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SA’s Captain Courageous

Submitted by on Saturday, 14 February 2009No Comment
SA’s Captain Courageous

Graeme Smith talks about father-son rivalry, Hansie’s gift to cricket, and staying cool through the inevitable ups and downs.

Where did the nickname ‘Biff’ come from?

(Laughs) I think being a big guy when I was young. When I was eighteen, I was quite big for my age and the guys called me Biff, which was short for ‘Buffel’. I probably muscled my way around a bit too much.

You went to King Edwards and your dad went to Jeppe, did that create any rivalries between you?

No – my dad always supported my decision to go there; mind you that didn’t stop all the banter about the two schools. But I remember coming home with my KES colours blazer and challenging him to fit into his Jeppe colours blazer – it was quite a sight (laughs).

There were a couple of other famous sportsmen at school with you; how well did you know them?

Yes – Joe Van Niekerk was a year ahead of me and Bryan Habana was a year behind me. We knew each other at school, but because of our respective sporting situations, we have got to know each other a lot better since school. There are always messages of support, or wishing the other luck, going both ways between us.

What were you like at rugby?

I was fullback, I think that’s why I’m hanging on to number 15 (laughs). I loved my rugby and played a couple of games for the first team, but I enjoyed the social side more than the competitive side. I was certainly never going to be anything outstanding.

We all dream of playing for our country, but by all accounts you dreamed of actually being captain?

(Laughs) yes the English media love that story. I remember going to the Plascon Cricket Academy as an eleven or twelve year old, and they had this session about how to set your goals – long, medium and short term. One of my long term goals was to play for, and captain South Africa. So yeah, I did have that specific goal and had actually written it down on a piece of paper; but when I set it I was a kid and I’m not sure at that age how much you think it through. Although to have done it and now end up living my goal, is fantastic.

When, with reference to some of the initial criticism, bad press and other little challenges, it didn’t actually turn out to be quite what you expected; what kept you going?

Because there was so much pressure on me, I started very single-mindedly with a real balls-to-the-wall approach. There were so many questions about whether I could cope; whether I was too young; or whether I was good enough, so I just wanted to show everybody I could do it, to prove myself. There wasn’t much time for introspection about how it hadn’t turned out the way I expected. But obviously now, given our successes, it is more like I suppose I expected it to be.

Did you ever experience moments of self doubt?

Yes – there are times when you are giving your all and it’s still not working. Where you’re doing everything you possibly can, and you feel you are just not getting the respect, or the rewards of what you feel you are putting in. There were moments where the feeling inside of me was, ‘Is it worth it?’ But I managed to push through.  One of the things about a leadership role in sport is that there is a lot of noise in the system. There are a lot of people who offer advice. And I suppose, the higher you go in the tree the harder the wind blows. I think you need to have a clear idea in your own head about what you are trying to achieve and where you want to go. I always believed I could do something special. That I could take the team to a better place. And so to leave when it wasn’t going well would have been very unsatisfying. There was also a degree of being concerned about what my legacy would be. I wanted to leave South African cricket in a much stronger place than when I got it. So that drove me on. That killed any self doubt.

Now that you are ‘Captain Courageous,’ and everyone loves you; how does it feel?

(Laughs) Look, I’m quite grounded. I know that the world of sport is quite fickle; that results often define the way people see you. But a number of people have grown with me, seen my development and they can identify with me a lot more. And after some of the things I’ve been through these last five years, to earn the respect of the media and the fans is a huge achievement and a really satisfying feeling.

John Robbie said in his column that your decision to be ‘Captain Courageous”, was wrong as we had already won the series and you could have done yourself serious long term damage. What’s your comment on that?

At the time it was simply a matter of dealing with what was in front of me. It was a choice, after chatting to the doctor and Mickey, of, ‘Do I go out or not?’ And I felt I actually had to do something decisive. But I never really thought about what it meant, or that it would affect people in such a positive way, as it turned out, in the long term. I certainly didn’t do it to be, ‘Captain Courageous’. I think John was looking at it from a totally different perspective to what I was looking at in the moment; and John also had the benefit of time to properly analyse the situation.

When you were growing up Hansie would have been king; was he one of your heroes?

The Hansie situation is one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer in my whole career, because so many people in South Africa view him in such a different light. He is such a hero amongst certain people and such a villain amongst others.

