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Telford Vice

Where to now, Graeme?

Another big-tournament disappointment for South Africa and the knives are out for the captain. Could it be the end of the road?

Telford Vice
Telford Vice
Smith: big man, easy target  •  AFP

Smith: big man, easy target  •  AFP

"All I had to do," Ali Bacher is fond of fibbing about his brief but brilliant tenure as South Africa's captain, "was win the toss." Bacher did exactly that all four times he flipped the coin and his team duly whipped Australia 4-0 in the summer of 1969-70. Then push came to shove for the men representing a country in which "whites only" meant rather more than the dress code for cricketers, and South Africa spent 21 years in the wilderness.
Graeme Smith would almost be forgiven for preferring to belong to those benighted days, when South Africa couldn't make a hash of another World Cup because they weren't allowed anywhere near the tournament, and twitter was what birds did beyond the boundary on quiet club grounds.
Life for Smith, as for any other modern captain, can become a marketing, business and political minefield. Then there's the basic stuff to worry about, like winning. When you lead a team that represents a country in which one issue frequently morphs into several others until all that's clear is that nothing is certain, things get even more complicated. Welcome to the life of Graeme Smith.
As if it isn't enough that his men have the reputation for possessing all the guts and grit of a packet of freshly microwaved marshmallows and will, at the merest sign of pressure, choke as surely as a baby left alone with a bag of buttons, Smith also has to contend with those who reckon he is the wrong man to lead this flawed team. Then there are those who think the side is either not black enough or is black beyond merit.
Of course, Smith doesn't have to bear these burdens alone. But his name is most often the first to be spat out of the mouths of the malcontents. He is a big man with a big bat, a big personality, a big public persona, and occasionally a big mouth. That means Smith the bloke is the target almost as often as Smith the captain or Smith the batsman.
To those who take aim at him as a captain, the fact that South Africa win rather more often than they lose matters less than the undeniable truth that they tend not to win when it matters most.
Smith has led South Africa in 74 Tests, guiding them to 35 victories and presiding over 22 defeats. Both his immediate predecessors, Shaun Pollock and Hansie Cronje, won a greater percentage of their Tests as captain. But no man besides Smith knows the glory of leading a South African team to a Test series triumph in Australia, which they achieved in 2008-09. In the eyes of many of his compatriots, that alone is enough to make him impervious to any threat to his position.
Of the 126 one-day internationals South Africa have played under Smith, 74 have ended happily for them. Again, Pollock and Cronje were more successful in terms of victory percentage. But not enough of South Africa's good one-dayers at the office have come at the sharp end of ICC tournaments, of which they have won precisely one - under Cronje - in 12 years, despite camping at or near the top of the rankings. Smith's supporters will point out that he is hardly the only Proteas captain who is not much good at winning trophies.
South Africa's latest trip gently into that good night came at the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, where they sank without trace in the Super Eight stage. Predictably, that tipped another lorry load of criticism onto their heads. A reader's letter to the Mail & Guardian's website summed up the public's mood: "I performed the Heimlich manoeuvre on my TV and it coughed up the whole Proteas team."
Smith sounds passionate and protective about his team and his place in it, and that is no bad thing. But it's a dangerously short hop from there to the kind of captain who believes he can do no wrong, and isn't afraid to say so
You might think that after seven years in charge Smith would have learnt to live with his lot as a lightning rod for the nation's disappointment. It seems not. Here's how he reacted, on his Twitter, to the latest deluge of disappointment: "when you have not played well at all and people are bashing you from all corners!its days like these its difficult to get out of bed!"
And when Kepler Wessels, the hardest of hard bastards, and not long ago the team's batting consultant, took his swing, Smith swung back: "find it amazing that kepler can sit and say should have picked a younger squad when he was 1 of the selectors who chose it!unbelievable! ... Atleast we own up to playing poorly.but all these so called experts/ex players im not sure I see a winners medal hanging round there [sic] necks!"
All of which might make Smith sound passionate and protective about his team and his place in it, and that is no bad thing. But it's a dangerously short hop from there to the kind of captain who believes he can do no wrong, and isn't afraid to say so.
Appointed in 2003 in the wake of South Africa's inglorious exit from their own World Cup, Smith is the game's longest-serving current Test captain. Only Allan Border and Stephen Fleming have led teams onto the field to play a Test match more often. But Smith is not immortal. We have to wonder who might succeed him, and when.
Hashim Amla's name has been mentioned as a future Test captain, and Johan Botha has already made his mark as a one-day skipper. But Amla is not ready, and Botha's future is, unfairly or not, overshadowed by doubts over the legality of his bowling action.
Andrew Hudson, who takes over as South Africa's convenor of selectors on June 1, has made plain his views on the captaincy. "There is no reason to think that he [Smith] is not going to continue," Hudson told the Sunday Independent. "I will back him as captain in the 50-overs format. To change captains now, 10 months before the World Cup, would not be prudent." Could that be a sliver of a suggestion that a new Test captain, at least, might be named sooner rather than later? Perhaps.
With Hudson not yet on board and Corrie van Zyl theoretically scheduled to vacate the coach's chair after next year's World Cup, Smith's head could be seen as the only one ripe for the chop.
Are those who are able to wield the axe ready and willing to do so? No.
Might Smith himself decide he's had enough and wants his life back? Now there's a thought...

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa