The Telegraph
Sunday , March 9 , 2014
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‘Graeme wasn’t a freak, but an extraordinary captain...’

- Exclusive
Dr Ali Bacher

Calcutta: Dr Ali Bacher, a former captain of South Africa and a much-respected administrator, spoke to The Telegraph almost exclusively on Graeme Smith.

The interview, done over the phone on Saturday afternoon, lasted over half-an-hour.

Dr Bacher, 71, is based in Johannesburg.


Q Were you surprised by the timing of Smith’s retirement?

A Well... No... Graeme, I think, has left at the right time. Some feel Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting stayed on too long, not so Graeme. He’s had two major surgeries on the left ankle and his form was beginning to fall away. In particular, left-armers bowling over the wicket were getting him out fairly frequently.

But Smith went public in the middle of such a crucial Test (against Australia, in Cape Town)...

Yes, but if Graeme had made the announcement before the Test, then that could have been a distraction. It’s possible that some of the players would have lost focus. I’d say Graeme made an unselfish decision. He timed it well... We lost the Test and the series, but that’s another story.

Sourav Ganguly, for one, feels that Smith shouldn’t have retired at this point in time, just months after Jacques Kallis’ retirement from Test cricket. Your take?

The end of one era marks the beginning of another, that’s the way it always is. We’ve lost three great players in less than two years — Mark Boucher, Kallis (available for ODIs) and Graeme. I hope they’ll remain involved with South African cricket in some manner and form.

Isn’t AB de Villiers the obvious choice to succeed Smith as the Test captain?

AB’s already captaining in ODIs... Yes, he’ll be a good choice and is the type to inspire all of South Africa. He has that quality.

[Faf du Plessis is South Africa’s T20 captain. AB and Faf, incidentally, have been close friends from school.]

In terms of Test wins (53), Smith is right at the top... How would you rate him as captain?

Graeme wasn’t a freak, but an extraordinary captain. It’s mind-boggling that he captained in 109 Tests over 11 years. Graeme finished with an astonishing record and I don’t see anybody matching him (most Test wins). His achievements have been staggering, top of the pile being two series wins in Australia.

What put Smith in such a different league?

Graeme’s ability to traverse political issues, to not be affected by administrative changes in Cricket South Africa, to overcome fitness problems, to absorb all the pressure on a captain and continue to lead from the front... He stood tall.

Smith did face political pressure...

No doubt, there was political pressure. But to Graeme’s credit, he didn’t allow that to diminish his or the team’s performances. I don’t know why, but Graeme didn’t always get the support of every South African in, say, the way Hansie Cronje got.

But that’s strange...

It’s disappointing. Of course, now, the accolades aren’t stopping. All richly deserved.

Did Smith ever talk to you about not getting every South African’s unequivocal backing?


Smith got the South Africa captaincy at 22, soon after the 2003 World Cup. His elevation had come as a shock...

I’d like to give credit to chief selector Omar Henry and his colleagues for having taken such an astonishing step. They saw something special in Graeme and, clearly, had a vision.

When did you first interact with Smith?

After the 2003 World Cup and before Graeme took the team to England, his first big series as captain... Graeme wanted to meet me and he came to my office in the South Africa blazer and tie.

So, Smith impressed you straightaway...

(Laughs) Graeme did, indeed. I was bowled over by his passion, his commitment and his determination that integrity be accorded the highest priority... You’ll probably be interested to know that Graeme and I studied in the same school — King Edward VII, in Johannesburg.

You’ve been a former captain yourself. What goes into the making of a strong and successful captain and leader?

Leaders are born, not made. A good leader and captain either has the qualities or he doesn’t... He has to inspire, he has to motivate... He has to communicate well and he has to set an example, on and off the field.

In your book, who have been the top-three captains?

Mike Brearley: Brearley wasn’t a great batsman, but he had a brain strong on tactics and inspired the Ian Bothams to raise their game... He came across as a good people’s person, getting the team behind him.

Steve Waugh: In terms of percentage (71.92), Steve is the most successful Test captain... So, I don’t have to add much... He’s been the most profound thinker of the game, after Don Bradman.

Mark Taylor: Very good tactically and an excellent communicator... Again, a good people’s person, who had the respect of teammates and opponents... Taylor didn’t have a dominating manner, but still stood out.

Anything else common to all three...

No skeletons in their closets!

You’ve seen quite a few Indian captains from close. Who has been the finest?

Ganguly... He appeared to have the team right behind him... He also injected some steel... After him, Mahendra Singh Dhoni... That he stays cool and composed, irrespective of how his team is faring, is remarkable. India could be getting hammered, but he’ll remain calm.

What should a captain not do?

He shouldn’t be dishonest. If he is, then he’ll be quickly found out and lose the respect of his team. It’s no good having a captain who isn’t respected... If you drop somebody, be honest and give the reason. Never play games.

Do captains have a shelf life?

They do... I don’t see anybody doing a Graeme Smith.

We’ve spoken about Smith the captain... When did you first hear about Smith the batsman?

From his mentor, Jimmy Cook, in the late 1990s. Cook was of the view that Graeme would become a better opener than Gary Kirsten.

Smith didn’t exactly delight the purists, though...

Had Graeme gone to an MCC-run school of cricket, the coaches would have thrown him out for playing across the line! However, let me say that I haven’t seen a stronger on-side batsman... Rival captains packed the on-side, yet Graeme managed impeccable placements.

Is there a lesson?

There is, certainly... If a young batsman has an unorthodox technique, then the coaches shouldn’t try and change that. Graeme didn’t have the best technique, but look at the runs he accumulated, averaging over 48 in Test cricket. Says so much about his strength of character.

The last one... Smith will be missed in two roles...

Life goes on... Somebody will step up and/or somebody will step in.