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