x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Graeme Smith's move to Surrey helps restore a lost sense of identity

The South Africa captain's three-year deal with the English county side makes a refreshing change in these mercenary times.

Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, will play for English county side Surrey for the next three seasons. AFP
Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, will play for English county side Surrey for the next three seasons. AFP

There is something reassuring about Graeme Smith arriving as the captain of Surrey on a three-year contract.

It is reassuring in the way an old, pleasant memory is: knowing there was a time when this kind of thing happened and that it was a pretty good time and there were benefits to it all round.

As captain of the world's leading Test side, South Africa, the longest-serving international captain and a formidable opener, Smith is a huge coup for Surrey. The club has had a troubled few years and Smith has been recruited to put it back in place.

He is also a sizeable coup for the English county circuit itself, a reminder that, once upon a time, before Twenty20 leagues appeared around the world, English counties were the destination for the world's best players.

It spoke not just of the financial strength and general robustness of the English game (if not necessarily always of the England cricket team itself), but also of the benefits the rest of the world drew from it.

England was where players essentially made a living out of cricket, most home boards not able to afford the kind of salaries counties paid.

More significantly, many players went to England to make themselves better and, in turn, make their national sides better.

The biggest beneficiaries were Pakistan and the West Indies, both enjoying their most transformational and successful periods in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when they had a healthy number of players with regular county contracts.

To be fair, the county game had begun to change even before the many Twenty20 leagues came to cricket.

The expanding international calendar and the burdens it placed on players long ago began to chip away at that; rarely could time be found to play for a county in the summer and, even if there were, players and their boards worried that doing so would increase workloads by unhealthy amounts.

Still, it is difficult not to feel some sense of loss in that, in the fact that cricket does not work that way anymore.

Overseas players on the English circuit seem part of something more transactional and passing, now, whereas they used to engage in a much deeper, substantial way.

That gave the game, and specifically the non-international game, a firmer sense of identity, knowing that this player would always be at that county when he was not playing for his country; one of the most unsettling aspects of cricket today is the blurring of senses of identity and allegiance.

Is Smith's Surrey deal - the highest-profile since Shane Warne played for Hampshire - a sign of a return to that order?

Probably not, even if the money is still surprisingly good with some counties. (Think the lower end of the IPL pay scale.) But where is the space for a player to spend that much time in one place?

Even if there were fewer Twenty20 leagues, international commitments preclude such long-term county deals. Maybe like Smith, though, the acquisition of players who are not in-demand Twenty20 players, offers an alternative way ahead - and back.



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