Another Test, another pass mark for Smith

Tourists have discovered more than a batsman who breaks records. Stephen Brenkley finds he is a natural leader
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The Independent Online

When Graeme Smith trod on his wicket at Trent Bridge on Friday evening, the whoops of delight among England's players were probably matched by the gasps of astonishment elsewhere. The understandable reaction to the error was along the lines of: "Smith is human!"

It was a shock, all right. But then the captain of South Africa continues to surprise. As both batsman and captain, it seems that he is not like others.

The suspicion had been growing that he was above the trifling natural disasters that afflict normal batsmen. His dismissal, hit wicket, as he went back to propel himself forwards, was testimony to the fact that he is subject to the vulnerabilities and misfortunes of his fellow man. England needed the reassurance. "It was unlucky, but what can you do?" Smith asked. If he didn't know, who did?

Smith is the boy of summer, and the suspicions continue to grow that he will be the boy of many summers to come. His Nottingham first innings of a mere 101 minutes took his total period of crease occupation in the series to precisely 22 hours, one for every year of his age. It is not his remarkably dedicated batting that has concentrated his attention in the Third Test, but the other, perhaps more significant part of his job: being South Africa's captain.

He is changing the rules of engagement. In the field, he makes Nasser Hussain look like a tailor's dummy. Smith is incessantly cajoling, hand-clapping, back-slapping, and usually chewing gum in harmony. ("My mum hates it," he has said, referring to the gum-chewing). If you are a fielder you would hardly dare take your eyes off him in case he decides to move you a little to the left, if you are a bowler you need always to be ready.

But there is something else about Smith. He fronts up. After play on both Thursday and Friday night of this Test match he appeared to answer questions because he felt there were questions that needed answering. If they had not been asked it is a sure thing that he would have supplied the responses. This is not quite unprecedented (Michael Vaughan did it early in the piece at Lord's, to ensure that he could not be seen to be avoiding the issues), but it is highly unusual.

Captains appear before the press the day before a match and immediately after it. If they have made a century (captains being batsmen almost inevitably) they might then have a few bland words to say. The first day of this match was also about the first of the series that South Africa have not had it their way.

Smith insisted that he spoke. He did not want to be seen as a fair-weather captain. He also seized the opportunity to make a point or two about some close umpiring decisions: not criticising exactly, but not approving. He was there again on Friday night because he thought there might be a question or two about the pitch.

In the event he required no prompting, and offered the information that it was disappointing to play on a pitch that was so capricious after a mere two days. Smith was being candid. The pitch was dodgy. But his honesty appeared to undermine his side. He added the rider that his team were not out of it.

Some sages suggested that he had already done the damage, that his team would already be thinking that if their captain thought the pitch was a minefield they would play on it accordingly. Smith may indeed learn to keep his counsel, or he may choose to adopt the dictum of another Smith, Sydney, the English essayist and wit. "To do anything in this world worth doing," Sydney said, "we must not stand back shivering and fretting of cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can." Graeme has decided for the moment that he is a jumper-in.

He is also a seeker of information. He asked pertinent questions of the former England captain, Michael Atherton, over supper earlier in the tour, and on Friday night dined with Mike Brearley.

Smith confessed that he had not yet finished reading The Art of Captaincy, Brearley's book on cricket leadership, although he started it more than a month ago. Too busy batting, obviously. Smith is eager to learn - he is also armed with Lance Armstrong's autobiography - but dinner with Brearley was surely not a one-way street. Did Brearley, top Test score of 91 in 66 innings, ask Smith how to go about compiling a long innings?

There is a deep-rooted pessimism among South Africans (almost invariably white) about the future of their country and their cricket. Smith is becoming increasingly essential to changing that mindset, at least in one regard. He is something special certainly, but partly perhaps because we need him to be.

It is to be hoped that his progress as captain will continue to be marked by spontaneity and candour. He is not afraid to change his bowling on a whim. "Sometimes I get these flash thoughts, as I feel we could do with a change," he said. "The bowlers are loose, they know there's a chance I could call on them to bowl." The all-rounder Andrew Hall confirmed that such lack of notice kept the adrenalin flowing.

But Sydney Smith also had something to say, about an acquaintance of his: "He had occasional flashes of silence that made his conversation perfectly delightful." Smith, Graeme, is a breath of fresh air, but he may need to learn when to shut up.