At a stage of his career when most players are seeking to lighten their workload – and boost their bank balance via a brisk crash, bang, wallop in the Indian Premier League – Graeme Smith has gone the other way.
This summer he has ignored the IPL, and the sizeable financial rewards it offers, to make an improbable return to county cricket. On Wednesday he will lead Surrey for the first time, the start of a three-year contract tying him to The Oval during the English summer – in between which he will continue to captain South Africa. At the age of 32 he may well end up playing more cricket than ever.
The first approaches to recruit Smith to Surrey’s cause – a notable coup after four years in the IPL – were made by Alec Stewart during South Africa’s Test at The Oval last year. The death of Tom Maynard, and the effect that had on the squad, means it is not a straightforward leadership task. Questions have since been raised about the lifestyle of some of the younger players in the squad.
“I don’t want to come in guns slinging,” said Smith. “It’s important for me to get to know the players. The job for us from a leadership perspective is to create a culture, you’re not going to lock guys in handcuffs for six months, people need down-time. It’s about creating responsibility, team culture, respect for what you are part of. Hopefully with adding a few more experienced players to the squad, there’s better direction for the younger guys.
“One thing I’m grateful for is the hierarchy were being pretty honest about things and haven’t hid anything away from me. If we can come out of such a tough time and be successful, it speaks volumes for the club and for the type of people we have. Obviously there’s still a lot of emotion over Tom’s death. A lot of the players were close to him and that’s understandable. None of us are going to forget where we’ve come from but we have a chance to create a new environment for Surrey cricket.”
Smith is likely to be absent through part of June during the Champions Trophy; Ricky Ponting will be a stellar stand-in. Ponting, Smith and Kevin Pietersen are expected to line up together in the county’s Twenty20 games. It will bring much needed stardust to the county game.
Pietersen, who has yet to return to county duty as he recovers from his knee injury, and Smith have had a fiery relationship in the past but the latter insists it is repaired.
“I’ve played a lot against Kevin,” Smith said. “Both of us were young and intense. Being South African added to the problems we had. But I’m looking forward to getting to know Kevin off the pitch. As we both got older and more experienced there’s been a lot more mutual respect.”
While his focus is on Surrey, Smith won’t be forgetting the national cause. He wants to “create something special” for the South Africa side he has led for more than a decade. This winter Smith captained the team for the 100th time as they took a firm grip on their place on top of the world rankings.
It is from England’s experiences when they led the rankings that Smith is determined his side learn. After reaching No 1, England were horribly beaten by Pakistan in the Middle East and their form has fluctuated since. Next up for South Africa is the same challenge in October.
“I would love to be part of something special,” said Smith yesterday. “The team is sitting on the point of having a chance to create something special, especially the Test side. If we can have a successful run in Dubai/Abu Dhabi after a long lay-off we give ourselves a great chance to do well in all cricket for a period of time.
“England unravelled in Dubai/Abu Dhabi after a lengthy lay-off. I do see those conditions as a big challenge. The strength we’ve had is our away record is probably better than any other team that has the ranking. We have not lost a series away from home since 2006. World cricket is close at the moment and teams play very, very well at home. Winning in England then winning in Australia was a big stepping stone for us.”
Foreign fields: Overseas captains
Derbyshire: Wayne Madsen (SA but now England qualified)
Gloucs: Michael Klinger (Australia)
Leicestershire: Ramnaresh Sarwan (West Indies)
Middlesex: Chris Rogers (Australia)
Surrey: Graeme Smith (SA)
Glamorgan one-day captain: Marcus North (Australia)