March 21, 2013

Of Smith, Clarke and Cook

Which of the latter two will find the resolve and inner strength that has allowed South Africa's captain to climb the summit and remain at the top?

In a fine recent article about Graeme Smith, Michael Atherton talked about the essence of Smith's achievement to captain his country in 100 Test matches. "To endure under such strain [and by this he refers to "nail-biting match situations, restless nights, troublesome selectors, meddling administrators and festering egos"; he does not mention the expectant public nor the prying eye of the media that fuels it] speaks of unshakeable resolve and inner strength."

I confess to being fascinated by Smith and the road he has travelled. Leading the South African cricket team has specific and inherent complications - not least that the best side is not necessarily the one on the park. Smith brushes this away, understanding the pointlessness of debate on a subject that serves no common purpose. When interviewed on Channel 9 early last December, he admitted that he spent four years working out the job, a couple more getting a handle on it, and that only of late had he begun to nail it. Ten years is a long time to do anything, never mind lead a sports team with the egos to which Atherton refers and the insecurities and uncertainties that hover and wait to kill. Moreover, a cricket captain must practise as he preaches, a devil of thing to achieve consistently throughout any decade, never mind the fast-moving one just past.

Most captains have a problem child lurking somewhere. Maybe Smith's has been the issue of "quotas". Brought up in the age of Nelson Mandela's triumphant return to centre stage, Smith sees things about black and white in black and white. He defers to no one on this. Integration and development are as much a mission as the need for success. He is concerned that Makhaya Ntini almost set the bar too high and those young Africans who aspire cannot hope to do so without the interim of hard yards. He is worried about the danger of fast-tracking talent not ready for the exposé that is modern international cricket and the knock-on effects. It is a valid point.

This is Smith's Kingdom of Days. South Africa are the best team in the world. He has a fast-bowling attack to savour, an ideal blend of batting types, and a colossus of an allrounder. The genie missed out on a spinner but the captain is making do. Relaxed, mature and well rewarded, he gets to play one-day cricket without the responsibility of tossing the coin, so he has bit of fun too.

This karma hangs by a thread. It is not so long ago that Faf du Plessis saved his bacon in Adelaide. Michael Clarke's second consecutive double-hundred rocked the South Africans and should have led to victory. The truth is that Australia, shorn of the injured James Pattinson for the fourth innings of the match, were not quite good enough to close the deal. From the great escape in Adelaide came the massacre of the wounded in Perth.

Clarke appears tired. The Australians' schedule is ridiculous; their dependency on his play unbelievable. Internal politics take the most from a team and an insufferable amount from the captain

Clarke's tale is not so happy right now. Beating Sri Lanka at home was a sinecure, the tour to India anything but. Increasingly Clarke's problem child has been Shane Watson, who produces less than his talent and preferences demand. Watson has become a riddle. Should he bowl, and where should be bat? Indeed, given the infrequency of his appearances, should he be vice-captain? It is remarkable that, should Clarke be confirmed unfit tomorrow morning, he will lead Australia for the first time in a Test match immediately after being dropped for insubordination. To be or not to be is the ongoing Watson question. In a stronger era, he might be sent away to prove sustainability of fitness and form in state cricket. In this era the argument for needs-must usually wins the day.

Much of this makes Watson out to be the bad guy, which he is not. He is a good man and there is a big heart in that strong frame that is generously spirited. His crime is self-absorption, nothing more. He wants all the ducks lined up and then, bang, he is a favourite to pick them off. It has been easy to feel sympathy for him, plagued as he has been by injury, but the time has come for the vice-captain to be just that - unshakeably loyal to his captain and coach and a Test cricketer of substance not promise. Australia's best XI has him opening the batting as well as bowling some overs when occasion demands. Now the offspring has arrived at home and mother and child are well, the duty is to Australian cricket abroad.

Clarke appears tired. The Australians' schedule is ridiculous; their dependency on his play unbelievable. Internal politics take the most from a team and an insufferable amount from the captain. Ask Andrew Strauss, who spent a summer fencing with Kevin Pietersen and retired from the game at the end of it. There is England's problem child, now wrapped up nice and cosy - for the moment - by Alastair Cook. Of the myriad stripes that will adorn Cook's shoulder when he settles on the farm for good, the one for solving the Pietersen affair will have been the trickiest to come by. There was a coach to convince, a team to persuade and a dissident star to embrace. England are settled because of Cook's reasoning and because of a strong core that Australia presently lack.

It is what Messrs Clarke and Arthur are looking at when they punish four players for their indifference. It is easy to mock the notion of incomplete "homework" but the truth lies in the management's concern about attitude. To ask an international sportsman for three points in self-appraisal is fair and relevant. To ignore the request is rude and disruptive. Yes, Arthur may live or die by this "line in the sand" moment but we must assume the potential sacrifice was essential.

Clarke just wants some peace, and a few blokes to hang on at the wicket with him. Now that India has effectively gone, attention will turn to the Ashes. Most English and Australian cricketers are defined by this old rivalry and their eras bracketed by the outcome of the fight for the little urn. Two magnificent cricketers, both with the makings of great leaders, have the mind for the contest. Which of them will best endure the strain and find the resolve and inner strength that has allowed one of their contemporaries to climb the summit and remain at the top?

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on March 24, 2013, 17:56 GMT

    Mark - Yes, SA is the world's best team presently. But Smith could not have done it alone. Not without master-coach - Gary Kirsten - a name conspicuously absent in Mark's column! Gary has instilled high standards: accountability & flexibility in a very mature & stable SA team. His coaching style is markedly different from his SA predecessor Mickey Arthur. They were a bunch of "chokers" then. Now they know how to win as a team: They climbed the summit - literally & actually - when Gary had his boys train hard last summer in the Alps with Mike Horn the adventurer. Even Kallis beat his fear of heights! They dethroned England. Remember Gary also took Team India to the top in Tests with captain Dhoni & a core group of senior players - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman & Co. Again, he had Mike conduct motivational sessions, so India went on to win WC 2011! Dhoni was hailed as a great skipper - another obvious omission by Mark. Building a winning culture is key to climbing & staying at the top!

  • Jay on March 24, 2013, 13:54 GMT

    Let's turn to Clarke & Arthur. Yes, they've looked stupid with the "Homework-gate" controversy in India. It was more of a "head-in-the-sand" situation than a "line-in-the-sand" moment. The ostrich had already laid eggs with the "secret dossier" of specific plans to wage "psychological warfare" on each SA player - "verbal attacks" on Amla, "bouncers" at Kallis & so on! Having Arthur as coach, Oz thought they had a big advantage, when Ponting claimed: "We've done our homework on aIl their players'! "Homework-gate" here too? It all boomeranged! Arthur & Clarke were outfoxed by Kirsten & Smith! Just like they've been by Dhoni & Co with a 4-0 whitewash! Team India has bounced back. Captain Cool's "resolve & inner strength" have been a big part of it. Like Cook, Dhoni too has "myriad stripes"- Tests (# 1 for ~ 2 years), WC 2011, WCT20 - as captain in all 3 formats in 4+ years! With India's upcoming SA tour, Mark's title should now read: "Of Smith, Clarke, Cook and Dhoni"!!!!

  • Dummy4 on March 23, 2013, 21:39 GMT

    This article is about comparing Cook and Clarke's relative merits and chances in this year's Ashes. Both are comfortably the best batsman of their respective teams, but Cook certainly has a more settled and experienced side at his disposal (not to mention a stronger bench). Let us just keep Smith away from this. Only when he is gone would people outside SA (and inside those fiercely political administrative corridors of SA) appreciate his contribution. He was an awkward 22 yr old kid, who looked older and bigger than his age but got bullied by men like Flemings, Pontings and Sangakkaras. He was simply saddled with the captaincy when still green to test cricket itself. He led former captains, an iconic black player, some fantastic talents and made a team out of it. Along the way, he didn't fare too badly as a batsman himself despite obvious technical shortcomings. He will end up in the top tiers of modern cricketing history, no debate.

  • David on March 23, 2013, 18:06 GMT

    How short peoples memories are, or how little of history they know.

    Smith inherited a team in disarray. A team that had been rocked by the double blows of Hansie Cronje's exposure, disgrace & lifetime ban, & another World cup debacle. Added to this was intense political pressure & interference in a country struggling to reinvent itself.

