If you want an indication of the hold Graeme Smith had over England captains then you need to look beyond the three he saw off.
After bringing about the downfall of Nasser Hussain (2003), Michael Vaughan (2008) and Andrew Strauss (2012), the Proteas most successful captain retired from international duty at the start of 2014 to lead Surrey County Cricket Club and see out his career. Unable to help himself, he had one last scalp in his sights – Alastair Cook.
Following a grim winter leading England and losing the Ashes 5-0, Cook was being found out as a captain. So when Smith was prompted for his thoughts on him during a pre-season junket at the Oval, he shot his shot.
”England to me look a little stale. They look like they need new energy, they look like they need a direction, someone to galvanise them.” Then came the gut punch: “He [Cook] needs to answer some important questions [such as] do the players trust him?”
Smith was not speaking out of turn, but he was certainly one of the first to outline Cook’s flaws as a leader and question whether he commanded respect beyond his ability with the bat. Even that was starting to take a dip. So, when the pair met early in the 2014 season, things were understandably frosty. Especially so at the game’s conclusion.
As Cook fielded questions about his form and future ahead of returning to international duty that summer, he lost his train of thought as Smith walked past. Without drawing attention to himself, he caught Cook’s eye, smirked and gave him a wink. Cook snarled, clearly riled by the “champing” and stuttered before regaining his composure. Privately, he was riled by Smith’s words. Partly for the South African sticking his nose in business that was not his. But mostly because he knew Smith’s gravitas meant those words would linger. Which they did.
A penny for Joe Root’s thoughts, then. On the eve of a South Africa series where an opposition in disarray a fortnight ago is now being helmed at its very peak by the man who scared his predecessors into eating their greens. Never mind the illness that has scuppered England’s build-up for this four-Test bout which gets underway at Centurion on Boxing Day. The sight of Smith will have Root feeling uneasy.
Just as it was when he was appointed captain in 2003, Smith comes into his current post as acting director of cricket relatively young at 38 and with the hopes of the nation on those broad shoulders. The difference this time around is that he is a universally loved pick.
The white cherubic, privately educated 22-year-old could not have been less popular as Proteas skipper those 16 years ago. But his subsequent work – his tactical acumen, accomplishments in taking the side to the top of the ICC rankings, those 27 Test hundreds – saw him all but carried into office this time. Just as it was 16 years ago, he’s here to clean house.
Where to begin with the shower he inherited at Cricket South Africa? Smith’s own path into the role, which started with negotiations with CEO Thabang Moroe, seems as good as any. Ah, but where to start with Moroe?
Well, after generally being something of a nuisance with misdemeanours such as revoking the accreditation of five journalists which led to the resignation of four board members and major sponsors withdrawing their financial support, Moroe found himself on the edge of a plank he had been trying to push others off. On 6 December, he was suspended and replaced by Jacques Faul.
Up to that point Moroe had opened dialogue with Smith over the director of cricket role, only for Smith to get cold feet because of the mismanagement he would be entering into. With Faul in place, Smith accepted the role on a temporary basis for three months. With that came responsibilities, such as pulling together a coaching staff. And so, Smith got the band back together.
Mark Boucher (new head coach), Jacques Kallis (batting coach), Charl Langeveldt (bowling coach) are three who have a particularly strong bond with Smith: former teammates, latter-day golf partners, always drinking buddies. This kind of nepotism is rife in cricket, but it is the kind that does actually work, especially in the short-term. Throwbacks to a golden era, individuals who were heroes to many within the current set-up and have fond memories of turning over England. Reminders of how great South Africa can be. Exactly what they need right now.
Six of the 17 members of their squad for the first two Tests have never played at this level. The retirements of Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla are headline losses, but the volume of South Africans plying their trade in English county cricket as local players sees them with depleted reserves to pick from.
As ever when there’s a drain on talent, there’s a drain on know-how, and those who get the nod for a debut will gave to work it out on the night. But while there may be certain expertise now in gainful employment in the UK, the knowledge accrued has travelled.
The small world of South Africa domestic cricket means everyone is a mate of a mate, and while CSA may have serious grudges with those who turned their back on their country for the pound, the players have a different take. This, after all, is business and these, ultimately, are your mates.
And if one of them happens to be a seamer who has taken 219 wickets at an average of 19.03 and the other is an off-spinner whose domestic performances alone give him a legitimate shout to be in the conversation as one of the best at his craft in the world, then there’s a healthy amount of information to be received. All of it relevant to an England squad with players who have played a lot of county cricket in the last two years who will feature heavily over the next month.
Thankfully, the illness coursing through the touring party has not been passed on to the hosts. Root has asked for honesty from Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Jack Leach, the most affected by the flu-like bug, before naming his Boxing Day XI. All three are undercooked but vital to a side facing their first World Test Championship assignment amid a recalibration of priorities towards the longest format.
It has meant England have had to field a mish-mash XI in their warm-up matches and have the weather to thank for not being too exposed in these circumstances.
But preparation has been less than ideal to the extent that the optional training on Christmas Day may well be more rigorous than on previous winter tours. Historically they have been token sessions to furnish travelling journalists with quotes as early as possible before both parties move off into their various Christmas plans.
A disappointing series loss in New Zealand got Chris Silverwood’s tenure as head coach off to an underwhelming start. Even if South Africa are not the force they once were, the last week or so has been something of an equaliser and there is a sense England are here for the taking.
Somehow, despite unrest from the top down, South Africa look the more settled of the two sides. And Smith, for all the structural issues to address, is eyeing up another England captain to take down.