Graeme Smith wishes he could quit, but he can’t. He’s been trying to quit for the past two years, but each attempt has been rebuffed by his own conscience and decent upbringing. He’ll probably carry on trying to give up caring what people think about him until the day he gives up playing, and he’ll probably keep on failing.
The Proteas captain was genuinely upset earlier this week when the perception was created that he was responsible for Mickey Arthur’s demise. He wished he didn’t care, and he tried not to, but he just did.
“You try to develop a thick skin, you try not to listen to or read what people are saying, that you have too much power and that you have been through three coaches, but I still hear it anyway,” Smith said, following Arthur’s official resignation on Wednesday.
“My relationship with Mickey was dragged through the mud and it hurt. We had a really good, strong relationship for five years and I hope that continues — I expect it to,” Smith said.
Arthur confirmed that Smith had never “turned” on him and that they had “asked hard questions of each other — which is vital to having a successful working relationship”.
There were times during their relationship, notably during the “Arendse wars” of 2007 and over the omission of Makhaya Ntini this season, when Smith left Arthur to face the brunt of the backlash from a disgruntled executive, but Arthur accepted the role of “bad guy” and was never left out on a limb without prior knowledge. On the contrary: Arthur accepted the responsibility of creating as much space as possible for the captain to concentrate on the playing side of his game.
Where Smith needed, and still needs, to concentrate his mind is on his tendency to build too-strong relationships with certain players and officials — relationships that become mutually exclusive and therefore divisive.
In the build-up to the 2007 World Cup and during the fallout afterwards, he was confronted with the “captain’s clique”, a group of five senior players who left the majority of the squad feeling like extras on a film crew of superstars. He bristled at first, and then accepted the reality and vowed to change it. He committed himself to spending some “quality time” with every squad member on every tour after that.
Now he faces, or will soon have to face, the perception (and he said on Wednesday that “perception is reality”) that his close working relationship and friendship with the team’s performance coach, Jeremy Snape, has caused further rifts within the squad. As talented and as skilled as Snape is, he too should have read the signs. Many members of the squad feel that unless they are in the Smith-Snape camp, they will suffer prejudicial treatment.
Smith made a number of radical changes to his life after the 2007 World Cup and benefited enormously as a result. It was no coincidence that 2008 was the most successful year in South African cricket history. He was calmer and more methodical in his analysis of situations and less “emotional” — one of his most frequently used words.
But one of the consequences of prioritising his engagements and delegating responsibility for organising them is that he is still not in control of the way he is perceived by the people who pay money at the turnstiles to watch him and his team perform.
Businessmen mutter at the cost of hiring him for functions and school teachers are dismayed at the lack of response when they invite him to their sports days. Yet Smith has no idea what he costs to speak at a function and even less notion of how many charity requests he declines.
Concentrating on his “core business” of scoring runs and captaining the Proteas has served him and the team well, but he hasn’t got the balance right on the other side of his life, and that is why cricket fan Magda Willemse found it so irritating that he hung his sunglasses on the front of his shirt “like some bloody movie star” during Arthur’s press conference.
Two years into Smith’s tenure as captain, his friend and mentor, Gary Kirsten, made the prescient observation that he could “wear as many Italian suits as he likes and gel his hair — just as long as he keeps scoring runs”. And he has — which is exactly why someone like Willemse has a love-hate relationship with the man.
Graeme Smith is essentially a very good man. He has coped better than most other cricketers in history would have done with the responsibilities and spotlight of captaining South Africa, and he is continuing to try to improve. He continues to make mistakes, too, as we all do, but his are honest and mostly well-intentioned mistakes.
He was too young and immature to appreciate the values of Eric Simons, his first coach, but has subsequently responded handsomely to bridge-building overtures. Ray Jennings was an interim appointment and Smith, sometimes through gritted teeth, completed their sojourn together without major incident. Now Arthur has gone. Smith didn’t fight to keep him, but he most certainly didn’t “shaft” him. Take Arthur’s word for that if you can’t take Smith’s own.
Graeme Smith remains the best man in the country to captain the Proteas. Perhaps the fact that we find it so hard to place him on a pedestal is his greatest asset. Sports lovers instinctively seek heroes because sport offers us our escape from the office.
Smith provides heroic performances on the field and eventually we might realise that his imperfections off it only add to — rather than detract from — the whole package.