Smith: I'm a captain for all ages

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Graeme Smith is 22 and captain of South Africa's cricket team. This also makes him custodian of a country's dreams and bearer of its expectations. It is a big job, but any notion that it has been handed over to a boy in the absence of a man should be swiftly dispelled.

"I hope I'm at the start of a long period as captain," he said. "You set your ideal goals, and I'd like to retire as captain. For the moment I'm keeping things pretty simple and working towards it, but hopefully by the time I retire I will have set up something for South African cricket for someone else to step into."

There spoke the assurance of talented youth. No fear, introspection or superficial worry. Smith has not remotely thought of failure - or if he has, he has clumped it dismissively through mid-wicket - and cannot for the young life of him see why the leadership might have come too soon.

On Thursday, at Edgbaston, Smith will lead South Africa in his first major Test series. He will chew gum throughout, and his sharp features will lend him a sternness he does not possess. He has been captain in two Tests, against Bangladesh - which his side won - but they were thumped in the NatWest Series final last week. It was a clarion call for the critics: Smith was too brash, too young, wet behind the ears and riding for a fall. The stridency of this nonsense was a good reason for institutionalising ageism. Smith appears unaffected.

"If people have a bit of patience, this squad of players is so talented that it can achieve big things," he said. "I think of Allan Border and when he took over as captain of Australia, the building blocks and the amount of hard work he had to put in. But they were at rock bottom and we're still second in the world. Once this team start to believe in themselves in the crunch games you'll see the change.

"I want the extra responsibility. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think I could make a difference, and I don't think the team see me as a 22-year-old. They're all behind me, they I know I lack a bit of experience and there are senior players who can help. They do believe I have a good feel for the game. I don't see myself as a 22-year-old or anything, I just go about life."

Smith was destined to play for South Africa from an early age because of his brutal left-handed batting. He was also captain of most of the sides he played in, so that was written in the stars too. He grew up quickly when he left home at 18; the timing of his promotion was the surprise. Smith had played a mere eight Test matches and had not been an original selection in the World Cup squad. In a way, then, he was still on the fringe.

But the World Cup was to hasten everything. South Africa were eliminated at the first stage from a tournament being held in their own country and which the entire population expected them to win. It was as though it was their divine right.

Through a mixture of misfortune and cock-up - and who knows, divine intervention - it all ended in tears. It did not take long for Shaun Pollock, the incumbent captain, to become the fall guy. There seemed no point in having an interim leader, so Smith was asked to ride into town on a white charger.

There was clearly something not right with South Africa's team. They won plenty but they could not shake the reputation for being chokers when the going got tough. And there is something else about Smith's ascendancy to office. He never played under Hansie Cronje.

Pollock's side could never quite shed the Cronje link. Too many of them had played with the late match-fixer, too many of them spoke as though they wanted him canonised. If nothing else (and there was much else), Smith was a break with that past.

"I believe in being honest and transparent," he said. "The business over Hansie has probably made that more important for us, but as a team it's behind us. It only gets mentioned by the press now, never by the players. We've got the future.

"But we owe transparency to the public and ourselves. I want the players to be honest with me because I'm going to be honest with them. It's the way forward, and the moment you start to hide things is when the squad is not going in the right direction."

He is a passionate man desperately trying to be dispassionate. He wants to separate emotions from all his decision-making. Yet he is in favour of sledging. "Not crossing the line, but some players can cave in under a bit of banter. Others thrive on it." He laughed when asked if he had yet targeted the England sledgees, which means he probably has.

Smith, it should not be forgotten, has taken over a side who are still second in both the one-day and Test championship tables. They have also won nine Test matches in a row. He is probably a good enough batsman, having made a Test double hundred (much less significant for being against Bangladesh) and 151 against Pakistan, but he has the archetypal left-hander's weakness on off stump. It helps that he knows it.

The age and inexperience cards will continue to be played, but his wisdom and certainty may trump them. He had always wanted to be Graeme Smith, he said. He admired people but he never had heroes. At present he is reading Mike Brearley's book on captaincy, having read two by Steve Waugh. He knows who to learn from. But his compatriots must not expect him to learn too soon. It's an age thing.

Tests of time England v South Africa, the great matches

1924: Edgbaston
England 438
South Africa 30 and 390
England won by inns and 18

Five players made their debuts for England, including Herbert Sutcliffe, who shared the first of his 15 century opening partnerships with Jack Hobbs. Another of the debutants, Maurice Tate (4 for 12), then wreaked havoc with the new ball alongside the captain, Arthur Gilligan (6 for 7). In 12.3 overs South Africa were dismissed for 30, equalling their own record for the lowest Test score. In the next match, England's dominance continued when they lost only two wickets in winning.

1947: Old Trafford
England 478 and 130-3
South Africa 339 and 267
England won by 7 wkts

Denis Compton scored his third successive Test century, one of his 18 hundreds in a golden summer. With Bill Edrich, his Middlesex twin, making 191, one his 12 centuries, Compton put on 228 in 196 minutes. Edrich was also potent with the ball, taking eight wickets in the match. England, incidentally, included two leg-spinners, Doug Wright and Eric Hollies. England clinched the series in Leeds and then drew the final match when Compo made his fourth hundred of the rubber.

1960: Lord's
England 362
South Africa 152 and 137
England won by inns and 73

Brian Statham returned the best match analysis of an illustrious career (11 for 97) but was not the fast bowler for whom the match is recalled. Geoff Griffin, the blond South African, took the first Test hat-trick at Lord's early in the match, including the England captain, Mike Smith, for 99. But he was then no-balled for throwing 11 times by umpires Lee and Langridge. Griffin, who had a crick in his arm as the result of a school accident, never played international cricket again.

1965: Trent Bridge
South Africa 269 and 289
England 240 and 224
South Africa won by 94 runs

This was the Pollocks' match. In an incisive spell of swing bowling which spanned both innings, Peter took 5 for 53 and 5 for 34 in 48 overs. But he was overshadowed by his batsman brother. South Africa were 16 for 2 when Graeme went out to bat in humid conditions, and then were soon 43 for 4. Pollock the younger made a glittering 125 from 145 balls out of 160 scored while he was at the crease, with 21 boundaries. It embodied his class and remains one of the great Test innings.

1994: Lord's
South Africa 357 and 278-8 dec
England 180 and 99
South Africa won by 356 runs

Everything - the fact that it was the first Test between the teams for 29 years, England's abject batting - was subsumed by the Dirt In The Pocket Affair. TV showed England's captain, Michael Atherton, removing his hand from a pocket and rubbing it across the ball. All hell broke loose: for a week calls for Atherton's resignation raged. He rode the storm, but his honeymoon was over. England eventually recovered to draw the series through Devon Malcolm's 9 for 57.