TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
WOULD Graeme Smith have loomed as imposing as he always will in the annals of cricket had he not had to look at the game through a test captain’s eyes from the age of 22?
Would Sachin Tendulkar have been the giant he was had the suits continued with the folly of his captaincy of India?
Would West Indies have dominated the world if Viv Richards hadn’t been their captain?
Would AB de Villiers have done a better job as South Africa’s captain than Faf du Plessis?
No-one is a better player than De Villiers. And, certainly in South Africa and perhaps anywhere, no-one is a better captain than Du Plessis.
So South Africans should be relieved that the baton has been so simply passed from De Villiers, who relinquished the reins this week, to Du Plessis, who was swiftly appointed his successor.
Things could have been more complicated, not least because captaincy is the double-edged sword of cricket – a role that can turn ordinary players into stars and reduce stars to mediocrities. What does it take to crack the hardest nod in the game?
“You need to be able to create an environment where players feel comfortable around you and that the captain backs them and that they know their role,” Ashwell Prince said. “When the captain gives you the ball it’s important that you know he trusts you.
“The captain plays a massive role in creating that kind of environment, along with the coach. But when you go onto the field the coach is not there.
“You need to nail that down as a captain – that the players know you believe in them and that you’ve got their back.”
Prince knows of whence he speaks. He played 55 of his 66 tests under Smith. His other captains at that level were Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and, for two tests and 31 of his other 286 first-class matches, himself. Then he became a national selector. Now he is the Cobras’ assistant coach.
He has, then, looked at captaincy from every which angle.
“South Africa’s domestic cricket probably lacks a bit of leadership,” Prince said. “I know from having been on the selection panel that it was an area we spoke talk about in terms of the South Africa A side and younger teams – where are the leaders?
“Maybe in schools cricket we need to give the captains more responsibility rather than the coaches wanting to influence too much.”
Du Plessis has been taking some of that responsibility since he played in shorts. De Villiers’ tenure at the top ended after two tests. Did Prince wonder what might have been?
“AB didn’t get much of a chance to put his stamp on the team so you don’t really know what he would have been like as a test captain,” Prince said.
“Faf has had good series against New Zealand and Australia (both won by South Africa). Whether it is directly related to him, one will never be able to say.
“But even in the one-day series (against Australia in October) the players went out there and expressed themselves and they won 5-0.
“They went to Australia, which is a tough tour, even if it wasn’t the best Australian team, and they won.
“Throughout those series different players came to the fore. So it seems as if they have a good environment, and you have to give credit to the leadership. And, of course, Faf is part of that.”
Smith holds the record for test captaincies – 109 – and victories – 53 – and he led South Africa to the No. 1 ranking.
Tendulkar averaged 51.35 as a captain, or not much less than his career mark of 53.78. But India won only four of his 25 tests in charge.
Richards never lost his swagger, nor any of the 14 test series in which he captained.
Du Plessis? So far, so bloody good. His bubble of excellence could, of course, burst. But it will be fascinating to see how big it gets.