Cape Town – Premier Proteas playing legends wouldn’t want to touch Cricket South Africa, and its gamut of problems, with a bargepole … that’s a pretty understandable street-corner lament these days.
Or would they?
The confirmation on Saturday that Graeme Smith, one of the foremost symbols of the post-isolation men’s national team at many of its most competitive times, was bidding to fill (almost certainly catapulting him straight to firm favourite, particularly in the public eye) the new position of full-time director of cricket flies slap-bang in that face of that belief.
He reportedly told Firdose Moonda of www.espncricinfo.com that he had been interviewed for the job a few days ago, a process that has also taken in, so far, suspended interim occupant of the berth Corrie van Zyl and former national selector and ex-Gauteng/Easterns all-rounder Hussein Manack.
The position is expected to be filled later this month … well in time for the Proteas’ major challenge of the domestic summer, an extended, all-formats tour of the country by England, the 2019 World Cup champions and currently third-ranked Test team in the world behind India and New Zealand.
South Africa have slipped to fourth on the Test ladder, having come off a sickly 0-3 whitewash in India, and fifth in one-day internationals, hardly helped by a near-lamentable performance at the UK-hosted CWC 2019.
Umbrella body CSA itself is beset by deep financial woes, litigation-related issues and a climate of mistrust, instability and fear in its administrative corridors.
The word “interim” has applied to several major berths within the broad, Johannesburg-based hierarchy of late, only fuelling a deepening perception that the organisation is slipping into a crisis to roughly parallel those of several key parastatals in the country.
Proteas players of both the recent and slightly more distant past have been lamenting the absence of proven, highest-tier cricketing figures in key positions like the coaching staff and national selection panel; Smith would rebalance all that in a jiffy if he can become the preferred choice and – perhaps the bigger obstacle? – agree both monetary terms and the parameters of the important role.
The acting head coach role is currently in the hands of Enoch Nkwe, who admittedly had the toughest of baptisms in India recently but around whom reservations swirl because his pedigree as a mastermind has been cultivated primarily in the labouring domestic franchise landscape.
While Smith, admittedly, would also be a rookie in several respects to the level of responsibility he may soon command, his rich knowledge of what it takes to be successful as a national cause in far-flung, sometimes unforgiving corners of the planet could rub off positively on those operating immediately below him in the pecking order – and at a time when the transitional Proteas have unusually few true superstar players in their midst.
He also has a keen eye for spotting emerging talent, especially when accompanied by the associated attribute of suitable mental mettle.
Now 38, Smith, the Highveld-born Capetonian dweller, has developed into a popular, typically forthright and presumably well-rewarded television commentator globally since his retirement from a hugely distinguished international playing career in early 2014.
He has not been shy to criticise – sometimes even quite sharply – current Proteas captain Faf du Plessis.
A natural fit as the extraordinarily long-time Proteas’ leader – he received the reins aged a record young 22 in 2003 – the shipyard-in-technique but steel-jawed opening batsman represented the country in 117 Tests (9,265 runs at 48.25), 197 ODIs (6,989 runs at 37.98) and also 33 Twenty20 internationals.
While the World Cup was as elusive in his time as it was before and has been subsequently, the fittingly-nicknamed, big-built “Biff” presided over many landmark moments in all formats, including South Africa’s first ever away Test series triumph over Australia in 2008/09, and the immortal “438 game” against the same foes at the Wanderers.
The strength of his personality is well known, but also not come to be seen in any pronounced way yet as an impediment to his relations with those working alongside him: it is probably safe to say that, when he was at the core of the SA dressing room, he enjoyed a respect and aura not unlike the kind enjoyed by former Baggy Greens skipper Steve Waugh.
At least partly due to that hallmark, perhaps those partial to his claims – there will be plenty, even as some detractors are just as inevitable – should be wary of getting too excited yet about his possible installation.
Recently remarried and a father of young children, he would be entitled to drive a reasonably hard bargain in salary terms, a situation certainly not aided by CSA’s well-documented multi-million-rand losses in recent years.
He would also be extremely mindful of the complex politics seldom too far from the coalface of day-to-day operations in their corridors.
Any feeling of his hands being tied to an obstructive degree in carrying out his ambitions and duties, and the temptation to pull the plug and return to more straightforward roles like cricket punditry – he also has sideline business interests – would dangle tantalisingly in front of him.
At the same time, CSA’s chief executive Thabang Moroe and others must be mindful of the good likelihood that Smith would be worth any investment in him purely on reputational grounds, publicly very well-received and with the potential of being like the plentiful cups of chlorine you toss into a lamentably pea-soup green swimming pool in spring: a necessarily fast fix, in what are dangerously tenuous times.
Put Graeme Craig Smith in a director of cricket’s hat, after all, and South Africa would suddenly fall quite smartly in line with their very visitors this season: England’s not dissimilar portfolio is occupied by Ashley Giles (managing director), who played 116 times for that country across the Test and ODI formats, while his predecessor was the even more decorated international combatant Andrew Strauss …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing