August 22, 2010

South Africa's future in Johan

He's only the second frontline spinner to captain South Africa. Now with Graeme Smith stepping back, Johan Botha's future as leader looks bright

You don't need too many spinning fingers to count the number of frontline slow bowlers to have captained South Africa.

One is Nicky Boje, who led the Proteas in a single one-day international, against Zimbabwe in 2005. He went wicketless (albeit tidily, conceding just 23 runs from his full quota) and was not required to bat in his team's five-wicket win. At least he, for one, will remember it well. The other is Johan Botha, the offspinner appointed on Saturday to the Twenty20 captaincy that was vacated by Graeme Smith on Wednesday.

And that's that. Just two out of the 35 men who have held the reins for South Africa across all formats, stretching all the way back to the first of their 353 Tests 121 years ago, through their 439 one-day internationals and 33 Twenty20 games - in all, 825 games of cricket - have earned their place in the team as spinners.

Does that tell us more about South African cricket than it does about Botha or more about Botha than South African cricket? Now there's a well-disguised doosra to doodle with in the weeks before Botha takes charge of two Twenty20s against Zimbabwe in October. Not that he is coming into the job untried or untested. Botha already has eight one-day captaincies and five of the Twenty20 variety to his credit.

South Africa have won three of the latter on his watch. Impressively, they have lost just one ODI under him. Even more impressively, he guided them to victory in the one-day series in Australia in 2009, in a rubber that would have won a glittering place in South African cricket folklore had it not followed the country's first-ever Test series win Down Under.

A canny, calm and calming cricketer, Botha provided unshakeable leadership in a series that demanded nothing less. But more remarkable than that is the path that he has walked in the game. Originally a seamer, then a spinner, then a bowler deemed to be armed with an illegal action, then a man who lost his place in the team to Roelof van der Merwe - who was this week described by a former selector as "a bit of an imposter, really" - and now that rare thing: a spinner entrusted with the leadership of a South African team.

There is every reason to believe, given the right amount of success and barring another awfulness over his action, that Botha will succeed Smith as one-day captain after the 2011 World Cup.

Cricket South Africa don't always get it right, but this time they probably have. AB de Villiers was touted as a contender for Smith's old job this week, and even Hashim Amla's name came up. But there are doubts in high places about de Villiers' maturity, and the Amla theory was surely taken seriously only by those who wouldn't know a legbreak from a broken leg.

"I need to make the team first," was the bearded wonder's happily snappy response on Friday night when he was asked directly what he thought of the rumours of his imminent elevation. But his time will come: Smith can't captain the Test side forever.

Botha is 28. Amla is 27. Best they invest in some shades; a bright future is theirs for the winning.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa