lanka (all away from home). Get your facts straight!!!

    Smith may not be the greatest Captain ever, he didnt start well. But if you actually look at what he has put up with and how he has shaped this side. The respect that he has from his entire team, and the level of authority he has been walking with on the field, there is not doubt that he is growing into one of the best captains in the CURRENT test arena.

  • Charlie on August 7, 2008, 13:04 GMT

    Ricky Ponting a role model - are you kidding me??? He hasn't had to worry much about his captaincy because his teams look after themselves. Heck I could have captained those teams and they's still had the same results. His career Test average was 59.29 when Warne, McGrath & Langer retired - he's been batting 48.75 since which includes a 158 against the sub-standard Windies The Ashes '05 & Ishant Sharma showed up what Ponting's like against top-class bowling!!

    Allan Border is a far better role model as he faced world class bowling all his career and captained some poor Aussie sides in the mid/late '80s. His record given some of the bowling attacks he faced is extraordinary and he didn't have the Warnes, McGraths or Gilchrists at his disposal. AB was by far the best batsman we've produced since Bradman and arguably our best captain ever.

  • Flym on August 7, 2008, 13:03 GMT

    Smith the master? Utter rubbish! Vaughan had the better of him in 2004/5, no mistake. To say that Smith ended Vaughan and Husssain's carreers is nonsense.

  • Patrick on August 7, 2008, 12:31 GMT

    What a ridiculous article. To assume that Graeme Smith is the master!! Risible at best Andrew Miller, a typical journalistic beat up. Kevin Pietersen should take precious little from Smith, who hasn't even been a better captain than Cronje. Cronje had a 51%/20% win/loss record, whilst Smith currently stands at 47%/28%. Compare that to the recent Australian captains and it looks rubbish, particularly considering SA play Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and (until recently) Zimbabwe far more frequently than Australia or England. If KP wants a role model, look to Ricky Ponting - a similar character with brilliant instinctive batting ability who hasn't let his standards drop with the expectations of captaincy. They are both highly competitve individuals with a hard nosed, no nonsense appreciation of both cricket and human character.

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