Smith's predicament

AMONG the many qualities of youth, flaming passion and uninhibited desire, fearlessness and bravado, the ability to lead men rarely finds mention.


By denying his prime fast bowler Shaun Pollock the new ball in Dhaka. — Pics. AFP & AP-

AMONG the many qualities of youth, flaming passion and uninhibited desire, fearlessness and bravado, the ability to lead men rarely finds mention. The deep breath and the comforting hand on the shoulder don't seem to go together with a surge of blood in the veins. A battle seen is a few battles dreamt about. Worrell and Lloyd, Chappell and Benaud, Taylor and Waugh, Imran and Ranatunga, the list of people who make the rule is larger than those that provide the exception. South Africa are hoping that in Graeme Smith, they have someone who can provide the exception. It won't be easy. He seems to have a passion for leadership, isn't lost on the field, but in the desire to project himself as leader, got it all wrong with his best player in Dhaka. His first two games carried the odour of stubbornness rather than the flavour of innovation.

It is always tricky having a recent former captain in the side, but it is just as uncomfortable for the man denied the honour. Shaun Pollock is a lovely man but even he would have been wondering where he belonged in the new set-up. By taking the new ball away from him, by keeping him waiting for what was rightfully his, Smith would have made Pollock uncomfortable. By doing it two games in a row, Smith showed rigidity and a generous disregard towards keeping his best player happy. There is a more subtle way of saying, `I'm in charge'.

When you are only 22 and not always seen to be good enough to make the side, the leadership issue becomes trickier. How do you demand performance when you don't have something to show yourself? Can you call for bravery when you don't have a scar yourself? Worse still, can you be the custodian of a player's insecurity when you have so much of it yourself? Is it easy to show your men the calm beyond the storm when you are in the midst of one yourself? Smith has a few things that will keep him awake.

I asked Tiger Pataudi once about being the father figure, or at least the elder brother in the side, and he agreed on the need to be one. Interestingly, he said he started with the assumption that players picked for the country knew what they had to do, and was forced to query that thought very quickly. He admitted too that it is difficult to be the senior statesman in the team when you are among the youngest.

Smith will discover that and indeed, the fact that he will, at some point, have to seek knowledge from the very people he will have to lead. He will need to possess a rather more assorted set of qualities than he would have had he acquired the job a few years later.

But it is not just captains who are feeling their way around these days. There are a few coaches packing their bags too and rarely in cricket was the old saying, `There are two kinds of coaches; those who have been fired and those who will be', truer. Bangladesh, West Indies and Sri Lanka do not have full time coaches, Pakistan have renewed flirtation with an old suitor, word is that Zimbabwe might have to look for one and there seems to be a movement developing towards asking for a new one in India too. There seems to be more action than on the field!

Changing coaches though is the easier way out for administrators. It is also a more short-term and convenient solution for it masks the real problems, which often lie at their door. Often you need to change the base rather than the top for if the foundation is unsteady, it doesn't matter what helmet you wear! At the national level, coaches are motivators and organisers far more than they are school masters. They fine tune, they don't teach and so, if they get poor raw material, there isn't too much they can do about it. But for administrators, it is a little too messy to repair the source of the raw material, which is domestic cricket, and hence, the easier way out.

The strength of a side is the strength of the system that produces it. It is true of industry, of individual morals and it is true of cricket teams. When your domestic cricket structure is strong, the national side will inevitably be strong. When you dilute that, like South Africa are doing, the chinks will appear. It is something that India are only halfway towards recognising. The new Ranji Trophy is good but the new Duleep Trophy is a shocker and indeed, counter-productive to our cricket. That is why it pains me that the call in India is not for the shedding of a silly system but for the head of a sincere coach.

John Wright succeeded in one area where no Indian coach in 10 years could. And we went through a few, remember. For the first time an Indian side is looking contemporary. They are organised, modern and extremely fit and that has come out of the work ethic that he introduced along with a very professional physio and trainer. Instead of acknowledging that, we are suddenly turning xenophobic and using very poor language. Yes, in course of time, India must have an Indian coach and I am sure Wright realises that too. But till such time as we don't have one, and make being Indian the only qualification, we must look beyond.