Graeme Smith hasn't been having an easy time of it lately. Over the last few months South African cricket has been brimful of thorny issues - among them the perennial selection controversies, and talk of how some players were given to having a drop too much to drink. Amid it all, Smith copped flak for allegedly having a coterie and for not being inclusive enough with some players. In this wide-ranging interview with The Wisden Cricketer SA South Africa's captain presents his side of the story.



"Sometimes it feels like you can't make a single decision as captain without running it past several other people" © Getty Images

Squad morale doesn't seem to have been as good as it could be?
There always seem to be morale "issues" that arise after World Cups. Building up to the 2007 event morale was very good; everyone clearly understood their role in the squad. Where it gets tough is towards the end of a nine-week tournament; there is a lot of pressure around and morale takes a beating when you're not playing.

If you are one of the guys who isn't playing regularly then that starts to create issues for itself. When the team is in South Africa the squads are small and players are able to spend a few days at home and those who aren't selected are able to play for their franchises. When you have a squad of 12, all working towards the same goals, it makes life very easy. It's when you have three or four guys regularly not playing that you can have a problem because, naturally, they start to feel left out - literally and emotionally. That's when you have to stay on top of things.

Are you hurt by suggestions that there is a "Captain's Clique" in the squad?
Not hurt, but I take it seriously and I have to accept that perception is reality for those who perceive it. I'm not afraid to take a close look at myself and I admit there were times when I was too close to certain individuals. It is something that I am conscious of all the time. I am aware of spreading my time around the team as much as possible.

I suspect that the "cliques" thing comes from guys who aren't playing, who are left out. They then spend time together and share their grievances and, perhaps, they look for reasons beyond their own performances for why they have been left out. There must be a reason, and it's not me - I don't pick the team.

In recent weeks the clique that has been mentioned has been the senior guys ... [Jacques] Kallis, [Mark] Boucher etc. They've been playing for 10 or 12 years and are very secure in their game and themselves. There are others who are not so secure in either themselves or their games. The difference between the groups needs to be broken down.

Why do we sometimes get in to the situation where the same players are left out all the time?
Actually, that happens in a lot of squads. Most teams have a first-choice XI which often stays the same unless there are injuries. But in South Africa's case transformation also has a role. I have two concerns about transformation: it can give guys false hope, and it can push guys too early into an environment for which they are not yet ready or prepared. It can set a player back by years.

I am still a young captain but I fully and happily accept my responsibilities to transform the team - for the sake of the team and the country. But I feel that those two areas are always difficult to manage.

So what's your anti-clique strategy?
Eighty per cent of the time guys are going to go out for dinner with people they are comfortable with and I don't think anybody in the team is going to moan about that. Business people have lunch with the same people.

But as the captain I have to be more aware of my role. I do find it ironic that people have accused me of not consulting the senior players and being a dictator. Then, when I do consult them a lot, I'm accused of having a clique! But I know I haven't always got the balance right and I am determined to spend more time with each player and not so much with one group, even if they are close friends. And I'll do that because I want to, not because I have to.

Michael Atherton spoke about the loneliness of captaincy but also about how he would make sure he had dinner with everyone individually, especially the new players.
It is a lonely environment and, for the last year and a half, even more so for me because I've been single. I've also been growing up as a captain and as a person, juggling a lot of commitments and often not having enough time.

Maybe at times I've needed to spend a bit more time by myself, ironically, and more time with a cross-section of the team. But generally I think my relationship with the guys is good. I don't think I have a bad relationship with anyone.

I have two concerns about transformation: it can give guys false hope, and it can push guys too early into an environment for which they are not yet ready or prepared. It can set a player back by years

I am aware of my own faults and the mistakes that I have made over the last two years. As much as I look at myself I would like the players to look at themselves, maybe accepting that they weren't good enough in a certain situation and not blaming their own performance on something else.

My decision-making is purely based on a winning team. I don't make decisions based on who my friends are. The perception that I pick the team is a big frustration for me. I can make a case to the selectors, but that doesn't mean I get that team. I often don't.

What practical steps can you take?
As I said, at times I have been too social in a certain environment. Maybe too many dinners, having a lunch or a coffee with certain players ... I need to be more aware of spending time with everyone, getting to know them better. It was hard for everyone after nine weeks in the Caribbean at the back-end of a very long season. You feel the pressure, you're lonely and not always thinking about your behaviour as much as you'd like.

On a personal level I've been doing a lot of work with Paddy Upton [personal development specialist and former South Africa fitness trainer], putting practical systems into my everyday life to help me cope, and it's helped a lot. I am a lot calmer and less emotional now. For the first time in my life, I have someone to bounce things off and talk things through with openly and honestly.

Flatly denying that some squad members don't have ideal drinking habits for elite athletes is tantamount to saying that Adrian le Roux either doesn't know what he's talking about or is a liar. What's the truth?
It's important for guys to show maturity. We all need to be mature enough to know when the time is right to let your hair down and when it isn't.

Most professional cricketers have been full-time since they turned 18, playing with a great weight of expectation and, as always in cricket, [through] ups and downs. It's an abnormal society and environment that we live in and consequently certain facets of cricketers' lives don't develop much at all, while others develop through the roof - far, far beyond average.

Making a more "whole" person is important and this is something I have discussed with [South African Cricketers' Association chief executive] Tony Irish and [CSA chief executive] Gerald Majola - to create a structure which allows the young guys coming through to have more time to be able to develop skills and interests outside of cricket.