You are now providing the very values we thought Hansie was providing, but didn’t – he let people down. How much pressure do you feel because of that?

The Hansie saga provided a huge education for everyone; not only sportsmen, but I think businessmen as well. Obviously I respected Hansie as a captain when I was younger – it was hard not to admire him – he was an icon in the game then. Given also that it all happened when I was pretty young, I think I learnt some lessons I might not have, had I been older. But his downfall educated a lot of people in the sport to make it a better game. In an indirect way, he did cricket a favour. But I’m glad to take on the mantle and provide a positive way forward.

His legacy has introduced controls on the players, like no cell phones in the changing rooms, amongst others. What’s your comment on that?

Yes there are more controls and restrictions on the players. The short answer is maybe they should have been there right from the beginning and things might have been different.

Personal rivalries aside, would you like to have Kevin Peterson in your side?

Of course he is an incredible batter and one would like that skill in your side. But knowing it will never, or could never happen, I suppose I’ve moved on and my focus is all about developing the very exciting new talent that is coming through. Not sure that answers your question (laughs)?

Very diplomatic. We are all human and occasionally experience Schadenfreude – pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune. When Kevin Peterson had his recent troubles, did you have any moments of Schadenfreude?

No (Laughs). No really I didn’t. First of all, when it all happened, we were busy in the middle of the series in Australia; so I didn’t follow the situation too carefully. But I think you reach a point in your career or your life, where you don’t need to be a part of that; where you get beyond petty jealousies. I didn’t take any pleasure out of his sacking. I’ve just reached a point where I don’t have to feel like that anymore. I think it’s far better to look at that sort of situation and learn from it. I’ve lost my nasty streak (laughs).

When you are out socialising or doing mundane things in public, like shopping or going to a movie or having a drink; are you constantly aware of being the South African cricket captain?

I think as time has gone by I’ve learnt to take more time off for myself. It can be quite draining always being on show, then still having to be up and ready to perform the next day. A lot of people want a piece of you, which of course is part of the job. But it is something I’ve grown more used to and am less aware of on a daily basis.

They say you will never be criticised for batting first; but there was that famous decision at Lords, to field first. How did you make that decision?

At Lords it was kind of different, because it had rained for three days before the test and Lords has a reputation of playing better, later. But I don’t ultimately make the decision by myself – I have lots of input from others. I canvass other player’s opinions and obviously discuss it with Mickey. But in that sort of situation I sometimes wish I would lose the toss (laughs).

What’s the difference between captaining when you are winning, and captaining when you are losing?

Well you can’t be down in the dumps when you are losing or get too happy when you are winning. Obviously you do get low when you are behind, but you can’t pass that onto the players. And things keep changing in the game, so it doesn’t help to keep having big mood swings. I think it is better to maintain a kind of equilibrium, regardless of what is happening. And of course, when you are losing you are questioned a lot more about your decisions than when you are winning – which you must deal with. But I prefer captaining when we are winning (laughs).

Given the adrenaline and energy that no doubt is flowing during a test or before a big match, how do you sleep at night?

I don’t actually (laughs). During big games my sleep patterns are terrible. I often wake up in the early hours of the morning and I have a thousand things going on in my mind. But I find ways of getting around it and dealing with things like nerves and emotions, but it isn’t easy.

Who are the bowlers that make you as an opening batsman go, ‘Oh dear’?

We prepare as well as we can and obviously we know what the opposition bowlers can do and what they are likely to do; but Glen McGraw always could be a problem. He just seemed to manage to put the pressure on and it wasn’t easy going out to face him. But I suppose if you want to open the batting you have to be ready to take on anything they can bowl at you.

When you played for the World Invitation side against Australia, and you had to captain other international captains, like Flintoff and Imzaman etc., what was it like talking to guys, who by all accounts weren’t listening to you?

Yes that was quite daunting. My take on it was that I certainly wasn’t going to go across and tell them what to do. What I did in the end, was let them know I expected them to be professional about things and to play accordingly. It was difficult because there were so many egos banging around and because it was so short term, it was always going to be difficult to make a success of it.

Winning in Australia and winning in England – how are they different and which gave you more pleasure?

Without us winning in England I don’t think we could have achieved Australia. It gave us the confidence to go there and take them on. But it’s always nice to beat the Australians at anything (laughs).

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