    Smith had played 8 tests when he took on the captaincy. He was raw: raw to international cricket, raw to leadership of men far older & more experienced than he, & at 22, raw to the demands & challenged of adulthood.

    The travails Cook faced with Pietersen was the difficulty of dealing with only ONE Saffa. (Smith would have dealt with that in 5 minutes, out back.) Clarke was schooled in a great team. While Cook & Clarke were learning the game & leadership, from others, Smith learned it by default.

    Smith has inked his name in cricketing history. That is done, whatever your opinion. We all know that opinions mean little. Results matter. Smith has them.

  • Soso on March 23, 2013, 1:45 GMT

    Smith is the greatest Captain of all time period. He took a young team and molled them together when we were ranked fourth in the world. Where are we now? People can talk about running out of ideas and tactics but this has happened to everyone. Clarke who is being hailed as the best since sliced bread looked clueless when Amla was attacking to all parts of the ground. He was even negative and unsporting by wasting time to deny Amla from getting a 100 in a session.

    I have never seen such a great leader of men. No doubt in my mind that he is an all time great!!

  • Heath on March 22, 2013, 23:32 GMT

    I think Cook is the better captain at the moment. What he did in India and how they changed that series was amazing. Probably England's greatest series victory since 2005. Clarke needs a team that gives him 100% support. They are quite a young side and may need a couple more years to form a core group of players. The Aussie batting is also very brittle. Smith is like Ponting he is a pretty good captain, a better batsman and has a great team.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 17:09 GMT

    Adam Grech on (March 22, 2013, 12:47 GMT) Smith often places the game on autopilot, waiting for wickets rather than changing the environment that will allow the wicket to fall. No imagination- Bowling Tahir when he was going for 10 an over, really, keeping him on is a good response?

    That game where Tahir was getting Smacked everywhere Kallis had got injured so he didnt have much choice he did try Faf and it didnt work. In the first match when Hussey and Clarke rescued Aus his spinner Dumminy got injured before a ball was bowled and he did try himself Amla and Petersen just they didnt get the break through! doesnt mean he didnt try or he wasnt imaginative just means what he tried wasnt successful on those occasions - he still won the series though. Ask Clarke if its easy bowling teams out on a flat track with a bowler down?

    As for him being frustrated when things are going to plan really? show me any captain who is happy losing?

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 14:30 GMT

    Smith's longevity as captain and near-50 averaging opening bat are remarkable, especially considering he's not a natural "classic left hander" but more of an improviser who relies on an exceptional eye and massive heart. The sadness for me, as I read about back-to-back Ashes series pitting Clarke's Aussies against Cook's English is that SA are effectively sidelined into playing sporadic 3-match series against also-rans in Test cricketing terms (NZ would't beat a second rate club outfit in SA in a 3-match series). The two Ashes series will be close-fought affairs, but in the end, neither team will do enough to overhaul SA at the top of the table and we - the Test cricket loving fraternity - will be denied seeing genuine strength vs strength on a regular basis. Eventually SA will be toppled - not overpowered, outwitted or out-spun - but simply through the passage of time and inactivity.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 13:04 GMT

    Clarke should settle at a position no lower than 4 and then groom a team around him like Border did in late 80s. SA and Eng have done that and are reaping the rewards.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 12:47 GMT

    @ B.C.G - The same Taylor led squad won the third test in 1998, no McGrath, but used his resources well. Calling the 99-01 australians the greatest attack ever is a big call, the windies of the 70's and 80's say hi.

    @ Muzammil - I never said Smith wasnt a good batsman, Perth 08, Adelaide 12, 277 in england, whenever he posts a century, the team hasnt lost. Like Ponting, he showed when things were not going his way, to show his frustration, and not try anything new. Smith often places the game on autopilot, waiting for wickets rather than changing the environment that will allow the wicket to fall. No imagination- Bowling Tahir when he was going for 10 an over, really, keeping him on is a good response? 3 Wickets would fall in australias first innings for the first 2 tests, and smith seemed to rest on those laurels, not doing a thing and letting Clarke and Hussey get away with massive scores.

    A very good batsman, to me, on field, he isnt anything special.