Clarke & Cook in the shadow of Smith
In a fine recent article about Graeme Smith, Michael Atherton talked about the essence of Smith's achievement to captain his country in 100 Test matches. "To endure under such strain [and by this he refers to "nail-biting match situations, restless nights, troublesome selectors, meddling administrators and festering egos"; he does not mention the expectant public nor the prying eye of the media that fuels it] speaks of unshakeable resolve and inner strength."
I confess to being fascinated by Smith and the road he has travelled. Leading the South African cricket team has specific and inherent complications - not least that the best side is not necessarily the one on the park. Smith brushes this away, understanding the pointlessness of debate on a subject that serves no common purpose. When interviewed on Channel 9 early last December, he admitted that he spent four years working out the job, a couple more getting a handle on it, and that only of late had he begun to nail it. Ten years is a long time to do anything, never mind lead a sports team with the egos to which Atherton refers and the insecurities and uncertainties that hover and wait to kill. Moreover, a cricket captain must practise as he preaches, a devil of thing to achieve consistently throughout any decade, never mind the fast-moving one just past.
Most captains have a problem child lurking somewhere. Maybe Smith's has been the issue of "quotas". Brought up in the age of Nelson Mandela's triumphant return to centre stage, Smith sees things about black and white in black and white. He defers to no one on this. Integration and development are as much a mission as the need for success. He is concerned that Makhaya Ntini almost set the bar too high and those young Africans who aspire cannot hope to do so without the interim of hard yards. He is worried about the danger of fast-tracking talent not ready for the exposé that is modern international cricket and the knock-on effects. It is a valid point.
This is Smith's Kingdom of Days. South Africa are the best team in the world. He has a fast-bowling attack to savour, an ideal blend of batting types, and a colossus of an allrounder. The genie missed out on a spinner but the captain is making do. Relaxed, mature and well rewarded, he gets to play one-day cricket without the responsibility of tossing the coin, so he has bit of fun too.
This karma hangs by a thread. It is not so long ago that Faf du Plessis saved his bacon in Adelaide. Michael Clarke's second consecutive double-hundred rocked the South Africans and should have led to victory. The truth is that Australia, shorn of the injured James Pattinson for the fourth innings of the match, were not quite good enough to close the deal. From the great escape in Adelaide came the massacre of the wounded in Perth.
Clarke's tale is not so happy right now. Beating Sri Lanka at home was a sinecure, the tour to India anything but. Increasingly Clarke's problem child has been Shane Watson, who produces less than his talent and preferences demand. Watson has become a riddle. Should he bowl, and where should be bat? Indeed, given the infrequency of his appearances, should he be vice-captain? It is remarkable that, should Clarke be confirmed unfit tomorrow morning, he will lead Australia for the first time in a Test match immediately after being dropped for insubordination. To be or not to be is the ongoing Watson question. In a stronger era, he might be sent away to prove sustainability of fitness and form in state cricket. In this era the argument for needs-must usually wins the day.
Much of this makes Watson out to be the bad guy, which he is not. He is a good man and there is a big heart in that strong frame that is generously spirited. His crime is self-absorption, nothing more. He wants all the ducks lined up and then, bang, he is a favourite to pick them off. It has been easy to feel sympathy for him, plagued as he has been by injury, but the time has come for the vice-captain to be just that - unshakeably loyal to his captain and coach and a Test cricketer of substance not promise. Australia's best XI has him opening the batting as well as bowling some overs when occasion demands. Now the offspring has arrived at home and mother and child are well, the duty is to Australian cricket abroad.
Clarke appears tired. The Australians' schedule is ridiculous; their dependency on his play unbelievable. Internal politics take the most from a team and an insufferable amount from the captain. Ask Andrew Strauss, who spent a summer fencing with Kevin Pietersen and retired from the game at the end of it. There is England's problem child, now wrapped up nice and cosy - for the moment - by Alastair Cook. Of the myriad stripes that will adorn Cook's shoulder when he settles on the farm for good, the one for solving the Pietersen affair will have been the trickiest to come by. There was a coach to convince, a team to persuade and a dissident star to embrace. England are settled because of Cook's reasoning and because of a strong core that Australia presently lack.
It is what Messrs Clarke and Arthur are looking at when they punish four players for their indifference. It is easy to mock the notion of incomplete "homework" but the truth lies in the management's concern about attitude. To ask an international sportsman for three points in self-appraisal is fair and relevant. To ignore the request is rude and disruptive. Yes, Arthur may live or die by this "line in the sand" moment but we must assume the potential sacrifice was essential.
Clarke just wants some peace, and a few blokes to hang on at the wicket with him. Now that India has effectively gone, attention will turn to the Ashes. Most English and Australian cricketers are defined by this old rivalry and their eras bracketed by the outcome of the fight for the little urn. Two magnificent cricketers, both with the makings of great leaders, have the mind for the contest. Which of them will best endure the strain and find the resolve and inner strength that has allowed one of their contemporaries to climb the summit and remain at the top?
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK