Strauss has much to learn from two great captains

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The Independent Online

Graeme Smith took on a wave of English hostility yesterday as he refused to walk when he was still a long way from a brilliant, clubbing 20th Test century and then he sat with his big shoulders hunched watching lightning flashes light up the storm-laden highveld sky.

It was as though he was challenging the world to do its worst while still insisting he would rescue this series which the South Africans quite unaccountably trail 1-0.

This was pure Smith, who at the age of 28 has been leading South Africa for nearly seven astonishingly combative years. When coupled with the fifth double century by 35-year-old Ricky Ponting for Australia in his native Tasmania, as the Pakistanis become increasingly anguished over the fact that he had been dropped before scoring, it was also something rather more than an outstanding, hard-eyed performance.

It was an example of the quality of leadership, of captaincy which makes its own rules and demands. For an idea of its impact you only had to briefly study the expression of relief on the face of one of the newest members of the captains' club, Andrew Strauss, when he made a fine slip catch to send his rival back to the pavilion, this time without a hint of dispute.

Strauss, who has made impressive strides of his own in his first year in charge of England, is finding in Smith an opponent who seems to get better and grow stronger under the heaviest of the pressure. The England captain managed to foil the still ferocious ambition of Ponting quite brilliantly at times in last summer's Ashes series but now it seems he will need some significant help from these brooding, volatile skies if he is to complete a stunning double.

The climactic phase of his challenge could not have started more discouragingly when he went first ball here on Thursday – and before his excellent catch off the bowling of the most controversial selection of his brief tenure as captain, Ryan Sidebottom, and the disruptive help from the heavens, he seemed to be heading for a day on the cricket rack.

He is still under immense pressure as the South Africans lead by 35 runs with eight first-innings wickets left and Hashim Amla (75 not out) and Jacques Kallis charged with brisk progress this morning. More than anything, he has to prove in another ordeal of nerve something he suggested he was capable of while building the foundations of victory against Australia in the second Test at Lord's.

He has to show that he can lead from the front in the way Smith and Ponting have done in the last 48 hours. He has to show that he has more than a liking for the business of being a consistent winner. He has to show that it is a rage.

Michael Atherton, who played in more Tests as a captain than any other Englishman (55) is operating in the broadcasting booth and the press box these days but here he has been drawn back into the trials and requirements of the job while watching, with a kind of stunned admiration, the performance of Smith.

"How long has he been doing this job now, six years? It's really quite staggering. He started at the age of 22, which is pretty unbelievable in itself, and I can only say that it left me knackered after four and half years. Ask Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan and they will also tell you about the pressures that come with the job.

"Smith is an extraordinary captain – and an incredible player when he knows that so much is expected of him. Ricky Ponting is in the same bracket. People have criticised his captaincy in the past and it's probably true he doesn't have the tactical ability of someone like Mark Taylor but when you compare him with Steve Waugh you have to feed in the factors of men like McGrath and Warne, and realise at what stages of their careers they were performing for the two captains. I know the Australian players like and admire Ponting. They think he is a pure competitor and of course they like that."

Atherton gives Strauss good marks in the early stages of his regime but he is perturbed, like some other old pros, about talk that the new captain will take a break from the pressure and miss the coming tour in Bangladesh. "I would have thought that was a good place to get to know your players that little bit better. I know we play a lot of cricket now but I think Andrew has to realise this is the formative stage of his captaincy. Let's put it this way, I don't think Graeme Smith would make such a decision and nor would Ponting at a similar stage of his leadership."

For Smith it is certainly the consuming challenge of his life and one that has already lasted for longer than many imagined it would when he was given the captaincy after just eight Test matches, albeit ones which had produced quite startling performance, including a 68 against an Australian team around the peak of their powers in 2002 and a then-record first-wicket stand of 368 with Herschelle Gibbs against Pakistan when he was moved up to open the innings.

Some said that Smith, for all his precocious ability, simply lacked true leadership qualities. He was a little too edgy, to quick to react to imagined slights and certainly more recently he seems to have been particularly slow to bury his enmity towards the South African defector Kevin Pietersen.

However, students of raw and powerful leadership have been given the material for a masters degree in Smith's reaction to his team's failure to take command of the series when faced with the resistance of No 11 Graham Onions in the first and third Tests. His furious pursuit of redemption at Cape Town in the third Test and here yesterday has been marked by superb centuries, the work of a man apparently proofed against any tolerance of the idea of defeat. Ponting, plainly, remains on the same tough terrain.

Whatever happens over the next three days, the reigning consensus is that Andrew Strauss should perhaps take note.