Not necessarily studying, because for most of us there simply isn't enough time between travelling, training and practising, but there must be something else to do other than lying in the room getting bored and then going to the bar for a drink and socialising.

But back to the question - yes, I think there have been times when players have crossed the line with regards to drinking, been a bit excessive. But I honestly can't remember a time when they shirked their training responsibilities, where they never did the training they needed to do for Adrian - where sessions were not done at the level he required. Fitness levels were attained and maintained through the World Cup ... well, in 14 out of 15 players they were.



"Garnett Kruger says he wasn't treated fairly but does he deserve to play ahead of Andre Nel, Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Charl Langeveldt?" © Getty Images

I honestly believe we are just a normal bunch of 25 to 30-year-olds when it comes to having a beer.

Cricket has a culture of socialising, with drinks involved, which stretches way back
Yeah, I remember playing club cricket in standard seven and my dad used to have to down my beers for me because I wasn't old enough to drink! It's a celebration together; getting through a big game is an incredible feeling and celebrating together is important. Perhaps a top businessman feels something similar when he pulls off a massive deal - that surge of adrenaline and achievement; perhaps he feels like celebrating like we do after battling through a Test series for 20 days and finally winning.

That element of celebration will always be there and I'm all in favour of guys celebrating their wins. I am also big on giving guys time to let their hair down and relax a bit.

Many of the people in South African cricket are very sensitive. Many issues can't be spoken about without risking offence. How do you cope in such an eggshell environment?
Your principles are very important. You've got to be able to be honest with the people making the decisions and tell them how you feel. You can't just sit and take everything on the chin. You have to have your own principles and also an understanding of where other people are going and the process they are trying to use to get there.

Not everyone seems to be entirely honest about the "process" being used for various decisions at the moment
It has been particularly difficult recently. Everyone has been wary of what they can and can't say. It would be very nice to have more honesty and transparency. It can be very tough to have decisions made for you and then you are accountable for them. That's the difficult thing to deal with. There were also moments during the World Cup when it got to me, when it really drained me, dealing with all that stuff.

Sometimes it feels like you can't make a single decision as captain without running it past several other people. And then you still have to find a bit of peaceful space and concentrate on scoring some runs.

A lot of players, white and black, have been speaking off the record about their dislike of quotas. Obviously they're not comfortable speaking publicly. Can you say anything?
There are a few things I can say. Everyone has a role to play in where South African cricket is going - that's media, administrators, players and supporters. They create an artificial atmosphere and the result is that everyone starts abusing the system, signing Kolpak contracts or ICL or whatever. There is an environment in which people just look after themselves.

I suspect that the "cliques" thing comes from guys who aren't playing. They perhaps look for reasons beyond their own performances for why they have been left out. There must be a reason, and it's not me - I don't pick the team

I also worry about the guys who have been given a comfortable lifestyle with franchise contracts and a good salary. They play all the time without a great deal of pressure and life's good in their comfort zone. But if they get pushed up to international level where you have to work much, much harder, they are not ready - and maybe they don't want it, the hard work or the extra pressure.

You need guys to be mentally prepared to take the step up, not just physically. It concerns me that some guys could be pushed too early, it really does. They have bags of talent and could have great international careers, but they get set back two or three years because they are pushed too early.

Equally, a lot of players of colour get categorised unfairly. These guys are really talented and really perform well and deserve every selection and every little piece of success they get. They don't need those question marks in their head. They don't deserve that.

Are you concerned about the perception that domestic success isn't always duly rewarded? Ryan McLaren, for example, was the leading wicket-taker last season but was not given any international recognition
It's hard for selectors and coaches because they have to watch guys perform and get the results and then, in some cases, they can't pick the player. But some very young guys are assuming they're not going to be selected because of quotas and transformation, and that's wrong. Look at Australia - most players make their international debuts at 27, 28 or even 30. Here, if you haven't cracked selection by 22, 23 then it's becoming fashionable to put it down to quotas and then move overseas.

I know Garnett Kruger says he wasn't treated fairly but does he deserve to play ahead of Andre Nel, Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Charl Langeveldt? Is he better than them? Does he deserve a chance ahead of them? The reality is that there's always going to be a queue in any country for guys to get the opportunity. Garnett got his opportunity in Australia, he played five or six games and he went for seven runs an over. And then he comes home and wishes he had been selected against Zimbabwe. It's all about the standards that you set yourself.

As a team you want a group of players that you know can play against Australia, India or England, not just Zimbabwe. There's always going to be a pecking order and guys have to earn their stripes. I am a bit worried about the current fashion that is being created whereby the guys who aren't prepared to work hard enough to reach the top just take the easy option and sign for the pounds. I don't blame the guys at the end of their careers who do that but the young guys should stay and fight.

You used to say you didn't care what people thought of you as long as the team was winning.
There were times when I felt like that because I was pretty much gatvol of people judging me when they didn't know me or take the time to try and understand me. Most people only see me on the cricket field and they base their opinion of me on that. So I used to think, "You can't change anything, so best you don't care what people think." It was a protection mechanism.

In the last year it has really started to get to me that I seem to be so misunderstood as a person. Maybe it was because I tried to take on a lot of responsibility as captain - too much. I only knew how to do things one way.

Now, at 26, I've come up with an equation for myself that will, hopefully, see me become a more consistent performer, a more rounded captain and a more rounded person.

This interview was first published in the current issue of The Wisden Cricketer South Africa

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency