x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Graeme Smith to go beyond Border

He will have captained South Africa in 94 Tests by the end of this week, one more than the former Australia captain, which is an amazing feat.

Graeme Smith has captained his South African side in a remarkable 93 Test matches. Tertius Pickard / AP Photo
Graeme Smith has captained his South African side in a remarkable 93 Test matches. Tertius Pickard / AP Photo

When Graeme Smith leads out South Africa for the first Test of the series against Australia on Friday, he will be doing so for the 94th time, the most number of any Tests captain.

That will take him past Allan Border's 93 Tests as the captain of Australia. As few sports are as hung on minutiae as cricket it is only right to point out that Smith, technically, grabbed that record when he led South Africa in their last Test. His run includes one Test where he led a World XI side (and not South Africa).

Brisbane is a condign venue for it to happen, not only because it is where Border played nearly 100 first-class matches for Queensland. It is also because the arcs of their careers and specifically their leadership are worth placing side by side.

What there emerges goes far beyond both of them batting left-handed with all the smoothness of right-handers pretending to be left-handed. There has been something in the way Smith has thrown his sweat, his tears, his blood, his years, his everything into South Africa that Border may well recognise.

Border was an outright reluctant captain and Smith a novice when appointed, but both were thrust into it in similar circumstances, following teary resignations and their sides in need of strong leaders.

A little like Border, Smith's captaincy has been at its brightest and most articulate with a bat in hand and a crisis afoot. And a lot like Border, Smith has developed such intense loyalty with senior players that it has not always been a virtue.

Above all, like Border, whenever Smith does go, he will have changed something intrinsic about his side. Border toughened up Australia, dragging them up to be able to survive in Test cricket; Smith inherited a pretty good side but slowly he has toughened them up too, pushing them to thrive (taking them from perennial runners-up to the top, which is often the biggest jump).

The one significant deviation – and it is not a bad one – has been Smith mellowing over time, the abrasiveness of his younger days kept under tighter control, replaced by a franker, honest and more open young man.

Border went a different way and although always intense, he deliberately became harder and less personable as he grew as captain.

But even on its own, Smith's durability is truly staggering. What lasts as long in sport and life anymore? Next April, he will have been 10 years in the job. Some countries will have changed captains thrice just between now and then.

What kind of toll that ultimately takes from a man will only become clear at the end of his tenure, but just ponder it casually; the kind of all-consuming role that cricket captaincy is and to be doing it for a decade pretty much uninterrupted? The kind of man Smith appears to be, it has probably taken less toll on him than it would have taken of almost anyone else. Except perhaps Border.


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